Spurred by the rise of so-called “fake news” and its impact on elections, a Santa Barbara state senator has introduced a bill that would encourage California’s K-12 schools to teach students to be skeptical, informed news consumers.
Authored by State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), SB 203, known as the digital citizenship and media literacy bill, would require the state superintendent of public instruction to convene a committee of educators, librarians, parents, students and media experts to draw up guidelines on how best to recognize fake news.
Popularized in the 2016 presidential election, the term “fake news” refers to Internet hoaxes or intentionally fabricated stories presented as news and intended to sway public opinion. Cyber bullying, privacy, copyright infringement, digital footprints, sexting and general Internet safety would also be included in the guidelines.
The guidelines would be brief and could be taught at all grade levels, in any subject, although high-school government, history, English and journalism classes would be the most likely venues. As defined in the bill, media literacy “means the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, develop, produce, and interpret media and encompasses the foundational skills that lead to digital citizenship.” Digital citizenship “means a diverse set of skills related to current technology and social media, including the norms of appropriate, responsible, and healthy behavior.”
The bill does not include special funding or mandates, and implementation would be optional. According to Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that’s been pushing for SB 203 as well as similar bills in nine other states, educators around the country have been asking for such guidelines and the legislation is an effort to provide concise, accurate tips for teachers.
Washington State passed such a law last March.
“Schools and districts are asking for up-to-date instructions on how to address these issues,” said Craig Cheslog, the organization’s vice president for California policy and advocacy. “Technology is such a large part of our lives, and will only become more so. We need to make sure kids have the tools to make good decisions and separate fact from fiction.”
Ideally, students will pass along these lessons to their parents, who are perhaps less tech-savvy than their children, he said.
“The power and promise of technology is great,” he said. “But everyone needs to learn how to use it ethically and responsibly.”
The bill passed the Senate Education Committee and is currently with the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Some teachers in California already cover media literacy as part of journalism education, either in English, history or government classes. At Berkeley High School, the staff of the student newspaper, the Jacket, said they’ve learned how to recognize fake news, dissect news stories and be skeptical readers of online information since middle school. One social studies teacher, they said, starts every day showing students news clips on the same topic as covered by Fox News, Democracy Now and other diverse media outlets, and has the students discuss the differences. An English teacher shows students how to detect bias in the language chosen for headlines.
“Before, I just trusted the mainstream media. But now I look a little closer, and compare how Fox News, say, and the New York Times change the spin on something,” said senior Maggie Galloway, one of the newspaper’s opinion editors. “I look to see what kind of language they use, how that might influence how you read the story.”
Junior Nina Price, a features editor, said she’s learned how to question the motives of sources cited in stories, and know the difference between primary sources – raw data, eyewitness accounts – and secondary sources – analysis and interpretation by experts. She also looks at URL addresses: “Just because something says .edu doesn’t mean it’s necessarily reliable. A professor can post anything they want.”
“It’s about learning how to inform yourself,” she said. “Instead of trusting everything you read, we learn how to be a little more skeptical.”
SB 203 passed the Senate Education Committee in April by a vote of 5-2, with the two Republican members voting no. State Sen. Andy Vidak (R-Fresno) said the bill was unnecessary and teachers should not waste their time on new curriculum when California’s public schools are barely keeping up with the standards they already have.
“Now we’re going to ask teachers to start monitoring political speech on social media?” said Jim Kjol, Vidak’s chief of staff. Teachers, he said, should not serve as “thought police.”
The bill is not partisan or political, advocates said. It’s simply intended to help young people navigate digital media, an increasingly important skill as technology continues to evolve and accelerate the way information is transmitted.
“There’s a big shift happening globally, and we have to prepare ourselves,” said Tessa Jolls, executive director of the Center for Media Literacy in Los Angeles, who testified in support of the bill in Sacramento. “In the past, content was scarce – you had to get information from libraries, teachers, books. Now, it’s the opposite: content is infinite but the filters are scarce. That’s why media literacy, especially for children, is so important. We need to know how to use the Internet responsibly and safely.”
Media literacy is a primary focus in Adriana Chavira’s journalism classes at Daniel Pearl Magnet High School in Los Angeles, a journalism-focused school named after the Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and killed by Pakistani militants in 2002.
Chavira, a former newspaper reporter, is one of the only K-12 teachers in California who spends most of her day teaching journalism. Using curriculum provided by the News Literacy Project, a nonprofit devoted to media literacy in the classroom, Chavira shows her students how to spot fake news, how journalists gather information and how students can improve their own communication skills.
“What’s a reliable source? Why is a story newsworthy? What’s an eyewitness? Why does a story sound too good to be true? What’s important and what’s not? All students could benefit from learning about that. Adults could, too, for that matter,” she said. “Critical thinking, being a good reader and writer – these are really 21st-century skills that are useful in any profession. They’re part of being a well-rounded person.”
Media literacy can be taught in any class, not just journalism or government, she said.
“It’s on all of us, as educators, to include this in our classrooms, just like we include technology,” she said. “Reading, writing, critical thinking skills – these should be second nature.”
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