Media literacy is foundational for a healthy democracy. As students are exposed to the internet and social media at younger and younger ages, they need to be taught media literacy skills. We can’t just assume they’ll “pick it up” as they get older.
Responsible, ethical consumers of media are grown intentionally.
Let’s start by taking a look at a media literacy definition commonly used in schools and possibilities for expanding it. Then, 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? Why did they create it?
- What sources does a journalist use? Are they credible?
- 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 and right here at home, 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
Students should be able to not only identify the sources and their qualifications, but the variety and diversity of sources used. Journalists shouldn’t be over-reliant on the police, for example. Multiple sources should tell the same story, which leads to…
2. 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, a journalist needs 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 and ask themselves if there other sources in the piece? Often both journalists and media consumers can be more discerning when it comes to anonymous sources.
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!