The Increasing Importance of Critical Thinking in the Digital Age


“To prosper in the Digital Age, people must become masters of information.” C. Stern, 2003

Recently, a Facebook friend shared a political link. In the ensuing thread, another person commented that the information shared was in fact not true. In reply, my friend commented, “That was not really my motivation in sharing this link anyway.” The exchange left me scratching my head in bewilderment. Sharing the truth was not his motive? Then what was? Why would a person share unproven information, even if the idea behind it supported an agenda they had? Why not do the legwork and find something based on fact, or, better yet, adapt their viewpoint based on facts discovered through research?

The old adage states, “Don’t believe everything you read.” It holds true today, more than ever. Since the advent of widespread access to the internet, social media, and other forms of computer-mediated communication, it has become ridiculously easy to disseminate information with a mere click of a button. This becomes problematic when people spread information without adequately vetting their sources, turning fiction into widely-accepted fact. Conspiracy theories and pseudo-scientific ideas have the opportunity to spread quickly through large groups of people, and they often do.

What is the answer to this problem? Surely it cannot be censorship, not with the First Amendment protecting our right to free speech. Rather than blame the medium, I say that we must put responsibility in the hands of the reader. It is imperative that readers learn how to become savvy consumers of media by discerning legitimate news sources from questionable ones. Reliable press is imperative to a functioning democracy, and Americans must learn how to tell when what they are reading is not trustworthy. In a time where information about virtually any topic is available, critically thinking about news, information, and media has become a more essential skill than ever before.


Historical Context

News, information, and media literacy are aimed at helping a reader discern the trustworthiness of sources of information.  The term “information literacy” was first coined in 1974 by a copyright lawyer, Paul G. Zurkwoski. President of the Information Industry Association at the time, Zurkowski said of information literacy:

People trained in the application of information resources to their work can be called information literates.  They have learned techniques and skills for utilizing the wide range of information tools as well as primary sources in molding information solutions to their problems. The individuals in the remain portion of the population, while literate in the sense that they can read and write, do not have a measure for the value of information, do not have an ability to mold information to their needs and realistically must be considered to be information illiterate. (“Paul G. Zurkwoski”)

Zurkowski felt that information literacy is critical to “the creation of wealth, a key element in the blueprint for our national economic recovery” (“Paul G. Zurkwoski”).

Learning to critically think is an important part of creating intelligent consumers of media. Information literacy expert Crystle Martin states that a person with information literacy skills “demonstrates an ability to think critically and problem solve… people deal with information constantly… and they need to be able to decide the validity of information given, the bias of the conveyer of information, and the meaning of that information” (Martin 268). With the abundance of information at our fingertips in the form of articles, blog posts, viral posts, social media, and breaking news stories, information literacy is more important than ever before.

Information literacy includes asking crucial questions about the material at hand. According to the “Critical Evaluation Checklist for Internet Websites,” published online by Indiana Wesleyan University, there are five aspects of a Web site which should be analyzed: author, purpose, accuracy, currency, and audience. The checklist also includes a guide for printed materials (see Appendix). By investigating these aspects of an article, the reader is able to better understand the veracity of the information.

Although the term “information literacy” was not coined until the 1970s, the ability to discern legitimate information from sensationalist fabrication has been an issue since newspapers began to circulate. “Historically, it has been difficult at times to know whether the media was reporting an event versus influencing it” (McBrien 19). One of the most notable examples of this was during the Spanish-American War of 1898, when publishers William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer ran stories that arguably influenced the course of history. According to McBrien, when the U.S.S. Maine sunk, Hearst and Pulitzer both blamed Spain, despite the actual cause being undetermined. “The media frenzy provoked American hostility toward Spain, and the United States entered into a war that resulted in approximately 3,300 American and many more Spanish lives lost” (19).

Perhaps the “heavyweight champion of media hoaxes” (Simon), Orson Welles’s “The War of the Worlds” radio broadcast made listeners think aliens had invaded planet Earth. Broadcast on Halloween of 1938, the radio program panicked over a million listeners. According to Simon, Welles studied and imitated the way radio broadcasters reported the eventual war in Europe. “[T]hey studied the intonations of the auditory medium: how leaders spoke and how reporters reacted to the unexpected” (Simon). The attempt to emulate current news broadcasts was successful. Many listeners tuned in late and mistakenly thought the broadcast was real.

According to Marjorie Heins and Christina Cho, “Until the 1970s, the U.S. media literacy movement consisted primarily of scattered, small-scale efforts.” There were a couple attempts to guide people’s media use before the 70s, however. In the 1930’s, “a group of English teachers… founded the Wisconsin Association for Better Broadcasting. They circulated a list of ‘good’ radio programs… to increase listeners ‘awareness, critical evaluation, and appreciation.’” By 1953, the group morphed into the American Council for Better Broadcasts, creating “a basic syllabus for analyzing TV shows and conducted summer workshops in curricular development” (Heins and Cho 7).

