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Media literacy is more than spotting fake news. How one librarian gives teens the tools to decide what to trust

Along with the smell of old books and the shelves of trendy novels at the South Brunswick High School library are guides for accurately deciphering the digital world.

Poster after poster with “Smart Social Networking” tips and what “Good Digital Citizenship” looks like hang at this New Jersey campus, where school librarian Lisa Manganello has made it her mission to teach teenagers to navigate the vast – often deliberately confusing – landscape of online information.

“Media literacy has absolutely nothing to do with which side of the debate you’re on,” the 17-year veteran of this still-emerging academic subject told CNN. “And I often say to my students, I don’t care if you are conservative or if you are liberal, it really doesn’t make a difference to me.

“Whatever article you’re choosing, I want you to be able to look at it from a critical lens and really make a decision about whether or not this is a trustworthy article,” Manganello told CNN. “You can have an opinion on either side, but you should be able to validate that opinion with a fact-based article.”

Media literacy is the ability to decode media messages – including the systems in which they exist – assess their influence on thoughts, feelings and behaviors, and create media thoughtfully and conscientiously, according to Media Literacy Now, an advocacy group that tracks and drives the subject’s implementation in K-12 schools across the United States.

With lots of kids now getting their news from social media – where disinformation and content created by artificial intelligence run rampant – 18 states have some form of K-12 media literacy education on the books, according to Media Literacy Now. Of those, four – Delaware, Texas, New Jersey and, starting this year, California – mandate media literacy, with lesson standards now being crafted state by state.

Online misinformation, of course, can direct kids not only to messages that aren’t true but also to dangers like cyberbullying, negative body image and a path into substance abuse, the group says. And so the potential impact of teaching them how to interpret what they see online could be nothing short of “life-changing,” said Olga Polites, New Jersey chapter leader for Media Literacy Now.

When cars were invented, for instance, auto safety wasn’t widely talked about, seatbelts weren’t a priority and learning how to drive was a whole new landscape, she said.

“(Cell) phones are like cars,” Polites told CNN. “But we haven’t really taught people how to use them ethically, efficiently and responsibly.”

To do that, a media literacy lesson might include analyzing which emotions the wording of a mass media headline evoke. Or parsing the photo that runs alongside the text of a news piece. Or using “lateral reading” – lining up stories on the same topic in browser tabs to compare credibility, intent and biases – as Manganello did a few weeks ago at South Brunswick High School.

Digging deep into content’s emotional tug

With a variety of news headlines displayed on her projector screen, the librarian asked 25 students in history teacher Jeff Johnson’s American government class the following:

“Te ll me words that you see in these headlines that you think shows bias?”

“Revenge,” one student quickly said, though with a little hesitation in his voice.

“Ah, revenge!” Manganello replied.

The group, armed with personal laptops and seated four to a table, kept discussing: What might a more neutral word choice have been?

“I thought it was very interesting to think about how we get our information and how we interpret it because of what (the media is) telling us, especially the part where it was talking about the word choice that people use and how it can influence your opinions,” ninth grader Harrison Pekosz told CNN later.

In elementary and middle school, Harrison learned about identifying legitimate sources of information based on a web address ending with “.com” or “.org.”

“Now, it’s more in-depth, and I know there’s more to look at than just domain,” he said.

Soon, Manganello shifted the lesson to photos and asked students to identify whether an image attached to a news article was “flattering, neutral or unflattering.” The choice, she said, could help determine whether the piece as a whole is trustworthy – or not.

“Information literacy is the umbrella for all of the things that we teach in the library … to make sure that our students have all the tools they need to do both information gathering and to engage with media that could be online, social media, for research,” Manganello said. “Media literacy kind of falls under that information literacy banner.”

Beyond the library, Manganello works with teachers at South Brunswick High School throughout the year to incorporate information literacy into their lesson plans, from art history to science classes. She also speaks at educational conferences, where attendees have approached her to ask how they can get started implementing her work in their schools, she said.

