Research

CI’s DiGiacomo views information, media literacy as tool to preserve democracy

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Oct. 27, 2022) — As the United States grows more politically and socially polarized, fingers point in every direction in speculation of who or what is to blame.

The accusations are limitless — poor social structures, careless media executives, unethical politicians and more. For Daniela DiGiacomo, assistant professor in the College of Communication and Information’s School of Information Science, a myriad of factors got us here.

Perhaps the most relevant is the decline of civil discourse, what she refers to as a bedrock of democracy. Despite living in an era decades after schools were legally desegrated, too many Americans still live, work and go to school in siloed spaces. That, alongside less buy-in to the importance of voluntary associations and community building, has led to less engagement with people that look, sound and think differently. The ever rising spread of mis- and disinformation adds to this, creating a hostile environment for democracy to thrive.

“We’re seeing a society in which, even when people are presented with new information, they don’t often change their views,” DiGiacomo said. “And when we have discussions without the same information, the ability to engage in civil discourse falls short.”

Luckily, the solution to America’s division is not as convoluted. An expert of learning sciences and human development, DiGiacomo views information and media literacy curriculum in K-12 schools as one of the key answers. Information and media literacy, she says, is the ability to use critical thinking and reasoning skills in online spaces, like discerning fact from fiction and identifying trustworthy sources.

In partnership with scholars at the Civic Engagement Research Group, DiGiacomo’s work analyzes the current state of information media literacy education policy, and engages in partnership with school districts around the country to study and improve local efforts, including Kentucky’s own largest and most diverse school district, Jefferson County Public Schools.

Currently, all-encompassing information and/or media literacy curricula and policy are few and far between. In a recent study into the national landscape, DiGiacomo and her colleagues found that 92 bills referencing some sort of information and/or media literacy education were introduced by state legislators in 2021. Of those, only 23% were signed into law, and many of them only addressed risk management and safety issues. In this same study, they found that of the 11 states that do have existing K-12 information and/or media literacy education policy, only five of those states provide a clear definition of terms and even fewer speak to issues of equity, funding or plans for instructional support and resource development.  

Based on their review of best practices and existing scholarship, DiGiacomo and her colleagues outline three aspects of successful media literacy curriculum. The safety and civility dimension centers on basic online safety measures; the information analysis dimension teaches students to consider the source, nature and purpose of information online; and lastly, the civic voice and engagement dimension encourages students to develop and share their perspectives effectively. Unfortunately, their recent study found that most of the existing legislation do not attend to these key dimensions.  

Of note, Delaware is among the states with improvements in policy, recently signing a bill that requires schools to implement “evidence-based media literacy standards” in all disciplines. DiGiacomo hopes to see more policymakers take the lead as well. However, what’s most important to DiGiacomo is creating new opportunities for young people to civically connect with and learn from each other, despite growing up in an ever-polarized nation.

“If everyone has routine and ongoing opportunities to learn and practice information and media literacy, especially at the K-12 level, we can all work toward a better, problem-solving democracy," DiGiacomo said.

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