Why teach students about media literacy--and how

23 Jan 2021 5:10 PM | Erika Pribanic-Smith (Administrator)

AJHA officers are working to provide our membership more information about media literacy as one of our top goals of the year. As journalists and media historians, we are working to address the flood of misinformation and revisionist history narratives of recent years. We want to provide ongoing information and historical context to inspire our membership to help share the importance of media literacy in their own communities, including the importance of verified information and the vital role journalists play in our democracy.

The good news is that there has been a great deal of work put into media literacy already, including the work of Kristy Roschke, an expert in media literacy. She is the managing director of the News Co/Lab at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. Roschke also serves on the board of the National Association for Media Literacy Education.


I started to write this essay on media literacy’s importance early on January 6. By the end of the day, rioters had overtaken the U.S. Capitol in a coordinated effort aided by social media platforms, the right-wing media ecosystem, and a president and other elected officials who used these media bullhorns to spread lies and conspiracy theories that culminated in an insurrection.

The events at the Capitol will be scrutinized for years to come. They are a stark reminder of how, as journalism scholars and educators, we haven’t fully addressed the fundamental changes in our news and information systems. We still study news using 20th-century framing. And, for the most part, we continue to train journalism students for an industry that hasn’t existed in their lifetime. 

What I’ve learned in teaching undergraduate media literacy classes for the past five years (and teaching high school journalism the decade before that) is that too often young people learn about media in silos. Academic media are used for research papers, news media are used to stay up-to-date on current events, entertainment media are used on personal time, and social media should be used at your own risk. The problem with that approach: It is antithetical to how most of us actually use media.

Pew Research and the American Press Institute have found that people have a hard time distinguishing between different types of content online. The aesthetic markers we learned to help us identify different types of information in print form largely don’t apply online, because content does not have the same borders, boundaries and labels. On social media and in search, content is removed from its original context and becomes a discrete piece of information that will be evaluated in its new context. We should be actively teaching students to query information in this mode so we can help them evaluate what they find as they would when they are on their own.

In recent years, the term media literacy has been conflated with misinformation. But centering media literacy in misinformation discounts its more fundamental purpose in modern life. Media literacy is not merely a set of tools and techniques for assessing information credibility or spotting fake news. It is a lifelong practice that examines our relationship with the media inundating our daily lives.

The National Association for Media Literacy Education defines media literacy as the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create and act using all forms of communication. Though these practices are learned on a continuum, it is not a unidirectional journey with an endpoint. And as the means for creating and distributing media continuously evolve, so should our media literacy practices.   

Most of us begin consuming media at a very early age — and we never stop. And yet we spend very little time explicitly teaching people how to use media, or the social, cultural and ideological contexts that underlie media engagement. And when we do, it’s too often using a reactive frame to protect us from propaganda and misinformation’s negative effects. To effect real change, however, we must proactively integrate media literacy practices early and often, across disciplines including history, science and math, to help people build constructive relationships with media.

For children, this may mean learning how to safely access digital content and how advertisers and other content producers use persuasion techniques to lead us to take certain actions. For adults, we may look at how new media technologies impact the content we encounter.

Professional journalism should be a vector for teaching media literacy, and the best place to start is with future journalists. After all, journalism students are both creators and consumers of news. Journalism students should actively interrogate how media is, and has been, created, as well as reflect on how their own media use impacts their professional role.

Though I teach media literacy classes and would love to see a dedicated curriculum in every journalism school, media literacy practice can be incorporated into any journalism class. You may already be doing this and not identifying it as media literacy.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • In a journalism history class: Assemble an intergenerational panel of media users to discuss where and how they get news they trust. How are the experiences the same and different, and what does that mean for our common understanding of big news events?  
  • In an introductory mass comm course: Evaluate how a spectrum of news outlets cover a major news story; examine headline and word choice, and discuss what agendas may influence coverage. Ask students to bring in the examples they encountered in their own media use.  
  • In a mass comm law class: Review the terms of service for a major social media platform company. What speech and limitations and content control do you agree to when you sign up for the service? Discuss differences between government and private control of speech.
  • In a reporting class: Compare the sourcing policies for major news outlets, using Trust Project indicators as a standard. Which organizations publish their policies for including a diverse array of sources or using anonymous sources? Have students include a “behind the story sidebar” that explains how they sourced their story. (See how my colleague Celeste Sepessy does it with her Intro to News Writing students at ASU.)

Linked References:

Pew Research Center, June 2018, “Distinguishing Between Factual and Opinion Statements in the News.”

American Press Institute, June 2018, “Americans and the News Media: What they do — and don’t — understand about each other.”

Trust Project, “Trust Project Indicators,” retrieved from https://thetrustproject.org/#indicators

News Co/Lab, December, 2019, “Transparency in the journalism classroom: A how to,” retrieved from https://newscollab.org/2019/12/12/transparency-in-the-journalism-classroom-a-how-to/.

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