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Commentary: We must prepare students to become better-informed citizens

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Stuart N. Brotman 

Regardless of political affiliation or whether we lean left or right, we have an obligation as parents and taxpayers to support public education. We all want to make sure our children, as students, gain enough knowledge and perspective — especially in the critical high school years — to enable them to become responsible workers and perhaps parents themselves one day.

We also have a higher obligation in the United States to have our public education system help prepare students to be informed citizens and voters. The very nature of our democratic system of government is rooted in core values of free speech and a free press that are embodied in the First Amendment. There should be no disagreement on that, even in these highly polarized times.

Unfortunately, we are not providing much, if any, actual instruction regarding how students can learn to be better-informed citizens. Students and their parents are bombarded across the political spectrum with slogans such as “fake news,” “misinformation” and “disinformation,” with the usual result being a nasty Twitter battle between those hurling the accusations and those trying to disprove or at least defend them.

Imagine being in high school amid this white noise. Many students may think it’s best to tune out entirely by just going on TikTok or messaging on social media with friends. News may not matter because, to them, it’s just a bunch of adults screaming at each other.

Joel Breakstone, who heads the Stanford History Education Group, observed, “There’s a widespread misconception because young people are adept at using digital devices, that they are also skilled at making sense of the information that these devices provide.”

Here is where parents can play an important role in shaping public education, which seems to be a growing desire as school board meetings suddenly have become packed houses, albeit in some cases just another forum for sloganeering. How about developing community-wide commitments to raising the news literacy standards of our high school students?

Cynics may argue this is just another way to bring political ideology into the classroom, and they may resist introducing news literacy within a high school curriculum because it might be slanted toward one way of thinking or another. But before reaching this conclusion, they should see how news literacy is not a subject in itself, but rather a skill that can be integrated into a variety of subjects, including history and geography.

For example, Breakstone’s Stanford researchers worked for a year with ninth-graders at a suburban Chicago high school. They discovered that students can be taught lateral reading — opening a new tab after they read a news story online so that they can discover more information about it. And students can be taught to distinguish news reporting from opinion journalism, and editorial content from advertising. The ability to make these critical distinctions can be important to train a new generation of news consumers, and more importantly, better-informed citizens.

Workable approaches like this are gaining appeal across the country. Fifteen states have adopted some news media literacy standards already, with Illinois leading the pack with its new law for all public high schools taking effect next fall. It focuses on “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create and communicate using a variety of forms.”

Sufficient resources will have to be allocated at the local level to achieve this goal in a meaningful way. Students will only be able to become more media savvy if their teachers are media savvy, too, so the entire educational supply chain must be upgraded.

But perhaps most importantly, parents need to step up to the microphone at school board meetings now to find out how their educators are addressing news literacy. Expressions of interest at the local level can start a necessary national conversation. It can bring together disparate political factions to help our children become the type of informed citizens that the drafters of the First Amendment envisioned, and that our nation will depend upon in the years to come.

Stuart N. Brotman is a distinguished professor of journalism and electronic media at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and the author of the forthcoming book, "The First Amendment Lives On." He wrote this for InsideSources.com.

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