One thing has become clear in the last few election cycles: Technology and media have developed faster than many people’s ability to consume it with discernment. People need to be able to spot fake news. That starts with teaching media literacy in schools. Let’s take a look at a media literacy definition commonly used in schools and possibilities for expanding it. This is more than a semantics debate. The stakes for democracy are high.
Once we’re clear on what media literacy is, I’ll walk you through the five most important skills to teach students. It turns out that teaching kids to spot fake news isn’t enough. Creating more discerning media consumers starts with basic “how-to” journalism training. By showing students what goes into making news media, we can equip them with the skills they need to dissect any media they encounter.
A Media Literacy Definition
Traditionally, K12 schools use some version of this definition of media literacy: The ability to understand and analyze the content and credibility of a piece of media.
But now, the Center for Media Literacy has expanded its definition of media literacy to include the ability to create various forms of media. Foundational journalism skills are more important than ever.
Once students are competent in media literacy, here are some questions they might ask:
- Who created a piece of media?
- What sources does a journalist use?
- Is this journalist interpreting the information they’re reporting? If they are, is this the only way to interpret that information?
- What is the potential impact of the way the story is told on marginalized communities?
Establishing a strong media literacy definition is a good first step towards understanding the impact these skills have on individuals and society. This isn’t just about making students better readers. It’s about ensuring democracy survives an increasingly confusing media landscape. In an age where fake news has shifted the fates of elections across the globe, media literacy has become an essential skill set.
Top 5 Media Literacy Skills to Teach Students
In recent years, some states have started creating standards around their own media literacy definitions. Only a handful have implemented state standards, but many more are in the works. These standards can be a bit confusing for educators who haven’t taught journalism before. These five skills are foundational to journalism and a helpful way of organizing the requirements laid out by states.
1. Reliable and Varied Sources
Sources are the backbone of journalistic writing and reporting. Students should be able to identify the experts consulted as well as those people’s qualifications in the subject matter. In an article about climate change, it would make more sense to quote a climatologist than a geneticist.
The next step is to teach students to spot not only the sources but the variety of sources used. Journalists shouldn’t be over-reliant on the police, for example. Multiple sources should tell the same story.
2. Second Source Verification
This leads to the importance of second source verification. In moving beyond a media literacy definition to a meaningful skill set, second source verification is invaluable. In almost every case, in almost every newsroom, you need at least two sources to verify information. That could be one human and one document, such as a police report (though be cautious about assuming police reports are neutral sources) or city council document. Even a journal of an eyewitness could work. The point is that students should be able to find multiple sources for the same piece of information.
3. Anonymous Sources
Thanks to movies and fiction, students may perceive a level of intrigue around anonymous sources. That’s all the more reason to teach students that anonymous sources do exist, but journalists must be careful with them. There’s potentially a huge amount of power with anonymous sources. When I was a producer and journalist at CNN, I had to get special approval from fact checkers, legal staff, and standards and practices if I wanted to cite an anonymous source.
Sometimes people are genuinely scared to speak out for fear of repercussions. In those cases, it can be important to provide anonymity. For example, anonymity helps protect trans children and their families in a time when they are under threat from legislators and hate groups.
As a rule, though, it’s good for readers to give anonymous sources extra scrutiny. Teach students to ask whether an outlet is a reputable one, like CNN. Are there other sources in the piece? Often both journalists and media consumers can be more discerning.
4. The Most True Version
There’s a common journalism adage: Don’t cover the Montgomery Bus Boycott like a transportation story.
It would be accurate to say that the boycott affected public transit, but that wouldn’t be the most true version of the story. Instead journalists should use social and historical context to find the heart of a story. What about it is most impactful? In the case of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the most true version of the story was about Civil Rights activists working to end segregation.
5. Impact on Marginalized Communities
The Montgomery Bus Boycott example leads to the question of how media impacts marginalized communities. It’s important to teach students to think about media in this context. Is a journalist relying entirely on police or government sources? Are they including the voices of people most impacted by an issue or event?
Support for Your School
Now that you have a media literacy definition and set of skills in hand, are you looking for support to create engaging programming for your students? I’m a journalist who has covered contentious issues including LGBTQ+ rights and resistance, the January 6 attack on the Capitol, the Uvalde school shooting, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I’ve translated that experience into impactful programming for K12 schools. My offerings include Journey through Journalism, an introduction to journalism that can be adapted to focus on media literacy, including concepts like “fake news.” Learn more here!