By 1969, the National Education Association passed a “resolution recommending critical viewing curricula to counteract the presumed ill effects of media violence” (7). A year later, in 1970, WNET, New York City’s public television station started offering workshops in area schools, aimed at guiding educators as to how to incorporate TV into the classroom. According to Heins and Cho, in 1970, a resolution was passed by the National Council of Teachers of English which encouraged teachers to include “non-print texts” (film and TV) in their classrooms.

Over the next decade, programs were launched both in and out of public schools. Government organizations and nonprofit groups drove these efforts. One particular project thrived, called Media Action Research Center (or MARC). MARC “highlighted the disparity between Christian values and prevalent media messages” (7). MARC taught from a religious perspective rather than a neutral one. Harvard University also began a project aimed at studying media literacy efficacy in children. New York’s East Syracuse-Minoa school system offered voluntary summer workshops for teachers, collaborating on a media literacy curriculum and basic TV education. The workshops were helpful but failed to reach beyond the pool of the volunteering teachers.

In the late 70s, more programs appeared in schools and at universities. The federal government got involved in 1978, calling for funding for “curricular projects to equip students with critical viewing skills” (10). Programs in Austin, San Francisco, Boston, and New York City were put in place as a result. However, the programs were criticized as a waste of tax money and didn’t last long. According to Heins and Cho, the programs were called off officially in mid-1981, not too long Ronald Regan assumed the Presidency. Part of his campaign platform was dissolving the two-year-old Department of Education, and by 1982, all four of the programs lost federal funding. As a recession loomed, the subject of media literacy began to seem frivolous to the general public. Heins and Cho quote media literacy expert Kathleen Tyner on the subject: “Because media education was linked in the public’s mind with the recreational technology of television, the critical viewing curriculum was seen as an unnecessary frill.” A “back-to-basics” approach to education became a predominant theme in the U.S. While there were some additional efforts to integrate media literacy into schools, the rest of the 80s were a relatively quiet period.

In the 90s, likely due to heightened concern with media content and a changed political atmosphere, media literacy efforts were revived. Curricula and books were published with a new air of enthusiasm, recommendations were generated, and multiple national media literacy conferences were held.

As the field seemed to thrive, it became clear that the problem with media literacy education was that it was too fragmented, popping up as lone, disconnected efforts, and lacking a central mission objective to create a level of consistency. Another problem was a lack of appropriate evaluation criteria of the effectiveness of these efforts. These problems remain in the present day.


Problems: “The Inoculation Effect”

In a 2010 interview, expert on media literacy, author, and professor David Considine says media literacy hasn’t yet come far enough. “Media literacy is an innovation and you are trying to put an innovation into an institution, which is actually an institution of inertia… The culture and climate of schools swallows education” (Considine 6-7). The U.S. lags behind other countries in media literacy education. According to Heins and Cho, “While media literacy continues to develop by fits and starts in the U.S., in many other countries it is accepted as an essential part of basic education” (Heins and Cho 32).

Another problem that media literacy efforts face is a disagreement among leaders over the fundamental objectives. According to Considine:

So, you’ve got a big struggle and you can sum up that struggle with two different perspectives: the group that wants to control media and technology, and the group that sees media and technology in terms of challenge and creativity.  And there is no clear winner. And I think in most cases, kids, the students, and their teachers are often the losers. (Considine 7)

Fear is a major motivator for many efforts to increase media literacy in the U.S. This is referred to as an “inoculation effect” (Office of National Drug Control Policy 11) or protectivism. Brooklyn College of the City University of New York faculty member Katherine Fry says, “Fear has been the catalyst for media literacy efforts…The currently unfolding digital era brings with it a whole new set of changes, problems, and fears” (Fry 65).

In an article in the Journal of Media Literacy and Education, Fry tells a story of an incident she was involved in at Brooklyn parochial school. A middle school student had sent threatening text messages to several students. The police were involved, and they, the principal, and parents were all in an uproar. The principal contacted The Learning About Multimedia Project (The LAMP) to come into the school and discuss speaking to the students. At the meeting between the members of LAMP and the principal unfolded, the LAMP members in attendance began describing their objective to work with students and parents to help them develop healthy digital relationships.

