One must learn to weed out incendiary polemics and agitprop from the whirling online maelstrom to become an informed and thoughtful citizen. To better equip our youth to navigate this fray, we should make media literacy a feature of public education. This would help young people think critically about media, and turn a discerning eye to the onslaught of coverage, opinions, and analysis that permeate our increasingly wired culture.
Classes in media literacy are a pressing need. According to a Pew study, the Millennial generation--people born in the late 1980s and 1990s--are more likely to engage in new media and thus be more exposed to the information overload from competing voices. The dependence on the Web for information is not likely to subside; already, 92 percent of Americans use multiple platforms to get their daily news, and 61 percent of American adults get news from online sources.
Teaching media literacy can also help close the "digital divide" between minority and low-income students and their white or more affluent peers. While the disparity in access to communication technologies has significantly diminished since the Pew Internet & American Life Project highlighted the issue in 2007, recent studies continue to show vast differences in digital skill level.
Media literacy courses are the logical outgrowth of high school civics, where students gain a basic understanding of American political institutions. Part of their emphasis could be technical, teaching students how to use news aggregation services, perform data searches, and fact-check for themselves. The other part may be steeped in the principles of debate, such as identifying fallacies, or understanding bias. Perhaps a little media sociology (or a crash course in journalistic ethics) will allow youngsters to look at the day-to-day digital spats and slugfests in a broader context.
Critics might claim that a given curriculum suffers from a liberal or conservative bias, or promotes a certain agenda. But these risks are marginal given the potential to build a generation that can navigate the media landscape, without relying solely on the Huffington Post or Drudge Report as their compass.