Media Literacy and Moral Formation

Derek Thompson of The Atlantic recently appeared on NPR’s Here and Now to discuss the importance of media literacy. Thompson impressed upon the audience the importance of media literacy in the digital age. He urged listeners to examine the provenance or source of the information they encounter. He also cited an article that appeared in US News & World Report about teaching high schoolers how to critically evaluate online information. The article, drawing on the advice of teachers, presented three keys: 1. Teach teens to question the source, 2. Help students identify credible sources, and 3. Give students regular opportunities to practice vetting information.

At Smith Prep, we spend a good deal of time doing something like what Thompson recommended. In fact, we believe that among the most important skills teachers can impart to students is the ability to discern the credible from the incredible and the serious from the frivolous.

But we mustn’t fall into the trap of believing that this is simply a problem of the intellect to be solved with a few pointers and a handful of strategies. There is a moral dimension to the problem as well because desire and virtue bear upon knowing and understanding. Thompson himself alludes to this moral dimension, but he speaks of it mostly in the language of cognitive psychology–it is the problem of confirmation bias. This is a useful but too narrow way of understanding the problem. However we frame it though, the key is this: We must learn to question more than our sources, we must also question ourselves.

There are three questions to consider when evaluating information. The first two are of the standard sort: 1. Who wrote this? and 2. Why should I trust them?

The third question, however, gets at the moral dimension: 3. Do I want this to be true?

This question is intended as a diagnostic tool used to reveal our biases and sympathies. There are three possible answers: yes, no, and I don’t care. In each case, a challenge to discernment is entailed. If I want something to be true, and there may be various reasons for this, then I need to do my best to reposition myself as a skeptical critic. If I do not want something to be true, then I need to do my best to reposition myself as a sympathetic advocate. A measure of humility and courage are required in each case.

If I do not care, then there is another sort of problem to overcome. In this case, I may be led astray by a lack of care. I may believe what I first encounter because I am not sufficiently motivated to press further. Whereas it is something like passion or pride that we must guard against when we want to believe or disbelieve a claim, apathy is the problem here.

In ethics, the critical question is not, as it is often assumed to be, “What is the right thing to do?” Rather, the critical question is this: “Why should someone desire to learn what is right and then do it?”

Likewise with the problem of information literacy. It is one thing to be presented with a set of skills and strategies to make us more discerning and critical. It is another, more important thing, to care about the truth at all, to care more about the truth than about being right.

In short, the business of teaching media literacy or critical thinking amounts to a kind of moral education.

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