News literacy and misinformation

Melissa Tully

As high-profile examples of misinformation circulating on social media have come to public attention in recent years, calls for improving media literacy as a response have become commonplace. Educators and scholars have heeded this call by developing courses and research programmes to address both improved literacy and responses to misinformation. These approaches often focus on ways of developing knowledge and skills to navigate contemporary news environments where misinformation circulates and competes with news and information and testing and evaluating these approaches. With this backdrop in mind, this chapter addresses news literacy as a response to misinformation by providing a definition of news literacy and offering a framework tor how equipping citizens with news literacy could be part of a solution to tackling misinformation while also addressing its shortcomings. The chapter also provides an overview of relevant studies that have looked at the relationship between news literacy and misinformation, highlighting consistencies and contradictions in this work. It will conclude with some takeaways for scholars interested in this area of research.

Defining news literacy

Defining and distinguishing various literacies — media, information, digital, and news — has always been a challenge for researchers and educators who work in these interdisciplinary domains (Aufderheide and Firestone 1993; Bulger and Davidson 2018; Potter and Thai 2019; Vraga, Tully et al. 2020). This challenge has led to a plethora of definitions and disagreements (Hobbs 2011; Potter 2010), which has made both research and educational efforts challenging, particularly in regards to isolating and measuring effects (which is often the goal of researchers) and impacts (which is often the goal of educators seeking to evaluate their curricula and programs) and developing theoretically robust research in this area (Hobbs and Frost 2003; Vraga, Tully et al. 2020).

News literacy has often been characterised as a type or subset of media literacy that focuses on news production, consumption, and contexts (Vraga and Tully 2015, 2016). Putting it under this broad umbrella has meant that its definition is often tied to a popular media literacy definition which emerged in the 1990s and describes media literacy as the ability to access, analyse, evaluate, create, and act using mediated messages (Aufderheide and Firestone 1993). Although this definition is useful for capturing a broad range of media and behaviors, it is less useful when we think about how to operationalise it and measure it across different domains with media that serve very different purposes in our lives (Tully et al. 2019; Vraga, Tully et al. 2020). For example, the knowledge and skills needed to access, analyse, and evaluate video game content are undoubtedly different than the knowledge and skills needed to access, analyse, and evaluate news. Similarly, creating a persuasive social media post or shooting compelling images requires a different set of skills than writing a news story.

Given the differences in media and their roles in our lives, my colleagues and 1 have argued that news literacy requires its own definition and should be separated from other related literacies, which deserve their own definitions and scholarly attention (Vraga, Tully et al. 2020). We argue that news literacy is particularly relevant to identifying and rejecting misinformation, given the unique relationship between news and misinformation, which is either deliberately intended to look like news or is often perceived as news by audiences (Tandoc 2019). In other words, the knowledge and skills needed to identify news are the same as those needed to identify misinformation, and the resulting behaviors — sharing, fact-checking, verifying, and correcting, for example — are also arguably built on the same knowledge and skills.

We argue that developing news literacy means building knowledge and skills related to news processes and the role of news in society. If we understand what knowledge and skills contribute to news literacy, then we can measure and evaluate it and determine when and how individuals apply their news literacy. With this in mind, we define news literacy as ‘knowledge of the personal and social processes by which news is produced, distributed, and consumed, and skills that allow users some control over these processes’ (Vraga, Tully et al., 2020, p. 5). To develop news literacy, then, requires building relevant knowledge and skills in areas related to the news process from production to consumption (Tully et al. 2019). Therefore, we propose and define five domains — context, creation, content, circulation, and consumption — that make up news literacy building on existing research in this area (Ashley, Maksl and Craft 2017; Vraga and Tully 2016).

By narrowing the definition and scope of news literacy, we are able to develop measures to empirically test and evaluate news literacy efforts, which is essential to see what works for addressing the spread of misinformation. With this conceptual clarity, then, we can measure individuals’ news literacy to see if and how it influences news choices, analysis, and evaluation with the goal of improving the knowledge and skills that matter for recognising and responding to misinformation (Amazeen and Bucy 2019; Craft, Ashley and Maksl 2017; Vraga and Tully 2019).

