As the internet continues to pioneer new and improved ways of learning, media literacy will play a pivotal role in educating the next-generation.

While fake news and misinformation have become the two most detrimental issues with social media, despite its faults, social media has transformed the way the world communicates and consumes information. As the amount of time we spend on social media continues to increase, so does the importance of media literacy education. Moving forward, schools need to incorporate media literacy programs into their curriculums to prepare students for responsible media consumption and sharing.

What is Media Literacy?

Media Literacy is a 21st century approach to education. It provides a framework to access, analyze, evaluate, create and participate with messages in a variety of forms—from print to video to the Internet. Media literacy builds an understanding of the role of media in society as well as essential skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy.

Media literacy involves understanding what media played content means, how to identify sources, and why a particular message is being conveyed.

Whether someone is fact-checking their favorite influencer or building a list of verified news sources, preparing individuals to effectively consume information has never been more important.

The Importance of Media Literacy

There is an overwhelming amount of media information available online. This wealth of information can either encourage creativity, multicultural tolerance, and exposure to political and societal issues.  At the same time, it can dull emotions, cause the development of indifference towards suffering and encourage destructive behavior.

How do we avoid the latter? By emphasizing the ability to question what’s posited as truth. Only then will we open up the opportunity for the next-generation to think critically about what they’re seeing online and why. When individuals begin to develop their own political and societal beliefs, they will have the tools to recognize fake news and take measures to quell the spread of misinformation.

How can we Implement Media Literacy? 

Methods of implementing media literacy into coursework will vary. Self-development journalist Med Lundstrom explores how teachers can take on this initiative. Lundstrom found that many teachers feel they don’t have the time to incorporate media literacy into their curriculums due to the pressures of standardized testing. An alternative approach includes addressing media literacy as a practice rather than a subject.

Teachers can do this by using real media as raw materials for critical thinking activities. The Young African Leaders Initiative recommends that teachers encourage their students to ask themselves these five media literacy questions:

  • Who created this message?
  • What techniques are used to attract my attention?
  • How might people understand this message differently?
  • What lifestyles, values, and points of view are represented in or omitted from this message?
  • Why was this message sent?

This isn’t to say that media literacy ends when the school bell rings. Parents also have a role to play. Parents can encourage their families to ask themselves these same five questions when watching TV commercials, reading newspaper articles and books, or even playing games. These are fundamental questions to be asked when scrolling through all types of media, especially social media.

Lorenza Yarnes, a third-grade teacher at Leo Politi Elementary School in Los Angeles, found an effective technique to develop media literacy skills. Yarnes, whose classes largely consist of immigrants from Mexico and Central America, instructed her students to cut out photographs and headlines from the Los Angeles Times. She then asked her students to sort through each and form piles based on topic, gender, race, and age.

Upon doing so, her students started asking questions such as: Why did most photos show young people? Why were Latinos only in the sports section? Why were no women pictured in the business section? Yarnes’ students were able to separate fact from fiction through observations based questioning and discernment. They simply needed guidance to deconstruct what they were seeing and critically think through the potential motives driving particular messages. This media literacy skill, once practiced and understood, will enable each student to apply messages they consume in the media to further develop their own personal beliefs and values.

Another technique Yarnes uses to help her students become media literate is to uncover angles through photography. She instructed her students to jump headfirst into the field by giving them a digital camera. She asked them to photograph school workers, framing them either positively or negatively. She encouraged students to use lighting, props, facial expression and more to portray their narrative.

Yarnes says, “It was very powerful to see how much photos can make the same person look different.” Educators like Yarnes are setting the groundwork for making media literacy fun and enhancing the next generation’s willingness to become media literate.

“Project Look Sharp” and Media Literacy

 Teachers across the country can implement media literacy programs just as Lorenza Yarnes has thanks to Project Look Sharp, a media literacy initiative of the Division of Interdisciplinary & International Studies at Ithaca College. Project Look Sharp works in collaboration with local school districts, New York State BOCES, The National Association for Media Literacy Education, and other national media literacy organizations to provide initiative resources to teachers to help them incorporate media literacy into their coursework.

One of those resources is “12 Basic Ways to Integrate Media Literacy and Critical Thinking into Any Curriculum.” This booklet outlines essential aspects of media literacy such as bias, erroneous beliefs, credibility, perspective, presentation of information, persuasive language, and more.

Project Look Sharp and other similar programs are creating a more media savvy generation in this increasingly connected and complex world. Those who take the time to understand media literacy will be better equipped to judge the credibility of information, and avoid furthering fake news and misinformation.

Digital media has arrived, and is here to stay whether we like it or not. Like anything, there are drawbacks and dangers if not countered. By taking the necessary steps to incorporate media literacy into our schools, we’ll give the next generation an advantage over media manipulation. They will not be fooled by embellished headlines or false information. They will separate fact from fiction and have the opportunity to form their own opinions.