As the United States becomes increasingly politically and socially polarized, fingers are pointing in all directions speculating on who or what is to blame.
The accusations are limitless – poor social structures, negligent media executives, unethical politicians and more. For Daniela DiGiacomo, an assistant professor in the School of Information Studies at the College of Communication and Information, a myriad of factors brought us here.
Perhaps most relevant is the decline of civil discourse, what she calls the bedrock of democracy. Despite living in a time decades after schools were legally desecrated, too many Americans live, work and go to school in closed spaces. This, along with less buy-in to the importance of voluntary associations and community building, has led to less engagement with people who look, sound and think different. The ever-increasing spread of misinformation and disinformation adds to this, creating an environment hostile to the development of democracy.
“We see a society where even when people get new information, they don’t often change their minds,” DiGiacomo said. “And when we have discussions without the same information, the ability to engage in civil discourse is insufficient.”
Fortunately, the solution to America’s division is not so convoluted. An expert in the sciences of learning and human development, DiGiacomo sees the information and media literacy curriculum in K-12 schools as one of the key answers. Information and media literacy, she says, is the ability to use critical thinking and reasoning skills in online spaces, such as distinguishing fact from fiction and identifying reliable sources.
In partnership with researchers from the Civic Engagement Research Group, DiGiacomo’s work analyzes the current state of news media literacy policy and engages in partnership with school districts across the country to study and improve local efforts, including Kentucky’s largest and most diverse school district. , Jefferson County Public Schools.
Currently, comprehensive information and/or media literacy programs and policies are rare. In a recent study of the national landscape, DiGiacomo and his colleagues found that 92 bills referring to some kind of information and/or media literacy were introduced by state lawmakers in 2021. Among those of these, only 23% have been enacted, and many of these only dealt with risk management and security issues. In that same study, they found that of the 11 states that have a K-12 information and/or media literacy policy, only five of those states provide a clear definition of the terms. and even fewer address issues of equity, funding, or educational support and resource development plans.
Based on their review of best practices and existing research, DiGiacomo and colleagues outline three aspects of a successful media literacy program. The safety and civility dimension focuses on basic online safety measures; the information analysis dimension teaches students to consider the source, nature and purpose of online information; and finally, the civic voice and engagement dimension encourages students to effectively develop and share their views. Unfortunately, their recent study found that most existing laws fail to take these key dimensions into account.
It should be noted that Delaware is among the states whose policy has improved, recently signing into law a bill that requires schools to implement “evidence-based media literacy standards” in all disciplines. DiGiacomo hopes to see more decision-makers take the lead as well. However, what is most important to DiGiacomo is creating new opportunities for young people to connect civically and learn from each other, despite growing up in a still polarized nation.
“If everyone has regular and ongoing opportunities to learn and practice information and media literacy, especially at the K-12 level, we can all work towards a better problem-solving democracy,” said DiGiacomo.