In Tom Reid’s standalone media literacy class at Swampscott High School, teenagers sat in a semi-circle on couches, dissecting an episode of Black Mirror called “Nosedive.”
In that episode of the Netflix science fiction thriller, students examined the pros and cons of social media sites and apps that allow people to digitally rate one another on a 5-star scale. On other days in this Boston suburb, Reid’s students pick apart films including Network, Get Out and The Shawshank Redemption.
“Students need more than just the data-driven standard curriculum — they need the arts, they need music,” said Reid, who has been teaching for 30 years. “I’m tempted to say they need media literacy even more than most courses because they’re all so affected by the media.”
Across the country, more and more educators and legislators are recognizing the need for media literacy coursework such as Reid’s in light of the misinformation spread on social media that many consider a threat to democracy. Media literacy initiatives began appearing in legislatures on a grander scale after the 2016 elections — mostly introduced by Democratic lawmakers in blue states.
“News literacy is what’s getting the attention of the news,” and therefore of many legislators as well, said Marilyn Cohen, director of the NW Center for Excellence in Media Literacy at the University of Washington, who helped develop Washington’s media literacy bills.
Quality media literacy education, advocates like Cohen say, is designed to help students tackle the challenging media landscape that has arisen in the internet age.
Media Literacy Now is working with legislators and tracking bills in 12 states from Massachusetts to Hawaii. Though the organization introduced its first bill in 2011, its success with legislation took off after the 2016 elections.
A 2016 study from the Stanford History Education Group showed that the vast majority of middle schoolers could not distinguish real from fabricated information online. The study inspired legislators to write laws in the hopes of creating more informed citizens as teenagers spend more and more time online, but it also could help them cope with a variety of public health problems — including vaping, drinking sugary soft drinks and anxiety and depression — problems that may be exacerbated by social media usage.
“It’s hard to think of an issue that it doesn’t help address,” said Erin McNeill, president of Media Literacy Now, an advocacy organization.
Understanding the way algorithms guide what users see and do online, and the psychological tactics advertisers use trying to sell products are other major issues that media literacy advocates want state legislatures to address.
McNeill points to Washington’s SB 6273, which passed in 2016 and empowered the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to create an advisory council to determine best practices in media literacy education as a model for other bills being introduced around the country.
The Washington Model
Washington signed into law bills that define educational buzzwords such as “media literacy” and “digital citizenship” in statute, established a committee of experts and stakeholders to provide recommendations for media literacy education and budgeted for micro-grants of $10,000 to $15,000 to be dispersed to health, social studies and English teachers to develop their own media literacy curriculum.
There is no statewide mandate or even strict standard for media literacy education, said Dennis Small, director of educational technology for the Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and a committee member of the state’s media literacy advisory board. However, a strong majority of districts are following his office’s recommendations and teaching digital citizenship and media literacy in a “locally determined way and varying dramatically from district to district,” Small said.
Sen. Marko Liias, the Washington Democrat who introduced the state bill, wants to help teachers build an online open library of media literacy curriculum to be adopted and evolved by other educators as needed.
“The real vision is to prepare our students to be effectively using online tools for a variety of purposes — both to be active, engaged citizens in our democracy and to be able to understand and critically consume news and media information as they’re making decisions in our democracy,” Liias said.
Media literacy captures nationwide attention
Legislators in Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, New Mexico, New York, Texas and Virginia have introduced legislation based on the Washington advisory council model to varying degrees of success. In Virginia, the bill failed in committee and was vetoed in New Mexico.
California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico and Utah have passed laws regarding different aspects of media literacy education, according to Media Literacy Now.
Under the Trump administration, the fake news problem has been amplified, New York Assemblywoman Linda B. Rosenthal said.
“It presents a very confusing narrative,” Rosenthal said in a recent interview. “What is real? What can you trust? What should you believe?”
State legislatures are catching up to an issue that has been on teachers’ radar for years but may have been sidetracked, some said, by standardized testing’s overemphasis on reading and math over social studies and civics.
Judith Fleming, a former reading teacher and state testing coordinator at Port St. Lucie High School in Florida, described the standardized tests as “atrocious.”
“So many of these standards are made up by legislators, none of whom have ever been in a classroom,” said Fleming, who is retired. “None of them have a clue as to what makes for a good teacher. To me, these tests have completely undermined education.”
Mary Robb, a civics teacher at Andover High School in Andover, Massachusetts, saw the need developing nearly 20 years ago and created a class called Democracy and Media Literacy, which she piloted in September 2001.
“We have to be a lot more vigilant about our sourcing and a lot more honest about when we do make a mistake and when we get caught in something, because it happens to all of us,” Robb said.
Robb teaches her students to look for ‘WAIL’-ing in the press — an acronym that stands for word choice, adjectives and adverbs, what’s included and what’s left out.
Even without media literacy education, many students understand how susceptible they are to being tricked on social media, Robb said. This leads to students becoming apathetic about politics because they don’t know who’s right or wrong or even who has real evidence to support their positions.
Teaching students how to support their own perspective with reliable sources has long been the role of English and social studies teachers. School librarians also have been a major, but often overlooked, part of that instruction.
Library Media Specialists and the Minnesota approach
Library media specialists often teach classes in addition to their librarian responsibilities.