Knowledge about news contexts or the ‘social, legal, and economic environment in which news is produced’ would contribute to a greater understanding of the constraints on news processes, the ethics that guide news production and distribution, and the role of outside entities like technology firms in these processes. Research suggests that understanding this context contributes to valuing news more (Newman et al. 2018). As it relates to misinformation, this contextual knowledge should also contribute to an understanding of speech laws and regulations and the role of technology companies and governments in platform governance.

Knowledge about news creation, the ‘process in which journalists and others engage in conceiving, reporting, and creating news stories and other journalistic content’, should provide audiences with an understanding of the journalistic process and how it differs from other media creation. This should help audiences evaluate newsworthiness and other elements that separate news from misinformation. And, although most audiences will not regularly create news, they do post and share news, which contributes to its spread. Usingjournalistic skills like verification could ensure that they are sharing quality news and information, not misinformation.

Knowledge about news content or the ‘characteristics of a news story or piece of news that distinguishes it from other types of media content’ seems particularly relevant to recognising misinformation and differentiating it from news. This is an area that has been explored in news and media literacy research, education, and practice, which often focuses on identifying content characteristics that distinguish news from other media (Fleming 2014; Malik, Cortesi and Gasser 2013). Skills related to identifying news and distinguishing it from misinformation include evaluating the quality and credibility of sources in a story, recognising how claims are reported and supported, and differentiating between facts and opinions in stories.

News circulation or the ‘process through which news is distributed and spread to potential audiences’ is particularly important in a media environment where news and misinformation are circulated on social media. Understanding the role of various actors — organisations, humans, and computers — in circulation is becoming increasingly important as we turn to social media for much of our news and information (Thorson and Wells 2015). Newman et al. (2018) found that only 29 percent of survey respondents knew that the news they see on Facebook is determined by an algorithm, and many responded that they did not know how these decisions were made. Being able to customise settings on social media or curate feeds with high-quality news and information should contribute to news diets that are relatively free from misinformation, thus cutting down exposure to (and the likelihood of sharing) this kind of content (Newman et al. 2018; Vraga and Tully 2019).

Finally, knowledge about consumption or the ‘personal factors that contribute to news exposure, attention, and evaluation’ means that audiences recognise how their biases and predispositions influence news choices and interpretations. Research suggests that news literacy interventions can prompt people to more fairly evaluate news and to make choices that could lead to more diverse news diets (Vraga and Tully 2015). Skills related to consumption should prompt news consumers to seek out news and information, dedicate time to news, and evaluate it critically but fairly. This recognition and ‘mindful processing’ should prompt audiences to avoid being misled by misinformation as they evaluate it more critically (Craft, et al. 2017; Maksl, Ashley and Craft 2015).

This definition of news literacy does not determine how or if this literacy is put to use and intentionally separates knowledge and skills from attitudes, motivations, and other factors that may relate to news literacy but are distinct from it. Putting news literacy to use or applying news literacy would mean that audiences make news and information decisions that are informed by their news literacy, which should influence their exposure to and engagement with misinformation (Amazeen and Bucy 2019; Vraga, Tully et al. 2020). Therefore, we propose a model for predicting relevant behaviors that builds on our definition of news literacy and the theory

Table 44.1 Defining news literacy: 5 Cs





Social, legal, and economic environment in which news is produced

Process in which journalists and others engage in conceiving, reporting, and creating news stories and other journalistic content


Characteristics of a news story or piece of news that distinguish it from other types of media content



Process through which news is distributed and spread to potential audiences Personal factors that contribute to news exposure, attention, and evaluation

Source: Adapted from Vraga, Tully et al. 2020

of planned behavior (TPB), building on a framework that has been rigourously tested in communication and related disciplines (Ajzen 2011; Vraga, Tully et al. 2020).

In this model, we can look at other factors like motivation, attitudes, and perceived efficacy that have been tested in the TPB to determine what is needed to apply our news literacy to a range of relevant behaviors, including being able to recognise and respond to misinformation by correcting it and providing quality evidence and curating a news diet that consists of quality sources of information and is generally free of misinformation (Tully, Vraga, and Bode 2020; Vraga, Tully et al. 2020). In this model, we suggest that news literacy is one factor that determines if and how people respond to misinformation and argue that accounting for news literacy, attitudes, social norms, and perceived behavioral control (factors from the TPB) offers a framework for predicting relevant behaviors, including recognising misinformation (Ajzen 2011; Vraga, Tully et al. 2020).

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