Thing 14

Thing 14. Is Media Literacy the Answer?


In this Thing, we’ll dive headfirst into whether or not media literacy is the panacea that people, like educators, librarians, journalists, and politicians, proclaim it to be. All of the Things have been guiding you toward critical thinking skills and a deeper understanding of how we approach information. While we support the idea of a fully media literate society, we can acknowledge the inherent flaws. We want you to decide for yourself, not to just accept what we are offering. 


In the final Media Landscapes Campaign event, University of Minnesota librarians Amy Riegleman and Wanda Marsolek shared how they used “Critical Disinformation Studies: A Syllabus” over 13 months. Click this link to view the presentation. 

Created by a team at the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life (CITAP) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the syllabus:

  • “Explores the role of legacy media in spreading disinformation campaigns,
  • Critiques the myth of an epistemically consistent past, and, 
  • Highlights the role of intersectional power differentials and appeals to white identity in past and present disinformation campaigns.”

In the presentation, Riegleman and Marsolek discuss how they used this syllabus to guide monthly conversations that they facilitated with faculty and staff, discussing one module each month. The modules are scaffolded so that the topic of one module builds upon what was discussed the previous month and helps to ground the topic discussed the following month. 

In Module 13 of the syllabus, the authors write:

A simplistic view of ‘media literacy’ is frequently presented by pundits and tech companies as a panacea to issues around ‘fake news’ and disinformation. Often, this view places the responsibility on individuals to become better consumers of media. Putting aside the fact that most people engaging with disinformation have not been in a classroom in years, many creators and disseminators of false information think of themselves as critical thinkers, while conspiracy theorists urge others to ‘do their own research.’ How can we approach ‘media literacy’ given the rest of this syllabus and widening epistemic differences? 

One of the resources that the creators link to is a SXSWEdu keynote address from danah boyd. She argues: 

No matter what worldview or way of knowing someone holds dear, they always believe they are engaging in critical thinking when developing a sense of what is right and wrong, true and false, honest and deceptive. But much of what they conclude may be more rooted in their way of knowing than any specific source of information. If we’re not careful, ‘media literacy’ and ‘critical thinking’ will simply be deployed as an assertion of authority over epistemology.         

The issue with this, she says, is that people who don’t trust government, the media, education, etc. in the first place will double-down on not believing when they are essentially told by such institutions that they should just be trusted and not questioned. “When we ask students to challenge their sacred cows but don’t give them a new framework through which to make sense of the world, others are often there to do it for us,” she said.     

In her follow-up piece on Medium, she offers that she was much more confident in her statement of the problem, viewing media literacy as the best and only solution to the fake news problem, than she was of the solutions she offered: 

  • Helping students to bridge divides by humanizing those on the “other” side of an issue;
  • Reducing the amount of noise in any consumption of media–narrowing the scope by just reading the text rather than watching the video, for example;
  • Teaching students to really listen to others’ viewpoints and understand their worldviews; 
  • Showing students how to identify when they fill in the gaps of stories, which would include discussion about confirmation bias. 

She mentions that the issue with these solutions is that they rely on individual choices and actions rather than solving for the systemic problems that plague our media landscape.      


What Hath We Wrought? | Danah Boyd (59 min)

Response to Danah Boyd’s “Did Media Literacy Backfire?” | Renee Hobbs (21 min)


Did Media Literacy Backfire? | Danah Boyd

Did Media Literacy Backfire? | Renee Hobbs

Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds | The New Yorker

Why we believe alternative facts | American Psychological Association

The Promises, Challenges, and Futures of Media Literacy | Data & Society 


Test Your Media Literacy Knowledge – take this brief quiz, does a successful score make you media literate? 

Create a list of what you believe to be the most important issues facing our society today, with regard to consumable knowledge. What concerns you? Is it fake news? Bias? Sources we use to collect information? What are your most pressing media concerns? Then, write a solution. Will media literacy fix the problems you see? Share your solution in the evaluation section of this Thing. 

Conversation Starters

Questions posed in The Promises, Challenges, and Futures of Media Literacy:

Can media literacy even be successful in preparing citizens to deal with “fake news” and information?

How can media literacy programs effectively address overconfidence in skills? This can manifest preemptively (individuals who feel they need no media literacy training) and reactively (individuals who overestimate the effectiveness of their media literacy training).

How will the overlapping efforts of media literacy stakeholders interact? Will new signals for trustworthiness aimed at limiting “fake news” backfire, producing new uncertainty around media messages?


Additional Resources

Algorithm Study | Project Information Literacy

Searching for Alternative Facts: Analyzing Scriptural Inference in Conservative News Practices | Data & Society 

Confirmation Bias & Motivated Reasoning infographic | News Literacy Project

The Librarian War Against QAnon | The Atlantic 

Recommendations to Journalists Covering the Pre- and Post-inauguration Period | Media for Democracy 

News Decoder |