should schools teach “media literacy”

I owe a paper on the reliability of online medical information. I’m thinking of the following title: “Misinformation in Online Medical Information: What is the Role of Schools?” My answer would be: Schools should have as small a role as possible, because we have already loaded too many responsibilites on them, and they are not well positioned to teach “media literacy.” An outline follows.


I. There is an argument that schools should devote time and other resources to teaching students ?information literacy? so that young people will learn not to be misled by false online information, especially concerning health. The argument goes like this.

1. False and misleading health information is common online, because anyone can post anything he likes. In some cases, false information is just as prominent as accurate information.

2. Cognitive psychology demonstrates that people often believe false information. They rely on heuristics to determine reliability, but these heuristics often fail and can expose people to deliberate manipulation. In one study, people who were already ?familiar? with a topic learned less than people who were not ?familiar? with it, suggesting that we have difficulty adding to or correcting an existing store of beliefs. Readers tend to believe documents that contain many claims more than documents with few claims. Unfortunately, some highly misleading websites provide long lists of statements. Likewise, audiences tend to believe claims that seem to convince many other people. On the Internet, large numbers of people believe all kinds of false information, supporting one another. It is also possible to exaggerate public interest in a website, even by such a simple mechanism as inflating the numbers on a ?hit counter.”

3. Believing false health information has costs for the individual and for society. For example, SARS ?protective kits? were prominently advertised online in 2003 as a way to prevent Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. They would not work. Purchasing and using such kits would waste money and could even increase the chance of infection and transmission.

4. It is probably more important than ever that average people have correct beliefs about health, because: the health system is less paternalistic and gives patients more choices; patients are required to manage their own treatment of such chronic conditions as diabetes and high blood pressure; pharmaceutical companies are more aggressively advertising their products; and there is a larger volume of (often conflicting) information and advice available about many conditions.

5. Since people with more education are better at avoiding misleading information, the widespread prevalence of misinformation may increase social inequality.

6. We should not (and probably cannot) reduce the amount of false information online by censoring it or removing it from the Web. The Internet is, and ought to remain, an open platform without centralized control.

7. Children may be especially prone to believing misinformation.

8. Children are a ?captive audience? in schools and can be required to study information literacy.

9. Children and adolescents use the World Wide Web very heavily to do standard kinds of assigned research, so they will have to be taught information literacy if they are going to do good work in their regular courses.

10. For all these reasons, teachers and school librarians should deliberately teach students to distinguish between reliable and unreliable online information.

II. There are recommended pedagogies for Information Literacy

1. For example, students can be taught to look for lists of telltale signs that websites are untrustworthy.

2. Other approaches ??

III. However, there are serious limitations to teaching information literacy in primary and secondary schools.

1. Good education would not just teach students to distrust what they see online. Surveys show increasing levels of blanket distrust, especially among young people who (for instance) widely view all newspapers as untrustworthy. Blanket distrust is just as harmful as total credulity. In the health context, for example, someone might decide to distrust all nutritional information because advice seems to conflict, and then refuse to take such basic steps as reducing fat intake. So information literacy is partly a matter of teaching students that they should trust some sources.

2. Misinformation is a serious and immediate problem among people who have long since left school. Indeed, most subjects in a sample of older, well-educated, affluent Americans showed poor comprehension of health information. A school-based strategy cannot help these people.

3. Schools are being asked to address a huge range of social problems and inequities, ranging from illiteracy to a dearth of scientists and engineers, from unemployment to violence and teen pregnancy. We should not lightly pile on an extra responsibility.

4. Thus we should do everything we can to reduce the burden on schools.

IV. Fortunately, there is an alternative: actively promoting reliable sources of online information

1. For example, in the health area, the U.S. government funds MedlinePlus as a portal to reliable health information.

2. To the extent that health and science teachers and school librarians teach information literacy, they ought to tell students to use MedlinePlus (and why). However, they will not be able to reach most students with this message.

3. Therefore, the government should promote MedlinePlus. It should advertise the portal, particularly on those search engines that accept money in return for ranking sites more prominently. It should also spend adequate money to keep the site attractive, usable, and comprehensive.

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