Media literacy

More states say they teach media literacy, but what that means varies

A growing number of states are requiring their students to learn media literacy, the skills to critically analyze and interpret media messages, according to a new report from advocacy organization Media Literacy Now.

In a review of state policies, the group found that 14 states addressed media education in law, either by requiring instruction in the subject, by making resources available to teachers, by creating a media education committee or by allowing media education courses to count towards certain requirements. Of these states, six have adopted this legislation in the past three years.

Erin McNeill, president of Media Literacy Now, said recent high-profile national news events, such as revelations about how Facebook targets political advertising– created a new sense of urgency around the subject.

The public also understands better that “intentional disinformation” online shapes political and civic discourse, McNeill said. “People are more and more aware of what is at stake,” she said.

Still, said McNeill, it’s hard to know exactly where the field is. “What I hear anecdotally is that we still don’t see comprehensive media education in these states and others.”

Research shows that students do not do very well when asked to determine whether online sources are reliable and accurate. In a study last year from Stanford University, high school students completed six media literacy exercises, including distinguishing between news and advertisements, analyzing a tweet from an advocacy group, and evaluating political messages. Overall, the students performed poorly: in each task, at least two-thirds of the students were ranked as the lowest proficiency level.

In the Media Literacy Now report, the organization identifies two states, Florida and Ohio, as “advanced leaders” in the field. Both require media literacy to be taught across the curriculum and at all grade levels, and those requirements have been in place for over a decade.

But even in those two states, McNeill said he heard students and teachers say it wasn’t covered in class. And even when media literacy is a priority in the classroom, it’s hard to know exactly what students are learning. Most state laws don’t go into great detail, and media literacy is a big topic.

In a study last year, the RAND Corporation found that the goals of existing media literacy resources vary.—Some ask students to check the quality of the news, for example, while others teach them to investigate the financial motivations of certain messages or to understand how the media shapes civic life.

Going forward, McNeill said, Media Literacy Now hopes to do follow-up research on the implementation and what the standards look like across the country.

Teacher training and survey instruction are complicated in part because the media landscape itself is changing so rapidly, McNeill said. “That’s why it’s so difficult,” she said. “The program would have to constantly change to keep pace. “

Image: Getty


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