News Literacy Must Include Social Emotional Learning

More schools are consider new ways to add news literacy and SEL to their teaching. There’s never been a better time to combine these efforts.

To most educators, the word “firewall” calls to mind a computer system designed to block unauthorized access and protect users from unsafe content. But for decades, the term firewall also held a specific meaning related to news and media. It referred to the tradition of separating news content from the business of raising revenue through advertising. This prevented the need to make money from influencing how the news is reported.

That has all changed. In one of the most prominent examples, in 2013, Time Magazine became the first major news outlet to dissolve the separation between its newsroom and business sides to remain solvent. While the internet has (to some degree) democratized access to information, that shift has not come without consequences: Many traditional journalism outlets have collapsed, while online outlets frequently blur news and advertorial content. According to the Pew Research Center, newsroom employment at U.S. newspapers has dropped by nearly half since 2008, reflecting a 62 percent drop in ad revenue. Other news platforms haven’t fared much better in an environment where clicks, not subscription models, are the new currency. Many journalists don’t have the luxury of the firewall as their organizations push to make stories go viral.

Pulling the emotional trigger

Combine those factors with the rise of strategic disinformation online, and you understand why news literacy is so vital today. One incredibly effective strategy for increasing engagement with online content is to embed emotional triggers at every access point. A 2018 study found that “content that arouses strong emotions spreads further, faster, more deeply, and more broadly online.” Littering headlines, sidebars, and photo captions with words eliciting an extreme emotional response and/or confirming existing biases increases the likelihood that a story, in video or text format, will be clicked, liked, and shared.

When we connect with news that triggers an extreme emotion like fear, anger, or outrage, our immediate urge is to express that emotion—often by passing on the information (and our feelings about it) to others. Too often, this happens without fact-checking or even reading the entire article. Once emotion is in the driver’s seat, all our knowledge about how to parse credibility flies out the window. Creators and spreaders of disinformation count on this reaction. Chances are, if I’m outraged by a news story, and I share it, others in my network will also be outraged and pass it on to their networks, who will then share with theirs… and so on.

There is an inextricable, and yet largely untapped, link between information literacy and Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), defined as “process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions” by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL).

We know that news is often designed to trigger an emotional response. And yet, teaching kids to recognize and manage those triggers isn’t always a component of news and information literacy protocols. While many schools are looking for ways to incorporate both news literacy and SEL right now, individually, we believe that the relationship between news and emotion creates an opportunity for them to be combined.

READ: A Media and News Literacy-Themed Mixtape for Tough Times

Helping kids think about how news affects them

Whether exploring headlines online or using an activity like this one from Common Sense Media, it’s important for kids to consider what emotions the content creator was hoping to trigger, and why those triggers work. In this simple activity, we’ve asked learners to not only identify the language that might elicit an emotional response, but to also connect that language to a specific emotion. Asking younger kids how information makes them feel is a great way to develop a disposition of considering how news affects us as human beings. Older learners can take this activity one step further by discussing the target audience for each headline and considering who might be most affected by the sample triggers.

Most importantly, all learners need to see the “red flag” of a potential trigger as a reason to press pause and either a) manage their own emotional response to the information or b) recognize that red flags like emotional triggers are a sign that information may not be credible, and detective work is necessary before we believe and/or share the resource.

CASEL has developed five core competencies (pictured) to help learners manage emotional responses to both internal and external stressors. These core competencies can easily be applied to news/information literacy. What’s more, the application of these competencies to news can be a powerful first step in helping prepare students for the later work of applying more general news credibility tests.

One of the reasons these traditional approaches to news literacy fail to be applied outside of school is that our students haven’t yet learned how to manage the emotional triggers embedded throughout their screen-filled lives. “News literacy education has long focused on the significance of facts, sourcing, and verifiability,” researcher Susan Currie Sivek wrote in the Journal of Media Literacy Education in 2017. “While these are critical aspects of news, rapidly developing emotion analytics technologies intended to respond to and even alter digital news audiences’ emotions also demand that we pay greater attention to the role of emotion in news consumption.”

For educators, this represents an opportunity. News literacy and SEL efforts have a lot in common. Both require learners to develop new ways of thinking. Both benefit from partnerships between school personnel and families. Both are most likely to be successful when integrated across content areas. And both seek to help kids develop healthy behaviors that will serve them both in and out of school.

As more schools consider new ways to add news literacy and SEL to the ways they serve kids, there’s never been a better time to combine these efforts.

Read: Get Smart About Memes 

Jennifer LaGarde and Darren Hudgins are co-authors of Fact Vs. Fiction: Teaching Critical Thinking Skills in the Age of Fake News.


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