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California Schools Will Require Students to Learn to ID Fake News, Misinformation

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Middle school-aged kids sit at a laptop in a classroom.
Students use school laptops at St. HOPE Public School 7 Elementary in Sacramento.

Pushing back against the surge of misinformation online, California will now require all K-12 students to learn media literacy skills — such as recognizing fake news and thinking critically about what they encounter online.

Gov. Gavin Newsom last month signed Assembly Bill 873, which requires the state to add media literacy to curriculum frameworks for English language arts, science, math and history-social studies, rolling out gradually beginning next year. Instead of a stand-alone class, the topic will be woven into existing classes and lessons throughout the school year.

“I’ve seen the impact that misinformation has had in the real world — how it affects the way people vote, whether they accept the outcomes of elections, try to overthrow our democracy,” said the bill’s sponsor, Assemblymember Marc Berman, a Democrat from Menlo Park. “This is about making sure our young people have the skills they need to navigate this landscape.”

The new law comes amid rising public distrust in the media, especially among young people. A 2022 Pew Research Center survey found that adults under age 30 are nearly as likely to believe information on social media as they are from national news outlets. Overall, only 7% of adults have “a great deal” of trust in the media, according to a Gallup poll conducted last year.

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Media literacy can help change that, advocates believe, by teaching students how to recognize reliable news sources and the crucial role of media in a democracy.

“The increase in Holocaust denial, climate change denial, conspiracy theories getting a foothold, and now AI … all this shows how important media literacy is for our democracy right now,” said Jennifer Ormsby, library services manager for the Los Angeles County Office of Education. “The 2016 election was a real eye-opener for everyone on the potential harms and dangers of fake news.”

AB 873 passed nearly unanimously in the Legislature, underscoring the nonpartisan nature of the topic. Nationwide, Texas, New Jersey and Delaware have also passed strong media literacy laws, and more than a dozen other states are moving in that direction, according to Media Literacy Now (PDF), a nonprofit research organization that advocates for media literacy in K-12 schools.

Still, California’s law falls short of Media Literacy Now’s recommendations. California’s approach doesn’t include funding to train teachers, an advisory committee, input from librarians, surveys or a way to monitor the law’s effectiveness.

Keeping the bill simple, though, was a way to help ensure its passage, Berman said. Those features can be implemented later, and he felt it was urgent to pass the law quickly so students can start receiving media literacy education as soon as possible. The law goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2024, as the state begins updating its curriculum frameworks, although teachers are now encouraged to teach media literacy.

Berman’s law builds on a previous effort in California to bring media literacy to K-12 classrooms. In 2018, Senate Bill 830 required the California Department of Education to provide media literacy resources — lesson plans, project ideas and background — to the state’s K-12 teachers. But it didn’t make media literacy mandatory.

The new law also overlaps somewhat with California’s effort to bring computer science education to all students. The state hopes to expand computer science, which can include aspects of media literacy, to all students and possibly even require it to graduate from high school. Newsom recently signed Assembly Bill 1251, which creates a commission to look at ways to recruit more computer science teachers to California classrooms. Berman also sponsors Assembly Bill 1054, which requires high schools to offer computer science classes. That bill is currently stalled in the Senate.

Understanding media and creating it

Teachers don’t need a state law to show students how to be smart media consumers, and some have been doing it for years. Merek Chang, a high school science teacher at Hacienda La Puente Unified in the City of Industry east of Los Angeles, said the pandemic was a wake-up call for him.

During remote learning, he gave students two articles on the origins of the coronavirus. One was an opinion piece from the New York Post, a tabloid, and the other was from a scientific journal. He asked students which they thought was accurate. More than 90% chose the Post piece.

“It made me realize that we need to focus on the skills to understand content as much as we focus on the content itself,” Chang said.

He now incorporates media literacy in all aspects of his lesson plans. He relies on the Stanford History Education Group, which offers free media literacy resources for teachers, and took part in a KQED media literacy program for teachers.

In addition to teaching students how to evaluate online information, he shows them how to create their own media. For example, homework assignments include making TikTok-style videos on protein synthesis for mRNA vaccines. Students then present their projects at home or lunchtime events for families and the community.

“The biggest impact, I’ve noticed, is that students feel like their voice matters,” Chang said. “The work isn’t just for a grade. They feel like they’re making a difference.”

Ormsby, the Los Angeles County librarian, has also been promoting media literacy for years. Librarians generally have been at the forefront of media literacy education, and California’s new law refers to the Modern School Library Standards for media literacy guidelines.

Ormsby teaches concepts like “lateral reading” (comparing an online article with other sources to check for accuracy) and reverse imaging (searching online to trace a photo to its source or check if it’s been altered). She also provides lesson plans, resources and book recommendations such as “True or False: A CIA Analyst’s Guide to Spotting Fake News” and, for elementary students, “Killer Underwear Invasion! How to spot fake news, disinformation & conspiracy theories.”

She’s happy that the law passed, but would like to see librarians included in the rollout and the curriculum implemented immediately, not waiting until the frameworks are updated.

The gradual implementation of the law was deliberate since schools are already grappling with so many other state mandates, said Alvin Lee, executive director of Generation Up, a student-led advocacy group among the bill’s sponsors.

He hopes that local school boards will prioritize the issue by funding training for teachers and moving immediately to get media literacy into classrooms.

“Disinformation contributes to polarization, which we’re seeing happen all over the world,” said Lee, a junior at Stanford who said it’s a top issue among his classmates. “Media literacy can address that.”

In San Francisco Unified, Ricardo Elizalde is a teacher on special assignment who trains elementary teachers in media literacy. His staff gave out 50 copies of “Killer Underwear!” for teachers to build activities around, and he also encourages students to make their own media.

Elementary school is the perfect time to introduce the topic, he said.

“We get all these media thrown at us from a young age, we have to learn to defend ourselves,” Elizalde said. “Media literacy is a basic part of being literate. If we’re just teaching kids how to read and not think critically about what they’re reading, we’re doing them a disservice.”

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