Critical thinking skills — analyzing facts to make reflective and informed decisions — are essential for students when it comes to civic engagement. However, in today’s fast-paced news cycle, it’s become increasingly difficult for students to discern fact from fiction to make informed decisions. This is especially true of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A new educational report from Project Information Literacy (PIL) uses the first 100 days of the COVID-19 news story to help educators and high school and college students revisit the early coverage and think critically about how journalism shapes the national narrative and often defines what we see and learn, what we think, and who we are.

“Familiarity with news is a powerful social practice, one that nurtures civic literacy,” principal investigator Alison Head said. “In our 2018 study on news engagement, we found seven in 10 students got their news from the classroom, so this time we asked, ‘What if we focused on coronavirus, arguably the biggest story of the century, and made it into a unique and timely learning experience during a critical election year?’”

According to Head, the novel resource emphasizes two critical areas of development: information agency and visual literacy.

Information agency is the ability to reclaim some control over the news. It takes pulling back and looking at the “shape of news” to identify critically important themes and pieces of information.

To help students build this skill, the first part of the report presents interactive graphs and a timeline narrative to show the coronavirus story’s development over time. Learning resources include exercises for seeing how news stories develop and managing readers’ attention over time.

Visual literacy is the ability to understand how the composition and presentation of images adds meaning to a news event, while eliciting certain emotional responses. The second part of the report looks at news images in the coronavirus coverage and how lighting, angle, or cropping played a role in visual messaging. Learning resources let students code news images on their own to see firsthand the effect visuals can have on viewers.

Within the classroom context, educators can use this study as a reading and teaching resource to nurture civic literacy.

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