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ISU Experts: Media Literacy Has To Dig Deeper To Stop Disinformation

Trump Fact Check
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Steve Hunt, executive director of ISU's school of communication, and Nate Carpenter, ISU's director of convergent media, helped produce an online resource that aims to promote online civic reasoning and combat fake news.

The state of Illinois will require high schools to teach media literacy starting in the fall of 2022.

Educators at Illinois State University's School of Communication will be closely watching what the State Board of Education requires as part of a media literacy curriculum.

Stephen Hunt
Illinois State University
Steve Hunt from ISU's School of Communication.

Steve Hunt, executive director of ISU's school of communication, and Nate Carpenter, ISU's director of convergent media, helped produce an online resource that aims to promote online civic reasoning and combat fake news.

Carpenter said in a Sound Ideas interview that there are two recent examples where disinformation has taken hold: Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the coronavirus pandemic. Carpenter said media literacy instruction needs to break down how disinformation can spread on social media.

“There’s consumption that goes unchecked or there’s consumption that can be controlled or manipulated in ways that people are just not ready to acknowledge or accept that they are part of a larger problem,” Carpenter said.

Hunt said he's concerned the new media literacy requirement won't go far enough. He said high school students need to learn how to fact check and research stories to determine their accuracy. Hunt said disinformation can have serious consequences.

“We are at a time now when we face perhaps one of the greatest threats to our democracy. Jan. 6, we had an insurrection at the Capitol and a lot of that behavior was predicated on false information, misinformation," he said. "This is a very dangerous time.”

Hunt calls this a post-truth era where a lack of critical thinking makes the public more likely to buy into false or misleading information.

“We are in an environment where truth is based on what the individual wants to perceive and there (are) a lot of reasons they are motivated to maintain that,” Hunt explained. “Politicians know that and they know which buttons to push to facilitate that.”

Nate Carpenter teaching
Illinois State University
Nate Carpenter

Carpenter said traditional media have long been perceived as having certain ideological biases, but he said the bulk of media disinformation and distortion recently has come from sources on the ideological right.

“What we’ve been seeing is a break off from reality from the far-right and how that ecosystem is a separate ecosystem from what we might consider mainstream. That’s particularly troubling," Carpenter said.

Hunt cautioned against any media literacy curriculum that boils down the conversation to simply following certain news sources over others.

“That assumes if we got them out of their (information) bubbles and gave them the correct information that everything would be good and we know that’s not right,” Hunt said.

Hunt said helping students and the public to think critically is key to dispelling misinformation.

Carpenter said most media outlets have reporters who strive to report the facts, but said students need a better understanding of what he calls “networks of influence” that can quickly disseminate and distort news coverage, even when it comes from reputable sources.

“There needs to be something deeper going on in terms of understanding these ecosystems and I think understanding the histories that have brought us to where we are now,” Carpenter said.

Hunt added journalists too often perpetuate misinformation by using a both-sides approach to reporting.

“The problem with that from a persuasion, argumentation point of view is that you are presenting multiple sides without then attacking the destroying the side that is not as legitimate, that is not as based in truth, which leaves the person that is consuming that with the impression that all of those perspectives are equal and valid,” Hunt said.

Hunt recently co-wrote the book "Engaged Persuasion in a Post-Truth World" with co-author Kevin Meyer.

As a matter of disclosure, WGLT is under the supervision of Hunt in his role as executive director of the ISU school of communication.

Thursday on Sound Ideas: A Unit 5 educator explains what he wants to see in a media literacy curriculum.

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