A Stanford University study found most middle school students surveyed couldn’t tell native advertisements from news articles.
As concerning: Many high school students couldn’t distinguish between a real news source and a fake one on Facebook.
“When I started in 2011, there was not any concept that media literacy was needed in the 21st century,” according to Erin McNeill, founder of the national Media Literacy Now organization. “They had not even heard the term.”
But as concerns over the spread of “fake news” widen across the United States, so have media literacy education efforts.
Ten states introduced media literacy legislation in 2017, according to McNeill, who attributes her organization’s progress to growing concerns about the spread of misinformation. “By talking to policymakers,” she said, “we have been able to get bills with media literacy language passed.”
But there’s much more work to be done. “I still talk to people all the time who I have to define ‘media literacy’ to,” added Pam Steager, a leader of Media Literacy Now Rhode Island. “But this time of ‘fake news’ has helped people understand it’s a skill to be able to differentiate between what is real and what is not.”
Rhode Island passed a media literacy law in 2017 that instructed the state’s department of education to incorporate media literacy into its education standards and regulations.
Specifically, Media Literacy Now Rhode Island publicly recommended that the state include more project-based learning in the classroom, expand training and development opportunities for teachers and administrators and increase use of digital media and tools throughout the curriculum. The media literacy law ultimately should help teachers and administrators instruct students and their parents in critical news consumption and encourage students to become effective digital communicators across platforms, Steager said.
“Media consumption is happening the most at home,” she said. “The parent component is where it starts; allaying the fears of the parents, but also helping them understand a healthy media use and monitoring screen time.”
The Rhode Island law was modeled after one Washington state passed in 2016. The leader of that effort, Claire Douglas Beach, has been working as a media literacy advocate for 30 years, educating young people about the impact television shows, movies, advertisements and the internet have on their lives.
“It is one of the most comprehensive [laws] in the country,” she said. “I was nervous while it was happening because [President Donald] Trump was talking about journalists and fake news. I was nervous he would hear about this bill and make it a big campaign issue.”
The bill directed school districts across the state to start conversations about media literacy and to begin identifying those already teaching or incorporating elements of it in the classroom. The following year, the state Senate passed a supplementary bill providing funds to create a survey asking teachers how they are incorporating media literacy and digital citizenship into their classrooms. It also created a website of media literacy resources for educators. “
Most teachers do not know where to begin,” Beach said. “What if we were able to get teaching programs to agree to create media literacy units that would teach teachers? They would then have the skills to teach this once they graduate and go into classrooms. That is the future.”
Programs like that are popping up across the country. The University of Rhode Island’s Summer Institute in Digital Literacy has trained more than 700 educators and librarians, while its Media Smart Libraries effort received federal funding in 2014 to “create a cadre of digital and media literacy experts,” among other goals.
Jeff Share, an adviser in the teacher education program at the University of California, Los Angeles, works with new teachers to incorporate media literacy into K-12 classrooms. The program expands the understanding of media literacy to include media beyond just print. It also emphasizes an “understanding that information and power are always connected,” he said.
Rhys Daunic, director of The Media Spot, a media literacy consulting company, has been working with K-12 schools in New York City since 2001, helping administrators incorporate media literacy into social studies and other subjects.
“In New York, the state and city have mandated digital citizenship training,” Daunic said. “How that is being done is still being worked out school by school. There is not enough room for people to take on a new discipline, and there is not a clear program that works for each school.”
Most schools don’t create a media literacy-specific class, he said. Instead, Daunic creates tools anyone can use to add media literacy components to existing curricula.
For example, in a fifth-grade technology class focused on journalism and non-fiction writing, students previously wrote a news article and then an opinion essay as part of their assignments. Now with media literacy infused into the curriculum, the students publish websites with the news articles. Those articles are then fact-checked by their peers, who also look for statements or information that may have been left out that could cause the article to be misleading or biased.
“Core concepts of media literacy are hard to push in explicitly,” Daunic said, “but now with the emergence of ‘fake news’ and the attention it is receiving, there is an opening for media literacy to become part of the standard curriculum.”
Working with students in the classroom is just one avenue advocates and researchers are using to teach media literacy.
“If we could fund large media campaigns, we could scale more quickly to reach more people,” Tessa Jolls, president of the Center for Media Literacy, said. “Especially adults who didn’t grow up learning media literacy.”
The California-based center’s approach to media literacy is to help people learn to interrogate the media and make their own choices based on their own lifestyles, values and points of view. The organization provides a variety of training materials for educators, including sample curricula and a reading room with the latest news and research related to media literacy.
“Regarding news, media literacy is foundational,” Jolls said. “It provides the springboard through which to acquire, contextualize and apply content knowledge — a filter through which to ‘see’ the world.”
According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in February and March 2018, adults 49 and younger were more likely to decipher news from opinion compared to adults 50 and older. Jolls said this data offers hope but also highlights how much work still must be done.
“There is a shortage of human capital in our field,” she said. “Not many teachers or professionals are trained to deliver media literacy education.”
“Our idea is to at least start with the concept that media literacy is a crucial part of education,” she said. “If we can get policymakers to agree with that, that is a huge step. The advocates and experts can then work to get the rest done.”
Lynn Walsh is an Emmy award-winning freelance journalist who has worked in investigative, data and TV journalism at the national level as well as locally in California, Ohio, Texas and Florida. A former national president for the Society of Professional Journalists, Walsh currently serves as the organization’s Ethics Chair. She’s also helping to rebuild trust between newsrooms and the public through the Trusting News project.