[T]he policeman cut us off short. “No,” he exclaimed loudly, slapping both hands down on the table for emphasis. “That’s not what we want you to do.” He leaned in towards us from across the table and said, lower and slower, “We want you to come in and scare the [expletive] out of them.” The principal nodded in agreement. Despite our efforts to convince them that our less aggressive, less fear-mongering approach might be more effective, we were not asked back. (Fry 66)

This fear-based, protectionist approach to media literacy comes from a place of anxiety and seeks to address the specific fear at hand. Fry argues that news and media literacy has a much larger domain that to just allay fear. “But it must be built correctly and adopted early, before a crisis. Ideally, in place of a crisis”(69).

Evidence of this fear-motivated approach to media literacy education is clear in a 1999 press release by Discovery Communications, Inc. DCI is a global mass media and entertainment company based in Silver Spring, Maryland which started off as The Discovery Channel. They issued this press release on May 3, 1999, a couple weeks after the tragic school shooting in Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado left 13 dead, plus the two shooters, and 21 injured. DCI offered to conduct media literacy and critical viewing conferences in all 1,400 public schools in the state of Maryland. Concerned about the students’ exposure to the violent events portrayed in the media, DCI’s President and COO Judith McHale stated the conferences hoped “to reach those most directly effected [sic] by images they may be unprepared to use wisely, specifically elementary, secondary and high school students” (“In Response to the Tragic Events…”). Although rooted in good intentions, the move seemed to be yet another case of looking to media literacy after a crisis. McHale said in the statement:

Rather than merely condemning the media or parents, we should work together to provide proactive tools that educators, parents, and young people can use to help prevent tragedies like the one in Littleton. The key is to help all consumers of media, and especially children, better evaluate the information they receive from the media and use it in more positive ways.

Further evidence of media literacy as a crisis intervention technique is clear in a 2001 report from the National Youth Anti-Media Campaign Summit at the White House Conference Center, “Helping Youth Navigate the Media Age: A New Approach to Drug Prevention.” Sponsored by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Summit sought to “explore the topic of media literacy specific to illicit drugs and to identify challenges and opportunities to advance this approach” (“Office of National Drug Control Policy” 8). In the report, the broader benefits of media literacy education are mentioned as a mere afterthought. “In addition to providing youth with ‘protective’ skills against the negative influences of the media, media literacy may equally offer young people positive ‘preparatory’ skills for responsible citizenship.”  They go on to say that media literacy can help youth to become “positive contributors to society, to challenge cynicism and apathy and to serve as agents of social change” (10). These skills which can be taught by media literacy seem to be incredibly vital to creating a smarter, more competent, and more savvy society, and perhaps they deserve more than to be merely dusted off in the face of a school crisis.


Creating a Better Democracy

Can media and information literacy really shape better citizens? Studies suggest that yes, they can. A 2013 study examined the relationship between civic engagement and students who were enrolled in multimedia production classes at a high school. The results provided evidence that having experience in multimedia production contributed to democratic attitudes. According to the study’s results, “Civic engagement is associated with positive attitudes about the news, media, literacy competencies, and in-class pre-production experience” (Hobbs et al. 242). Basically, when students are exposed to how news and media are produced, they are more likely to actively participate in a civic way. As the study says, “By connecting classroom and culture, students increase skills of leadership, intellectual curiosity, and collaboration” (243).

The study also addresses a counterargument. Some critics say that developing media literacy may increase “cynicism, alienation, and disengagement from the political process.” Not necessarily. “The study found that the most media-literate students have more positive but nuanced perspectives on the role of journalism and society” (244). Media and information literacy and critical thinking are essential to a functioning democracy. “It is important, even vital to democracy, that students become critical consumers of media messages” (McBrien 31).

An article in the Columbia Review of Journalism discusses a study conducted by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation at Stony Brook University. In 2006, the foundation gave the university $1.7 million to enroll 10,000 students in a news literacy course. Assessment in 2008 showed a strong short-term influence from the course. Polled at the beginning of the semester, 72 percent of students said they felt a free press is important for democracy. By the end of the course, 93 percent believed it. “On the whole, news-literacy students were more likely to say they registered to vote since they enrolled in the class, more likely to report a positive view of the media, and more likely to say they consumed news from a variety of sources” (Beyerstein 46).

So can cultivating a nation of critical thinkers improve our American democracy? Quite possibly. But, according to the experts, changes must happen with the field of media literacy first. Faith Rogow, one-time president of the Alliance for a Media Literate America and expert in the field, says media literacy education has focused too much on media and not enough on the aspect of literacy. There has been too much emphasis on the effects of media and cultural criticism. The educators “generally saw it as their job to disseminate information about the potential or actual dangers of media… pedagogically speaking, its approach was fatally flawed” (Rogow 30). She says this reason is why media literacy has failed to catch on in many classrooms across the U.S. Students will not benefit from having an adult tell them what to think about what they see and hear in media. Rogow argues, “[S]uch teaching limits itself to the presentation of a set of conclusions – rather than also teach how to use questions or skills to reach those conclusions” (31). Additionally, teaching these critical thinking skills must leave room for varying interpretations. “[We] must allow for the distinct possibility that students, when provided with the skills to analyze for themselves, will come to conclusions that differ from our own” (31). Critical thinking does not come in one-size-fits-all.



