“Civilization is in a race between education and catastrophe. Let us learn the truth and spread it as far and wide as our circumstances allow.” – H. G. Wells
Media literacy expert and author Frank W. Baker no doubt had H. G. Wells in mind when he addressed state library/media specialists last week at their conference at Ohio State University’s Newark Campus.
“We are in the midst of an education crisis,” he told his audience, mostly members of the Ohio Educational Library and Media Association. Those in attendance knew quite well the extent of the crisis Baker described, a situation which threatens the schools and universities in which they work.
Baker was the keynote speaker at the conference, whose title, “Popping the Fake News Bubble: Engaging Students in 21st Century Media and Information Literacy,” reflects the concerns librarians have in teaching students to be critical readers and viewers, consumers of what they are exposed and respond to in the modern world.
While we are now constantly hearing the term fake news, Baker said, the larger problem is a lack of critical thinking on the part of those exposed to media, whether that might be print, advertising, videos, commercial art, and other images that surround us every day. One study, for example, found that, on the average, we are exposed to more than 5,000 visual images daily, many of which have to be examined carefully because of the decisions and choices that accompany media.
The fake news bubble that Baker asked his audience of library/media specialists to address in their work with students is found in the fact that more than half of Americans now receive the majority of their news and information from Facebook and other social media. Never mind that readers of those platforms may not realize that there are usually no filters that provide discernment, and perhaps no editors or gatekeepers at work to mold the accuracy and appearance of media content, concepts, and ideas.
Yes, the internet is free and unfettered, in stark contrast with more traditional media. But young and old alike need to understand and accept the lack of constraints and therefore develop the critical thinking skills necessary to carefully evaluate media. As a case in point, the “Pizzagate” gunman, who brought an automatic weapon to a Washington restaurant after reading on the internet that it was part of a sex-trafficking ring with ties to Hillary Clinton, was sentenced on June 22 to four years in prison.
With Pizzagate and the manufacture of other infamous fake news products, one thing is certain: The internet is not The New York Times.
If Marvin Gaye heard it through the grapevine back then, anything dealing today with “Crooked Hillary” must be true for some people because it was posted on Facebook and elsewhere on the internet. Just ask the Pizzagate gunman, Edgar Maddison Welch, self-appointed to save innocent children from Hill’s evil machinations that were directed from the Comet Ping Pong restaurant. After all, he read it on the electronic grapevine.
On top of all these concerns, when you view the abundant grammatical and usage mistakes in much social media content, we are reminded that notwithstanding all of the pejorative references to the “mainstream media,” it is still desirable, even very mainstream, to have a copy desk as a necessary part of media production.
All of these weighty considerations mean that school library/media specialists play a crucial role in helping students fully develop as thinking, literate citizens.
As a result of all these challenges, from Pizzagate to fake pictures manufactured for a purpose, the people who create fake news are determined to exploit a media illiterate population. In today’s high stakes world, where schools are charged not only with literacy development and molding young citizens in their civic responsibilities, library/media professionals are in place to guide literacy efforts.
Baker believes that fake news elevated media literacy into the national conversation, and that’s a role these skilled individuals are playing in the nation’s schools.
“Librarians are the leaders in teaching media and information literacy,” Baker said, and in this key point in our history, they are on the front lines in ensuring that young people are able to examine media and evaluate its components, as is shown in this chart developed by the National Association for Media Literacy Education.
These are key questions that anyone, regardless of age, need to be considered when examining all types of media:
The OELMA conference on fake news was held at a critical time for Ohio’s school library/media specialists. Not only are these school staff members charged with assisting in the development of students’ reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing, and research skills, but they are also coping with reduced staff levels as a result of recent actions at the state level.
In April 2015, the Ohio Board of Education voted to eliminate the “5 of 8 rule.” This policy required districts to hire five of eight licensed school staff members for each 1,000 students enrolled in the form of nurses, librarians, visiting teachers, counselors, social workers, and physical education, music, and art teachers. At the time, the rationale given for ending this requirement was to enable districts to have more flexibility in staffing during a period of declining school aid. But the result was predictable.
According to a 2015 report produced by researchers Kathy Tuck and Dwight Holmes, school library/media centers have experienced declines during the last ten years in the number of centers operating in the nation’s public schools. That study, “Library/Media Centers in U.S. Public Schools: Growth, Staffing, and Resources,” found that only 63.9 percent of Ohio’s public schools had at least one full-time state-certified library/media specialist on staff, which ranked the Buckeye State at 29th nationally. The same report showed the state ranked at 45 nationally in spending per school on information resources.
