Our decisions — whether they concern which products to buy, which ballot measure to support or which candidate to vote for — are only as good as the information we use to inform them.
This past week, Jan. 27-31, was declared as National News Literacy Week by the News Literacy Project. The goal is to raise awareness of news literacy as a fundamental life skill and to promote the tools and information people need to become fully news-literate.
As a former communications professional and current lawmaker who has championed and advocated the concept of media literacy in both roles, I applaud this effort.
I believe deeply in the power of communications to change the world. Over the past several years, I have been alarmed by the amount of false information that is spread online unchecked, and the enormous effect that it can have, particularly on elections and public discourse.
In a free society, there is much to disagree on, but let’s not disagree on information that is without merit. Fostering a society that is media literate will help promote more robust and productive civil discourse — which is one of the foundations of our democracy, after all. But we all have trouble knowing what and who to believe, and letting our own bias inform us.
Add to the picture the erosion of local media outlets and shrinking newsrooms across the country, coupled with the proliferation of social media and the ease with which someone can falsely, but convincingly, pass themselves off as an objective news outlet online, and the result is an all-time low in trust in media in America.
The hyperpolarized politics of our time have sent people on all sides of the political corners off into their corners, trusting only outlets they agree with and doubting objective reporting.
I do not equivocate in suggesting this to be full-blown public crisis. The fourth estate keeps governments and institutions honest. They ask difficult questions and uncover truths that the public deserves to know. The media is, without a doubt, the cornerstone of democracy.
The role of the media in shining light in the dark places, and holding those in power accountable, has been a foundational pillar of American democracy since the dawn of our Republic.
Before the colonies declared their independence from the monarchy, the British government attempted to prevent newspapers from publishing stories and opinion pieces unfavorable to them and their rule.
As a result, the founding fathers enshrined freedom of the press in the very first Amendment to the United States Constitution. James Madison and George Mason, in drafting the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights, called freedom of the press “one of the great bulwarks of liberty.”
But we don’t have to go as far back as the 18th century to understand the importance of a free and robust press. The Watergate scandal, the Pentagon Papers and the Catholic priest sex abuse scandal are just a few of the high-profile examples of how dedicated journalists shined a light on consequential issues that can change, and even save, lives.
So what can we do to maintain a free, open and trusted press in our country? Well, to begin with — we can teach and focus on news media literacy.
News literacy is understanding the difference between fact and opinion, and knowing how to identify credible media sources and use critical thinking skills in evaluating information that is presented as news.
This is why last year I sponsored and passed a new law to create the media literacy advisory committee within the Colorado Department of Education, which recently delivered a report to the legislature with recommendations for implementing media literacy in elementary and secondary education.
Along with colleague Rep. Barbara McLachlan, I will sponsor the legislation this year to incorporate these recommendations into Colorado’s Academic Standards.
A recent academic study shows that 82% of middle school students could not distinguish the difference between real news stories and advertisements.
Colorado’s students are facing the largest and most complex information landscape in human history and it’s crucial that we provide educators with the tools necessary to help our youth better understand the world around them.
This is not about steering a student in a particular ideological direction, but rather giving them the tools to evaluate all information critically, then formulate their own opinions about the facts and information presented.
In the meantime, we can all take responsibility analyze our own role by striving to understand the role that confirmation bias, stereotyping and other cognitive biases play into how we interpret news, events and information.
We can consider the responsibility that we have as citizens in a democracy to act as a watchdog of truth, and we can develop and share strategies for verifying news and information.
When outlets like The Colorado Sun use media literacy tools like Civil’s Credibility Indicators, they make it even easier for citizens to perform our civic duty and protect the role of accurate media in our democracy. Information is power. For the sake of our democracy, let’s take back our power.
Rep. Lisa Cutter is a member of the Colorado House of Representatives from the 25th district in Jefferson County and is co-prime sponsor of HB19-1269.