We’ll prioritize media literacy for children » Nieman Journalism Lab
As I walked around the school library, I peered down at the sheets of paper students had scattered across the tables. Splashes of blacks, greens, pinks, yellows, and every color in between life brought to drawings of stick figures with ten fingers and ten toes. But one child struggled to fill the page with images of what they just learned.
“Do you need help figuring out what to draw?” I asked as I kneeled beside them.
“Yes” squeaked out.
“Well, what do you think the story was about? What do you love most about your family?”
Eventually, the student and I workshopped ideas: making tamales on the weekends, playing in the park, reading their favorite books. After picking the perfect topic, their classmates shared in their enthusiasm, and correctly recognized that a spider-shaped blob was a dog or a squiggly half moon was a bowl of pasta.
Soon, the hybrid class of kindergarteners and first graders began discussing the meaning behind the picture book we just read. They quickly shouted out themes of identity, kindness, and self-love when explaining why you might look different from your family. One child summed up the story with empathy and nuance that felt beyond their years. If only all adults were this reflective, I thought.
Our lesson rooted in media literacy, or how to critically read, evaluate, and discuss content, images, and stories, isn’t a new pedagogy. But it must be seen with renewed urgency. This education begins in the classroom with story time. But not every child benefits from it, due to poor education funding, a misunderstanding of what constitutes learning, or outright bans on diverse and inclusive literature. Without a strong foundation that allows kids to analyze and consider media messages, from books to newspapers to video games, those vital critical-thinking skills and deeper analysis of works won’t fully develop.
In fact, adults who learn media literacy and critical-thinking skills by their high school years are 26% less likely to believe in conspiracy theories. While those who rely on social media for their news are less engaged and the most likely to believe fake news. They are more vulnerable to “deliberate misinformation,” including the fallacies spread in the last two presidential races and the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s true that challenging the complex information landscape with insightful analysis doesn’t come effortlessly, even for us journalists. Sometimes, it’s simpler to accept the first bit of information we see. But as our collective society invests in strong media literacy programs, the easier it’ll be for news organizations to build trust within their communities. And, in turn, it will allow us breathing room to be more reflective in the news we’re producing rather than just reactionary with (often ill-informed) hot takes.
But we must start at the beginning. Without thoughtful reinvestment in the concepts we’re teaching in the classroom, we’ll continue fostering societies that allow disinformation and misinformation to run rampant during national elections, pandemics, and violent uprisings. Combating the half-truths and lies that spread across social networks at lighting speed takes teamwork. In the coming year, we’ll see more parents, educators, and lawmakers evaluate the types of literacy we’re sharing in schools with an aim to both inform and eradicate the vitriol spewed against inclusive literature. They’ll reexamine each lesson’s effectiveness in creating a society of mature, reflective, and empathic human beings.
Media literacy remains an essential life skill everyone deserves to wield. Literacy empowers future generations to pursue their dreams. It creates a better informed and more engaged society. And it leads to a stronger democracy. In 2023, we’ll work together to ensure more people have the opportunity to dissect and comprehend the news they’re consuming—both through better engagement with news audiences and the elevation of community-led initiatives.
Perhaps we’ll create a future with less shrugs for what’s comfortable, and more raised voices for what’s true. Perhaps we’ll usher in universal acceptance of legislation discouraging strong news literacy, rather than accepting the handful of piecemeal laws on the books as “good enough.” Perhaps it’s time we invest in that ability with fervor once and for all.
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