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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

5 Media Literacies We Need Online

arm holding a cell phone

arm holding a cell phone

Subramaniam Vincent

Jakob Owens/Unsplash

Subramaniam Vincent is the director of Journalism & Media Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Views are his own.

More than any global development in recent times, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed one thing: News literacy is never going to be enough to help people responsibly navigate the avalanches of information and misinformation that come crashing down our media slopes. The media we use and experience is far too complex. We need many other media-related literacies, and this post lists five.

Website Literacy

This competency helps us first understand the ground we’re standing on when you land on a random website. Truth be told, you could be at No.10, Scamster Street. This literacy helps ask questions like the following and use the answers we find to make a credibility judgement.

  • What kind of site is this? An industry site? A volunteer site? A non-profit site? A news site? Does it claim to be a news site? (If so, the journalism literacy part needs to kick in).
  • Who is behind this site? How long has it been running? 
  • Is there something about the URL that seems odd? 
  • If this is a FAQ page or a consumer guide? Is it coming from an independent effort or from an industry association’s outreach effort? 
  • If this is a health or medical advice page, does it cite medical experts you can look up? If there’s a persuasive tone in the language, are you expecting it? Does the page headline match the text you read in the first few paragraphs? 


  1. Web literacy – The Internet Health Report
  2. A Definition Of Web Literacy 

Social Media Literacy

If there was one literacy which will help the better angels of our own behaviors take the reins, it is this. Social media literacy is simply recognizing the following: 

  • Social Media products are not designed for the whole persons in us. They privilege our emotional selves. Thoughtfulness and slow engagement rarely apply. 
  • Their design favors us to click, swipe, click, swipe endlessly in an image- and video-rich environment. 
  • When our friends forward a link, our implicit inclination is to trust and click. But that friend might have also “just forwarded” someone else’s “forward.” Whatsapp is bloated with millions of manipulated images and videos whose origin hardly anyone knows before sharing. 
  • Social media allows weaponization of quotes, facts and findings by making it very easy for anyone to take them out of context. This is especially damaging for scientific work. It can lead to unintentional misinformation, loss of original meaning, and ultimately to the weaponization of science itself. (See Science Literacy and Brain Literacy)


  1. What is Social Media Literacy?
  2. Tech Is ‘Downgrading Humans.’ It’s Time to Fight Back, Wired 
  3. How Facebook and Twitter bring out the worst in us, Vox

News and Journalism Literacy

This is one of the most vexing areas online today. So you clicked a random link for the first time. You don’t know this site, it just came shared via a social post or was in the top search results. This literacy is about navigating the following: 

  • A site can look like a news site, but may not be doing “journalism.” Journalism and news are not the same. 
  • News is the product—the story and the page you discover it on. 
  • Journalism is the process. It involves sourcing (the people the author spoke to, documents referred to), fact-checking, verification, corroboration, inclusion of diverse perspectives, mission and values that motivate the author, topic expertise, framing, selecting facts to draft a narrative and citing references. 
  • Journalistic stories carry mistakes and errors and hence are always subject to corrections. 
  • Bias is intrinsic to journalism. Writing is an act of motivation. Motivation comes from deep inside us, and includes our political biases and values. 
  • Political bias apart, journalistic culture (in America for instance) has liberal values journalists cherish: questioning authority, adversarial role, interpreting politicians, investigations, etc. 


  1. What Is News Literacy?, Stony Book University 
  2. How “News Literacy” Gets the Web Wrong, Mike Caulfield 
  3. News Literacy Project

Science Literacy

A lot of information about health and safety comes from science. Science literacy helps us be skeptical of grand claims to certainty in news stories, especially during the pandemic when people are anxious and want certainty. When we discover news material or scientific articles online that elevate the relevance of a finding, some basic questions include: 

  • Is this article citing a preprint academic paper? Does it cite multiple researchers on the findings? Preprints are early-stage science and make scientific claims. They are a necessary part of the process. They are not the truth, however. They are not peer-reviewed. 
  • If a finding has been peer-reviewed, is there any information on the widespread replicability of the experiments? Even peer-reviewed scientific work is not easy to replicate
  • If I am seeing a comment about a scientific discovery on social media, am I seeing the original claim and its limitations in context or is it being either blown out of proportion to favor or disfavor a proposition? 
  • Scientific research is not fast. Review by peers, discussions, disagreements, competing hypothesis, debate, debunking, and most importantly uncertainty are part of science. 

Note: Journalists need to be science literate. Otherwise it compounds the problem downstream for the reading public. 


  1. What Is Scientific Literacy?
  2. Opinion | A Study Said Covid Wasn’t That Deadly. The Right Seized It.

Brain literacy

Brain literacy is self-awareness about our state of mind and our vulnerability to fraud and manipulation when we read or view images/videos, particularly those with political implications.

  • Our brain operates in two systems, noted Daniel Kahneman in his pioneering work, Thinking Fast and Slow. System 1 is fast thinking, quick, biased and self-preserving (fight, flee, freeze). System 2 is slow, and this is where reasoning, background knowledge, skepticism, etc., come into play. 
  • When we click a story and skim it, or share it quickly/impulsively we’re likely to be in fast mode, and may be engaging with political content. Being self-aware about this behavior itself will help us slow down.
  • Plenty of hyper-partisan content may be fact-based. It may also contain disinformation designed to target your emotions. Discerning the difference is very hard for our brains if we are operating fast. 
  • Feelings drive our behavior more often than we admit. Disinformation actors know this well.
  • We tend to absorb or update our facts in the direction of our prior beliefs. (Neuroscience.) We are less willing to overturn a strongly-held belief with a new fact. 


  1. The Brain with David Eagleman, PBS Series. 

We already use many other literacies in our real life. Reading food labels for diets, trade process labels, driving signage, financial literacy, etc. The Web is our digital world, and we need these new media literacies to be responsible participants. 


  1. Understanding the Demand-side of Misinformation and Analyzing Solutions, Subramaniam Vincent. Chapter in Fake News: Real Issues in Modern Communication, Peter Lang, 2020.
May 26, 2020