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The peace in learning to discern the news

Media literacy courses can help news consumers, but one study in Ukraine found ways to ensure long-term effects.

A commuter waiting for a train reads from her phone next to an advertisement discouraging the dissemination of fake news at a station in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
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If you’re reading this with a critical eye, welcome to the crowd. In recent years, more American high schools have begun to teach “media literacy,” especially during an era of “fake news.” More news outlets now offer truth checks on public statements. And as the United States heads into an election, voters will be reminded of how Russia manipulated social media in an attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election.

Yet for all the training and advice given to news consumers, how much do they really end up becoming earnest truth-seekers?

One 2003 study of an 11th-grade class on media literacy found students were better able to recognize “the complex blurring” of information and entertainment in nonfiction media. But there was a problem. The effects of the training wore off after a year. Media literacy is still a work in progress.

Perhaps the best lab to test such training is Ukraine, which has long been a target of fake news and is on the front line of the information wars. 

Since 2014, when a popular revolution overthrew a pro-Kremlin regime, Russia has conducted a massive disinformation campaign in its neighboring state, probably to sow division and steer Ukraine from joining Western organizations or becoming a showcase for democracy.

Many journalists in Ukraine have tried to counter the falsehoods. But that may not be working. Only 1 in 4 Ukrainians trusts the media. The alternative is to train Ukrainians to become long-term discerners of media accuracy and manipulation.

In an experiment funded by Canada, more than 15,000 Ukrainians participated in workshops in 2015-16 that trained them to “better identify fake news stories and actively seek out high-quality news and information.” The course was particularly focused on recognizing deliberate efforts to manipulate people’s emotions through misleading content. To measure the impact of the training, researchers from the nonprofit IREX used a control group. And they relied on trainers embedded in their local organizations or community.

The results, released May 15, are encouraging.

Participants in the training program, called Learn to Discern, were 13 percent better than peers at identifying and analyzing fake news stories – even 1-1/2 years after completing the program. In addition, 25 percent were more likely to check multiple sources.

Participants rated themselves as more proficient in three ways:

  • When I am misinformed by the news media, I can do something about it.
  • If I pay attention to multiple sources of information, I can avoid being misinformed.
  • If I take the right actions, I can stay informed.

The course was so successful that IREX is now piloting the approach in Arizona and New Jersey.

One result really stood out. Those who took the course were eager to share their new skills with others. Researchers estimate that more than 90,000 people indirectly benefited.

This finding fits with what the late Swedish researcher Hans Rosling calls “factfulness,” or the practice of perceiving what qualifies as news over the course of time. News discernment, he once wrote, is “understanding as a source of mental peace.”

With the right training in media literacy, perhaps more people can gain that peace.

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