The Truth About Girl Scouts and the Need for Digital Literacy


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2.23.12 | It would seem unnecessary to drag the Girl Scouts into current political debates over social issues and cultural values, but the 100-year-old organization found itself in the news recently when an Indiana Republican state representative refused to sign a resolution honoring the organization’s anniversary.

Rep. Bob Morris said he was disturbed by what he learned when he did a “small amount of web-based research” on the Girl Scouts. I’m not going to debate Morris’s conservative positions, but I am going to call into question his digital literacy skills.

The new media literacies we often discuss involve applying skepticism to information, learning how to review sources and look for bias, and the importance of fact-checking.

Morris, it seems, did none of these.

In asserting that the Girl Scouts have a “close strategic affiliation with Planned Parenthood,” Morris notes that his information doesn’t come from the websites of the Girl Scouts or Planned Parenthood (both of which deny any connection), but rather through other online sources. If he applied more critical thought to those sources, he might have inquired why sites with a particular political perspective are finding a link when no one else can.

Morris also credits an article from World Net Daily, a right-wing news site, for informing him that Girl Scouts cannot pray or sing Christmas Carols. The trouble is, that’s not true, either. A quick search turned up this Girl Scouts document that addresses a number of erroneous claims, including the question about caroling and prayer. In short, there is no mandate against either.

The Girl Scouts of Northern Indiana-Michiana, which is Morris’s region, has since adapted the document and published it under the title “What We Stand For.” Morris also might have consulted the National Catholic Committee for Girls Scouts and Camp Fire USA, which also knocks down anti-Christian rumors.

I come from the journalism school of “If your mother says she loves you, check it out,” so if I had the same concerns as Morris, I might review other sources not affiliated with the Girl Scouts. But I would make sure those sources don’t have their own agenda to promote that might muddy the accuracy.

When someone says their information comes from a “small amount of web-based research,” that’s a sign it’s time to dig deeper.

Knowing how to separate fact from fiction and understanding how information can be skewed, especially in subtle ways, is a skill educator Howard Rheingold politely refers to as “crap detection.” Craig Silverman used a similar term last year while arguing for the inclusion of digital and media literacy in education: “Universities — indeed all educational institutions — should build bullshit detection into the basic curriculums.”

“The Internet is the single greatest disseminator of bullshit ever created,” Silverman continued. “The Internet is also the single greatest destroyer of bullshit.”

When someone says their information comes from a “small amount of web-based research,” that’s a sign it’s time to dig deeper. But Morris doesn’t seem interested. As the AP reported this week:

“My family and I took a view and we’re sticking by it,” Morris said Tuesday, adding that his daughters were joining an alternative group for young girls run by conservative Christians. “My girls are no longer Girl Scouts. They’re now going to join American Heritage Girls.”

Update: Morris has now apologized, acknowledging he “should not have painted the entire Girl Scouts organization with such a wide brush.” He blamed his “lack of research and evidence” on the fact that he wrote the critique only for his legislative colleagues. “Had I known this letter would have gone to a wider audience, I would have cited further evidence for my position,” Morris said.

And there goes another lesson learned: Never assume what you write will only be read by the intended audience.

So what are the Girl Scouts up to these days? As we reported back in December, the Girl Scouts are pushing forward with badges and programs involving science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) along with arts and the outdoors. The national website features STEM curriculum resources and information about various STEM-related badges.

Last week, the Girl Scouts briefed senior Administration members and government agencies on a newly released report, “Generation STEM: What Girls Say about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.” The study’s findings contradict assumptions that girls have no interest in STEM fields. As researchers told Washington officials:

Young girls overwhelmingly reported that they are in fact interested and enthusiastic about STEM subjects, but many don’t see a clear path to a career. Kamla Modi, Research and Outreach Analyst and lead researcher for Generation STEM, explained that this sense of a barrier is ingrained in girls over time by a combination of circumstances. The most influential of these circumstances show a lack of female mentors in STEM fields, safe spaces to fail, STEM literacy and, exposure to the fields. Girl Scouts of the USA staff were excited to share policy recommendations as well as examples of how to better prime interested girls for careers in STEM.

The organization is also an outreach partner with the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and E-Line Media on the second annual National STEM Video Game Challenge.

Perhaps when they’re not so busy, the Girl Scouts could offer workshops on digital and media literacy—for adults.

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