Isabelle Jung/Sun Graphics Editor

October 15, 2023

LEVIN | We Must Teach Media Literacy. Here’s Why.

Print More

In case you missed it, the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and this time, the chaos will be televised. 

Peace in the Middle East remains a pipe dream as innocent Palestinians and Israelis perish in a continuing cycle of violence and retaliation. The war in Ukraine, too, rages on with no resolution in sight. Then there’s this summer’s coup in Niger; flooding in Libya and India; the earthquakes that shook Morocco and Afghanistan; and all the innocent Syrians recently slain by remote-controlled drones raining terror from above. 

Wherever calamity strikes, a journalist is sure to be there with a pen and notepad in hand to bear witness. That’s how the world knows. As we enter this strange and daunting period of history, one word comes to mind: unprecedented. No tradition, it seems, will survive to be passed on to the next generation, and nothing is sacred, certainly not the truth. 

It’s hard not to be desensitized watching the never-ending news ticker just transition from one tragedy to the next, spelling out our collective doom headline by headline. But turning off the TV won’t help. Knowledge is what empowers us to take charge and be changemakers in the world. And without journalists to shed light on injustice, progress is impossible.

That’s why this anti-media strain running through our culture is so toxic. Lies spread six times faster than the truth on platforms like X, formerly Twitter, and more Americans than ever before blindly distrust the press

The kind of willful ignorance we’re seeing today is an educational failure. At Cornell and beyond, professors need to do more to reel young minds back into reality. 

I propose introducing a media literacy class into our core curriculum. Knowing how to distinguish between facts and lies is central to an education because meaningful learning can’t take place when the truth itself has become politicized, from vaccines and presidential elections to the climate crisis. 

I reached out to a handful of big-name alumni in journalism — all former Sunnies — to hear their thoughts on what course designers should prioritize in a required media literacy class. 

“I think [the class should focus on] establishing a basic understanding of what newsgathering entails, of what it means to be a credible news organization and of how notions of balance have evolved,” said Andrew Morse ‘96, the publisher of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and former digital chief of CNN. 

Morse also told me that the class should act as a window into newsrooms across the country, from start-ups to legacy media outlets. “Students need to understand the good, the bad and the ugly,” he said. “They need a basic primer on [journalistic] ethics.”

I completely agree. What readers don’t see when they pick up a newspaper is all the behind-the-scenes muckraking that goes into it. 

The fake news narrative that has emerged in politics would be debunked if we could all see the editorial integrity of publications like The New York Times, L.A. Times and The Washington Post — and more people would view primetime loudmouths like Tucker Carlson with a skeptical eye. After the Dominion lawsuit, we really have to ask ourselves why we gave him a platform in the first place?

But the lies aren’t only limited to Fox News. 

The Internet is rife with disinformation. We’ve seen it this week as the humanitarian crisis in Gaza unfolds in the fallout of Hamas’ brutal terrorist assault on everyday Israelis. The cauldron of high emotions and conflicting information that is social media has finally boiled over. 

The commander in chief is as lost as many of us are. The White House recently walked back President Biden’s claim that he saw evidence of Hamas beheading babies (as of publication, those reports are still unconfirmed). 

“Critical thinking and knowing the difference between rooting interests and hard facts are worthwhile skills for every person,” said David Folkenflik ‘91, NPR’s media correspondent and this year’s distinguished visiting journalist. The media literacy course, he said, should give an overview on sourcing and identifying bias. 

Eric Lichtblau ‘87, an author, teacher and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, said the course needs to address the digital age: “It’s become harder than ever to tell the truth from a lie. It’s probably going to get even tougher before it gets easier, especially as AI gets more sophisticated.” 

“Extremism has become the biggest battleground for disinformation, as we’ve seen in the last seven years, with one flashpoint being the Russian interference campaign in 2016,” Lichtblau said. “Politics should be at the heart of the class.”  

Gabriel Levin is a second-year student in the College of Arts & Sciences. His column Almost Fit to Print spans issues in science, social justice and politics. He is the host of Under The Sun, a Cornell Daily Sun opinion podcast. He can be reached at [email protected]

The Cornell Daily Sun is interested in publishing a broad and diverse set of content from the Cornell and greater Ithaca community. We want to hear what you have to say about this topic or any of our pieces. Here are some guidelines on how to submit. And here’s our email: [email protected].