Will ‘fake news’ law put politics in classroom?


California is now among 18 states that require some form of media-literacy training in public schools after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 873 in October. It requires K-12 public schools to teach kids how to distinguish “fake news” from the authentic variety. It mandates that such curriculum be incorporated in a variety of subject matters, ranging from English to history.

On its face, the effort sounds unobjectionable. For instance, the California measure passed through all committees and the floors of both houses with only two “no” votes. Other states passing such laws include conservative and liberal ones. Media literacy is a burgeoning bipartisan movement driven by tech, civics and library organizations.

And, of course, virtually everyone agrees that media-illiteracy is a potentially serious problem given the confusing new media world, where it’s hard for any of us — let alone elementary school kids — to distinguish a serious social-media post from one created by a Russian or Chinese bot. Advancements in artificial intelligence make it harder than ever to identify a real photo from a fake one.

“From climate denial to vaccine conspiracy theories to the January 6 attack on our nation’s Capitol, the spread of online misinformation has had global and deadly consequences,” bill sponsor Assemblyman Marc Berman, D-Menlo Park, said in a statement. We wholeheartedly agree with his statement, yet it reveals a conundrum.

We applaud efforts by librarians in helping their patrons make informed choices about the reliability of sources. That’s their job. But questions about, say, the Jan. 6 Capitol riot continue to divide the country. It’s virtually impossible to delve into these issues — at least in a serious way — without getting into politics. That’s problematic in the context of the classroom.

“(T)he guise of ‘media literacy’ often functions as a Trojan horse, casting certain political views as prima facie wrong and biased,” writes John Sailer, a fellow at the National Association of Scholars. Universities in particular already delve into academic theories (e.g., Critical Race Theory) that are overtly political. We need less politics in education, not more.

One Los Angeles County education official touted media literacy to CalMatters by noting, “The increase in Holocaust denial, climate-change denial and conspiracy theories.” We can agree about the insidious spread of Holocaust denial and the like, but is it really off-limits to consider scientifically based critiques about policy responses to global warming?

And what are the chances that the new curriculum will teach children to cast a wary eye on, say, the pronouncements from government agencies? Budding scholars need to hone their bias detector with regard to these official sources, too.

The legislative particulars are in the early development stages. AB 873 requires the state’s Instructional Quality Commission, which recommends curriculum frameworks, to incorporate model library standards and media-literacy content into English studies and later into other disciplines. So it’s unclear how it will play out in the classroom.

Young people are growing up in a vastly different media world than older generations as traditional media sources are supplanted by online news sources. To the degree that media literacy sticks to the basics of proper sourcing, it’s useful. But what are the chances it sticks to such basics? At this point, all we can do is monitor the curriculum that emerges.

Opinion, editorials


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