Since these figures were reported from 2012, we await new data on the impact of the elimination of the “5 of 8” rule on the state’s school library/media staffing patterns and the effect this policy change might cause on media literacy levels of our students.
If the sorry state of support for library/media specialists wasn’t bad enough, the events since the state board of education’s action have made literacy efforts even more important in defining educational priorities. The revelation that a hostile foreign government actually planted fake stories about the Democratic presidential candidate on Facebook, and employed bots located in Eastern European locales to “like” these disinformation pieces and thus keep them in the internet newsfeed for media illiterate Americans to read and view without further reflection, is alarming.
Baker is understandably concerned about national trends for staffing schools at the very time that fake news, foreign disinformation efforts, and student literacy are growing concerns.
“I don’t keep tabs on every state. But I know there has been a disturbing trend to eliminate librarians as a cost-saving move. I think many of these decisions derive from a complete misunderstanding of what the 21st century librarian does.
“Every parent and taxpayer should be alarmed by any effort to reduce library/media specialists in our schools. They are at the forefront of helping students on the path to becoming information literate digital citizens. To eliminate them is a prescription for disaster.”
But Baker’s concerns about media literacy inevitably branch out from the needs of schools to that of communities themselves. In light of the national conversation and mood about fake news, he also believes that critical thinking and media literacy skills are areas that public libraries can assist adults in navigating an increasingly complex world and avoid being manipulated by fake news and deceptive advertising:
“It would be wise for cities and towns to create opportunities to bring people together and to teach them how to search and cite properly, how to distinguish the good stuff from the bad, and how to use tools properly. I fear that today we acquire the latest tools but don’t always spend the time or money on the training.”
If Baker is concerned about the key role that library/media specialists play in helping students acquire critical thinking and research skills, he also knows that teaching students to become media literate is a team effort. Library staff must form crucial partnerships with English teachers, who, like them, teach visual literacy, and with visual arts teachers, who also play a key role as they teach students to value, understand, and deconstruct art as part of visual literacy and the learning process.
As we continue to learn more about fake news and how this country was exploited by a hostile foreign power that manipulated our democratic system, it must be incumbent upon us to affirm the critical importance of an educated and literate citizenry.
The fact that we now know more about fake news and the damage it is inflicting on our society – whether being terrorized in a pizza parlor or the democratic process subverted – it is time for us, the adults in the conversation, to ensure that our young people acquire the critical thinking skills that will enable them to become thoughtful and analytic thinkers, ready to assume the roles of community members, and valued participants in a democratic society.
Here are the community and state players that need to work together to address the issue of media illiteracy.
School Districts. It is time to start a conversation in our communities about this crisis. Whether or not we have children currently in school, we need to engage our district leaders to ensure that media literacy and critical thinking skills are taught in our schools by skilled library/media staff members who work collaboratively with visual art and English teachers.
Public Libraries. The conversation must also include our public library directors to ensure that every community member has access to programs that provide information and training which better equip them to respond to and analyze what is received as news and information in our modern world. If we do not address this need in our communities, then a decision has been made to continue our state of civic illiteracy.
Legislature and State Board of Education. The third aspect of this conversation includes the policymakers in the state legislature as well as state board of education members. Last year, the state of Washington became the first to recognize media literacy as a critical state educational goal. Ohio and the rest of the states also need to embrace that goal. It would be wise for the legislature to not only move in that direction but for the state board to reexamine the “5 of 8″ policy or some modification to it.
It is not an overstatement to say that in the last year, our country has experienced a digital Pearl Harbor, and all of us, particularly our elected officials and community leaders, must acknowledge the crisis we face in expanding our definition of literacy and educating all citizens to develop and expand their critical thinking skills as digital citizens, to use Baker’s term.
In spite of the arduous task ahead in getting these three players to address our national literacy crisis, Baker is optimistic that there is one group already in place to do the work at hand.
“I am excited that today’s librarians are embracing media and visual literacy themselves,” he said. “I believe the more tools and skills they have in their toolboxes, the better they will be equipped to demonstrate and justify the vital importance of their jobs.”
It is clear that we are now living in a near-replica of Gotham City, where modern day Jokers and Penguins are omnipresent, ready to deceive and defraud us with fake news, fake free vacations, and fake free gifts. But where Gotham City had a Caped Crusader and his Boy Wonder, we should instead rely on our skilled and dedicated school library/media specialists and public library staff to protect us. If we let them do their jobs and have adequate numbers of them on duty, they will be our superheroes.
Denis Smith is a retired school administrator and a former consultant in the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office. He writes about education issues as well as politics and constitutional reform.