On her own campus, Manganello’s goal is to see every student a few times a year, focusing on a new skill each time over their four years, she said. In the end, students have a kit of tools to tap into when they’re scanning the latest headlines – especially online.

Social media in itself isn’t the problem

Akshara Satheesh and Urja Kandale, both ninth graders at South Brunswick High School, get their news from TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat or Google’s News Discovery feed because of how simple it is to understand storylines, they told CNN.

And they’re not alone.

“We found that 75% of them get their information off of social media, many off of TikTok,” Manganello told CNN.

It’s not an unfathomable stat, considering a growing number of adult TikTok users in the US report getting their news on the short-video platform, according to 2023 data from the Pew Research Center.

That in itself isn’t necessarily a problem: Plenty of reputable news agencies share their reports on social media platforms.

Here’s the catch: 96% of high school students surveyed in in 2018 and 2019 failed to accurately judge the credibility of a piece of information online, Stanford University research found. And two-thirds couldn’t tell the difference between news articles and advertisements on the home page of US news agency.

“Students displayed a troubling tendency to accept websites at face value,” wrote the study’s authors.

Media literacy posters are seen inside South Brunswick High School in New Jersey. - Alisha Ebrahimji/CNN
Media literacy posters are seen inside South Brunswick High School in New Jersey. - Alisha Ebrahimji/CNN

In fact, more than 80% of middle school students a few years earlier believed an ad identified by the words “sponsored content” was a real news story, a Stanford survey published in 2016 found; some students even mentioned it was sponsored content but still believed it was a news article.

“Young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak,” those authors wrote.

The confusion derives – at least in part, experts say – from the fact that most students aren’t being taught how to use mass media critically, said Polites of Media Literacy Now in New Jersey.

“We’ve given (teens) so little guidance,” Polites said. “And there’s so much life-changing risk that comes with that.”

From Manganello’s lesson, Akshara and Urja’s major takeaways included narrowing their focus on key terms, they said.

“I’ve done stuff like this before,” Urja said, “but we didn’t dive deep.”

Getting information ‘in a smarter way’

While Manganello’s program at South Brunswick High School is a great model, right now it’s the exception, said Michelle Ciulla Lipkin, executive director of the National Association for Media Literacy Education.

“We’re getting legislators to put their foot down and say, ‘We need to see some changes in our education system,’ but now it’s, ‘Where is the funding coming from?’” she said. “‘Where’s the support for teachers and their professional development? How are we really integrating this into our curriculum, across school(s), across a big area, across grade levels?’

“And that is a much broader, slower, more challenging conversation, because it’s expensive and time-consuming.”

New Jersey’s governor last year signed a law that requires the state Education Department to develop student learning standards in information literacy. And California starting this year requires media literacy instruction to be integrated into K-12 mathematics, science and history-social science curriculums when they’re revised, according to the bill.

But getting the frameworks and grade-specific lessons down in writing can take several drafts, even before public comment is sought and polished proposals presented to district leaders, said Elisabeth Yucis, associate director in the Professional Development and Instructional Issues Division at the New Jersey Education Association, an educators union.

All in all, the process could take a while, she said.

Meanwhile, Johnson, the history teacher at South Brunswick, hopes in 10 years his students will be able to find clarity in what they’re thinking and saying because of the foundation Manganello is creating for them.

Johnson wants his students to learn to say, “‘Wait a minute, why am I feeling like this? Do I believe this?’” he said. “Or, ‘I just told somebody something happened, but did I even check that that actually happened or that that’s even a big deal to me? Like, why am I saying it’s a big deal?’”

And indeed, Harrison, the ninth grader, already is thinking about how important these lessons are for the future.

“Now that there are more people turning 18 and a lot of them are getting all of their information from social media … I think that will impact how they vote and will impact the country as a result,” he said.

It’s why Manganello has spent nearly two decades perfecting how she teaches media literacy.

“These are kids that are going to go out and do brilliant things,” the librarian said. “We need them to think about how they accept information in a smarter way because I think that will change the way we all do.”

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