The evidence is strong. As access to information expands exponentially, critically thinking about information, media, news, and advertising is of the utmost importance. However, the approach is integral to success. Media literacy cannot be expected to work properly if it is only used as a Band-Aid in a crisis. Learning critical thinking is a skill that develops over a lifetime. While there are several organizations across the U.S. devoted to information literacy, there is no nation-wide standard for teaching it in schools. The U.S. would stand to benefit from teaching these skills to children from a young age. Beyerstein argues that despite being a fledgling field, media and news literacy belong in schools now.

There are critics who say news literacy is trying to run before it can walk. They say, “Come back when you have all the evidence and then we’ll talk about adding it to the curriculum.” But there’s a strong case that news literacy deserves a place in our public schools right now, even before all the evidence is in (Beyerstein 49).

Minus the flying cars and moon colonies, we are living in a future that people could have only daydreamed about 50 years ago. We carry personal computers around in our pockets and have real-time access to breaking news and articles and forums about any subject we could dream up. We are able to access this information and, with a mere click, we can also share it with our friends and family. Rather than fear or condemn this amazing access, we must embrace it with intelligence.

As citizens in a democracy it is our responsibility to think critically and use this information with wisdom. People must know how to discern valid information from the invalid, and to know how to ask the questions to figure it out. Avoidance and censorship are not the answer. We are lucky to have the freedom to seek answers to any questions we have, and we must honor that freedom by being willing to think critically about what we find.

Works Cited

Beyerstein, Lindsay. “Can News Literacy Grow Up?.” Columbia Journalism Review 53.3 (2014): 45. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 24 Feb. 2016.

Considine, David. “Voices of Media Literacy: International Pioneers Speak: David Considine Interview Transcript.” Interview by Dee Morgenthaler. Center For Media Literacy, 12 July 2010. Web. 24 Feb. 2016.

“Critical Evaluation Checklist for Internet Websites.” Evaluating Information Sources. Indiana Wesleyan University, n.d. Web. 29 Mar. 2016.

Heins, Marjorie, and Christina Cho. “An Alternative to Censorship – Free Expression Policy Project.” Free Expression Policy Project, 2003. Web. 24 Feb. 2016.

Hobbs, Renee, et al. “Learning To Engage: How Positive Attitudes About The News, Media Literacy, And Video Production Contribute To Adolescent Civic Engagement.” Educational Media International 50.4 (2013): 231-246. Education Research Complete. Web. 24 Feb. 2016.

“In Response to the Tragic Events in Colorado, Discovery Communications, Inc. Pledges to Offer Media Literacy and Critical Viewing Conferences to All Public School Students in the State of Maryland.” PR Newswire Association LLC., 3 May 1999. Web. 24 Feb. 2016.

Martin, Crystle. “An Information Literacy Perspective On Learning And New Media.” On The Horizon 19.4 (2011): 268-275. Education Research Complete. Web. 24 Feb. 2016.

McBrien, J. Lynn. “Uninformed In The Information Age: Why Media Necessitate Critical Thinking Education.” Yearbook Of The National Society For The Study Of Education (Wiley-Blackwell) 104.1 (2005): 18-34. Education Research Complete. Web. 24 Feb. 2016.

Office of National Drug Control Policy, Washington, DC, ed. The National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign Media Literacy Summit. White House Conference Center, Washington D.C. Rockville, MD: Drug Policy Information Clearinghouse, 2001. 1-27. ERIC – Helping Youth Navigate the Media Age: A New Approach to Drug Prevention. Findings of the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign Media Literacy Summit. Drug Policy Information Clearinghouse, 1 June 2001. Web. 24 Feb. 2016.

“Paul G. Zurkowski.” National Forum on Information Literacy RSS. National Forum on Information Literacy, n.d. Web. 29 Mar. 2016.

Rogow, Faith. “Shifting From Media To Literacy: One Opinion On The Challenges Of Media Literacy Education.” American Behavioral Scientist 48.1 (2004): 30-34. Education Research Complete. Web. 24 Feb. 2016.

Simon, Ron. “The Greatest Media Hoax” The Paley Center for Media. The Paley Center for Media, 29 Oct. 2013. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.




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