My current students were all born after 2005, into a world consumed by technology. Many are among the generation of scholars whose learning has been enhanced through the use of technology and the media. They have listened to it, interacted with it, and learned from it since early childhood. Yet, when it comes to evaluating its effectiveness, some are still in need of guidance.
When educators teach media literacy, they provide students with crucial skills to become knowledgeable and active participants in the media surrounding them. After I began teaching it in my own classroom, I saw students make connections between the class materials and media they consumed at home, use their new skills to better understand historical events, and produce media in inventive formats. Additionally, when given the skills to understand the media surrounding them, students become more aware of their consumption of it and can critically evaluate content they usually only consume in passing on their phones, in print, or on television.
4 Approaches to Teaching Media Literacy
1. Ethics: I introduce the term ethics and discuss the importance of media ethics in journalism. I explain that the public expects journalists to tell the truth. For example, the Society of Professional Journalists publishes a set of ethical codes to assist in this endeavor. This one-page document is a great jumping-off point for high school students to understand the expectations of journalism in society today.
Teachers can encourage students to examine the codes and ask if anything should be added or changed. I’m continually impressed by the variety of opinions that students have when it comes to things such as journalists denying special treatment to advertisers or avoiding conflicts of interest during their coverage of events. They evaluate each piece of news coverage and assess whether or not journalists have followed, or need to follow, certain codes.
This exercise teaches them to balance their subjective opinions with the objective ethics of the profession. Although many haven’t seen the list of ethical codes, their background understanding of advertisements, news coverage, and social media influences allows them to form strong opinions. Access to the ethical codes equips students with a new evaluation system of understanding the content they see. Instead of simply taking a news story, social media endorsement, or talk show as fact, they can evaluate the potential ethical implications of media content.
2. Timeliness: Tying media literacy to a current event helps students understand how to decipher the news in a relatable context. For example, when teaching about bias in the news cycle, I presented my freshmen with a story about the midterm elections from three separate news sites. This activity can easily be coupled with other objectives such as highlighting, annotating, and classroom discussions to allow for a multi-learning lesson within one.
The timeliness of the story allowed students to see the real-world implications of biased coverage during a time when the public relies on accurate information. Students observed that the same story was different at each outlet and discussed what would happen if a viewer interacted with only one source. We discussed the importance of fair and accurate coverage when the public is faced with making a decision and evaluated the usefulness of media as a means for learning new information.
3. Guest speakers: During our research and discovery period of exploring media sources, I reached out to my journalist friends to see if they would provide their first-person perspective on media today. I connected my class with a guest speaker from The Wall Street Journal via Skype. She provided a firsthand account of what it means to be a journalist in a rapidly changing world.
Since the focus of one of our sections was how the media covers tragic events, she was able to discuss a journalist’s role in times of tragedy and the responsibility to remain cognizant of the trauma that subjects might have experienced. This discussion helped students realize that the media, and the journalists working in it, have a responsibility to both their subjects and their consumers.
In addition to the national level, there are numerous local reporters, producers, and experts who can provide a firsthand account of media literacy to students. LinkedIn is a great resource for teachers searching for a way to connect with guest speakers. Additionally, the website Nepris allows teachers to connect with industry professionals, sign up for virtual classes, and attend global webinars to enhance classroom learning.
4. Application: At the conclusion of the unit, students can illustrate their new knowledge by applying their learning in an end-of-unit project. In my classroom, students applied their knowledge to a project-based learning unit focused on Romeo and Juliet.
They were tasked with telling the story through the lens of one of the news outlets they studied. Students demonstrated their mastery of the unit by incorporating the style of the news organization they selected into their telling of the plot. They chose the format—print, digital, or video—but had to incorporate elements that reflected the news outlet. This learner-led project both inspired and frustrated students when they realized they couldn’t insert their own opinions into the coverage and still remain unbiased.
Giving students the power to influence the media they produced allowed them to illustrate their understanding of the concepts from the unit while being fair, accurate, and thorough. Not only did this project allow students to demonstrate their knowledge, but also it made them producers instead of media consumers.
Although media literacy is a constantly evolving area, it’s important to provide students with the basic skills to help them understand its implications in their daily lives. Many high school students are only a few years away from adulthood and will likely turn to the media for information in the future. They can use the skills they learned as they consume the news for learning and understanding in the years to come. Teaching media literacy in the classroom sets students up for a future where they are empowered to utilize media to better understand the world around them.