More states say they teach media literacy, but what that means varies
A growing number of states are demanding media literacy from their students – the skills required to critically analyze and interpret media messages, according to a new report from the Media Literacy Now advocacy group.
Upon reviewing state policies, the group found that 14 states have regulated media literacy education by either mandating instruction in the subject, providing teachers with resources, establishing a media literacy committee, or allowing media literacy courses to count towards specific requirements. Of these states, six have passed this law within the last three years.
Erin McNeill, president of Media Literacy Now, said the recent high profile national news events – for example, revelations about how Facebook is targeting political advertising – created a new sense of urgency on the subject.
There is also a greater public understanding that “deliberate disinformation” shapes political and civic discourse on the Internet, McNeill said. “People are becoming more and more aware of what is at stake,” she said.
Still, said McNeill, it’s hard to know where the field is. “What I hear anecdotally is that we are still not seeing comprehensive media literacy education in these and other countries.”
Research shows that students don’t do very well when asked if online sources are trustworthy and accurate. In a Stanford University study last year, high school students completed six media literacy exercises, including distinguishing between news and ads, analyzing a advocacy tweet, and evaluating political messages. Overall, the students did poorly – at least two-thirds of the students were rated the lowest proficiency level for each task.
In the Media Literacy Now report, the organization cites two states – Florida and Ohio – as “advanced leaders” in these fields. Both mandate that media literacy education be taught throughout the curriculum and at all grade levels, and have had these requirements for over a decade.
But even in those two states, McNeill said she heard from students and teachers who said it wasn’t addressed in class. And even if teaching media literacy is a priority in the classroom, it’s hard to know what exactly students are learning. Most state laws don’t go into detail, and media literacy is a broad topic.
In a study last year, the RAND Corporation found that the goals of existing media literacy educational resources vary – for example, some asking students to review the quality of the information while others teach them to investigate, or to understand, the financial motivation of certain messages understand how media shapes civil life.
In the future, McNeill said, Media Literacy Now hopes to do some research on implementation and what the standards look like across the country.
One of the reasons why teacher training and surveying lessons are complicated is that the media landscape itself is changing so quickly, said McNeill. “That’s why it’s so difficult,” she said. “The curriculum would have to keep changing to keep up.”