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Students would learn media literacy under bipartisan bill

Teachers and librarians urged lawmakers Thursday to advance a bill that would require all grades to learn about information literacy, which supporters say would help students “gauge the legitimacy of online sources.”

Information literacy, they said, helps students how to spot red flags online, check for first-hand sources, and research based on facts and data, leading to better citizens and more engaged voters.

But one conservative lawmaker, Sen. Mike Doherty (R-Warren), said the more he listened to Thursday’s testimony, the less he wanted to vote for the bill he previously thought was a “no-brainer.”

Doherty pointed to the New York Post’s Twitter account being suspended after a story it wrote about Hunter Biden’s laptop in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, and he cited a 1920s geologist who was shunned from the academic world until his theory on the formation of the scablands in Washington was proven correct.

“I think we’re in a bad spot here in this country because we have very centralized control over information,” Doherty said. “It seems today we have these gatekeepers controlling information and sending the country on wild goose chases.”

Ewa Dziedzic-Elliott, a librarian with Lawrence Township schools, said the legislation would address his exact concerns by teaching students how to discern between fact and fiction, despite social media algorithms or political bias.

“There are ways to manipulate the algorithm so information comes to the top. And that is why it is critical for us to understand how that works,” she said. “That’s a part of information literacy — it’s a way to learn exactly how things came to be.”

The bipartisan measure (S588), sponsored by Sen. Mike Testa (R-Cumberland) and Sen. Shirly Turner (D-Essex), would require school districts to begin incorporating information literacy into the curriculum for all grades, kindergarten through 12th grade. Lessons would include digital, visual, media, text, and technological literacy.

The bill calls for the Department of Education commissioner and state librarian to create specific lesson plans for each grade level and conduct an annual review to ensure materials used in the classroom are up to date.

Dziedzic-Elliott discussed how she taught her students how to digest news coming from Europe when Russia invaded Ukraine in February. She taught them to seek out first-hand sources, check whether video clips are taken out of context, and spot red flags for misinformation.

“The information literacy bill is a good start to ensure that New Jersey students will be productive global citizens that do not contribute to the spread of misinformation,” she said.

And while Doherty also took some issue with the slant of the New York Times and Washington Post, Olga Polites of Media Literacy Now said the legislation would push teachers to present materials with various political leanings, citing the Wall Street Journal, National Review, and The Nation.

It’s about giving students the tools to decipher online content and reach their own opinion, she said.

“Let’s be clear about the political biases — there wouldn’t be any. We’re simply telling them, this is legitimate, this is not,” Polites said.

The bill passed unanimously, including a yes vote from Doherty. A companion bill has yet to be voted on in the Assembly Education Committee.

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