If Every Day Were April Fools’ Day

By Anna Kassinger and Barbara McCormack

We grab our phones and tablets and brace ourselves for the hoaxes sure to be lurking behind every tap or click.

We wish every day could be like April Fools’ Day. Why?

Think about it. We awake on April 1, grab our phones and tablets and brace ourselves for the hoaxes sure to be lurking behind every tap or click. Determined not to be duped, we look at every post, email and text with a healthy dose of skepticism. Where is the evidence? What’s the source of this alleged scoop? Is this premise believable? “They won’t fool me into sharing false news,” we think and brag about all the clickbait we outwit.

Then 24 hours later, it’s back to business as usual. We let down our guard. We stop thinking critically about the content we encounter online and in our social media feeds. We indulge in bad habits and don’t ask questions. The media literacy superhero puts away the cape until next year.

It’s no secret that news consumers have developed some bad habits. We gravitate to platforms that only share news we want to hear, share stories after only reading their headlines and get sucked into content that outrages or entertains us.

The blame isn’t entirely consumers’, though. News producers may feed into the appetite for biased content and aggregators use mysterious algorithms that boost questionable content. But given all these imperfections in the media landscape, how do we encourage good daily habits? How do we restore trust in journalism, the unofficial fourth estate working daily on our behalf?

If we can’t make every day April Fools’, then from our vantage point, the answer is media literacy education.

Media literacy education is not new, but the recent intensified interest in building up these essential skills has cast light on some holes in traditional approaches. While media literacy teaches students how to analyze, evaluate and even make their own content, it often fails to instill an understanding of why these skills are so important and why they’re necessary in the first place — every day, not just on April Fools’. Without laying this foundation — the reasons to beware and the reasons to care — it can be too easy for media literacy training to breed hardened cynicism. This type of disillusionment can widen societal divisions and amplify the very echo chamber effect that media literacy should combat.

Because of our First Amendment mission, we’ve always approached media literacy differently. We marry the analytical aspects — such as separating fact from fiction and identifying bias — with active free expression and productive social engagement. For example, consider the need to confront and counter confirmation bias, the tendency to selectively search for and consider information that confirms one’s own beliefs.

Where traditional media literacy might focus on how to find diverse information sources and assess competing claims, we broaden the approach to also look at how confirmation bias can affect the ways we express ideas and engage with pressing issues as individuals and as a society. This marriage of free expression and analytical skill is what we call First Amendment media literacy.

How do we get these vital tools and habits? How do we hone the skills all citizens need to navigate the information universe? In our work, we partner with other educators who have the skills, existing relationships and community trust, helping us deliver content that engages and resonates with everyone from students to seniors.

But educators can’t do it alone. We need the help of news producers, aggregators, technologists and everyone involved in the production and distribution of news and information. In particular, journalists can lead the charge for accurate, fair, clear reporting on issues that are important to consumers. We all can celebrate the successes of the unofficial Fourth Estate, working daily on behalf of consumers and consistently providing reliable places for trustworthy news in all communities.

Technologists can take a more proactive approach to curtailing the spread of disinformation by developing algorithms and mechanisms that prevent this type of content from seeing the light of day.

We can all support each other as we develop the stamina to maintain a healthy skepticism throughout the entire year, not just on April 1 — and that’s no joke.

Contributing to this column were Pierce McManus, NewseumED’s digital communications and outreach director, and Kirsti Kenneth, NewseumED’s curriculum developer. Anna Kassinger, NewseumED’s director of curriculum and Barbara McCormack, NewseumED’s vice president of education, can be reached for media inquiries at media@freedomforum.org.

Interested in joining our Journalists Advisory Board or Education Advisory Team? Please email us at educationprograms@freedomforum.org.

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