“Library media teachers are really carrying the torch with media literacy right now nation- and worldwide,” said Karen Duff, a teacher-librarian at W. L. Chenery Middle School in Belmont, Massachusetts. After creating her own media literacy curriculum, Duff has become the go-to person in her district for media literacy.
In her middle school, Duff piloted an elective class called “Newshour” in which students research, write, produce and present their own broadcast news segments. Students also learn to analyze news websites for trustworthiness.
Duff even converted a spare supply closet into a state-of-the-art green room and broadcast studio for her students.
“A lot of the kids that I teach have a lot of different kinds of learning abilities,” Duff said. “And when I do the project-based stuff, particularly the media stuff, those are the kids that shine bright.”
However, in many school districts, library media specialist positions are being cut as funding drops, according to Minnesota Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, a licensed library media specialist.
Many of the positions were eliminated from rural schools, which inspired Kunesh-Podein to introduce a bill that seeks to “encourage and support those rural schools to re-implement a robust team of library media specialists.”
As information specialists, teacher-librarians are “uniquely fitted” to teach about online media, Duff and Kunesh-Podein agreed. Minnesota is one of the few states where a law has been introduced that supports library media specialists directly.
Duff believes that media literacy education is vital “not only because it’s an important set of critical thinking skills and civic engagement, but because it’s what kids want to be doing. It’s what they want to be talking about. We need to trust that there’s a lot of deep learning that goes on when you’re letting the kids have a little more agency in what and how we’re teaching them.”
Sharing curriculum is key to improving media literacy on a greater scale. However, doing so is expensive.
The Washington bill originally included an appropriation for two conferences to allow teachers to share their state grant-enabled curriculum and explain their findings, but this part of the bill failed to get traction due, in part, to funding concerns.
As a relatively new part of most schools’ curriculum, many teachers are untrained in media literacy themselves.
And while there are many educator resources available, Common Sense Media being the most frequently cited in interviews, there remains a lack of knowledge about these resources and issues among many teachers — particularly among those who don’t work in the traditional subject areas where media literacy is integrated, including health, social studies and language arts.
Reid has spoken at a few conferences and even hosted a delegation of Armenian media literacy educators, but believes that the best way for those interested in understanding his curriculum is to sit in on his classes. Unfortunately, the vast majority of school districts don’t have the resources to allow their teachers to do this.
“I’ve been asked to present the curriculum in a variety of different places and every time I do, I tell my colleagues, ‘you can use any part of this you want, we just have one request: that when you use it and you twist it and tweak it to fit your needs and you make it better, you send it back to us,’” Robb said, adding that it has helped her improve her own classes. “It’s like crowdsourcing curriculum.”
Conferences are great ways for teachers to share curriculum, but are expensive. They require already cash-strapped school districts to pay for travel, lodging, conference fees and substitutes while classroom teachers are away at the conference.
Luckily, the media they are teaching about provides opportunities to share curriculum and advice online.
“Media literacy educators need to continue to share what they’re doing. There’s no greater resource for training teachers than other teachers. And it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in your career. If you’re brand new, you’ve got fresh eyes. If you’ve been doing it for a long time, you’ve got experience and everybody in between has something valuable to contribute,” Robb said.
What media literacy cannot solve
While some view media literacy as the key to unlocking a new level in American democracy, others are more skeptical.
James Potter, a professor of media effects and literacy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, agrees that media literacy should be taught at a much greater level in K-12 education.
But Potter notes that this still leaves a huge portion of Americans media illiterate.
“It’s got to be a partnership with the media themselves because they’ve developed practices over the years that have really satisfied their business goals a lot more than the goals of society,” Potter, who has written several books on media literacy and media effects, said in a recent interview. “There comes a time when if the goals are the same, great. But if the goals are different, you need to make some trade offs.”
While social media companies profit from using algorithms to track and predict user desires and behavior, and users may experience some superficial benefits as well, the algorithms are exacerbating the “fragmented culture” we are living in today, according to Potter.
When everyone watched the same nightly news programs and read traditional print newspapers, people were exposed to mostly the same news frames and conclusions.
Online media has created far more variety.
“The irony is that while the amount of information grows like a mushroom cloud, the amount of information that we’re exposed to on a daily basis is much more narrow than it’s ever been,” Potter said.
While public school teachers interviewed supported legislation to promote media literacy, all urged caution about over-legislating the classroom.
Subjects like media literacy must be allowed to take on the curriculum as the teacher decides is appropriate, and should be evaluated by talking to teachers and students, sitting in on classes, and viewing student work, said both Small and Reid.
Reid’s students say the class honed their communication skills and opened them to new ideas and ways of thinking.
“I think it has allowed me to think more critically,“ said Joseph Harling, 19, a former student of Reid’s who attends the Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston. “He always put our discussion first. He would go back and forth with us individually but, mostly, it was just us students talking among ourselves.”
Reid, a former television producer and director of educational television programming in Boston, sees a place for data and testing in the curriculum, but believes it must shift to a more holistic approach that students like Harling responded to.
“I think individual teachers should be empowered to turn around and empower their own students to study and talk about the media they find relevant to them,” Reid said. “As a veteran teacher, I’d like the laws to be written so that teachers and students have some freedom to study what comes up.”