More States Say They're Teaching Media Literacy, But What That Means Varies
A growing number of states are requiring that their students learn media literacy—the skills needed to critically analyze and interpret media messages, according to a new report from the advocacy organization Media Literacy Now.
In a review of state policies, the group found that 14 states have addressed media literacy education in law, either by requiring instruction in the subject, making resources available to teachers, developing a media literacy committee, or allowing media literacy courses to count toward certain requirements. Of these states, six passed this legislation within the past three years.
Erin McNeill, the president of Media Literacy Now, said that recent high-profile national news events—for example, revelations about how Facebook targets political advertising—have created a new sense of urgency around the subject.
There's also a greater public understanding that "intentional disinformation" online is shaping political and civic discourse, said McNeill. "People are becoming more aware of what's at stake," she said.
Still, McNeill said, it's hard to know exactly where the field stands. "What I hear anecdotally is that we're still not seeing comprehensive media literacy education in those states and others."
Research shows that students don't do very well when they're asked to determine whether online sources are trustworthy and accurate. In a study last year from Stanford University, high school students completed six media literacy exercises, including distinguishing between news and ads, analyzing a tweet from an advocacy group, and evaluating political messages. Across the board, students performed poorly—in each task, at least two-thirds of students were rated as the lowest skill level.
In Media Literacy Now's report, the organization highlights two states—Florida and Ohio—as "advanced leaders" in the field. Both mandate media literacy education be taught across the curriculum and in all grade levels, and have had these requirements in place for over a decade.
But even in these two states, McNeill said she's heard from students and teachers who said it wasn't covered in classes. And even when media literacy instruction is a priority in the classroom, it's hard to know exactly what students are learning. Most of the state laws don't get into specifics, and media literacy is a broad topic.
In a study last year, the RAND Corporation found that the goals of existing media literacy education resources vary—some ask students to vet the quality of information, for example, while others teach them to investigate the financial motivations of certain messages or understand how media shapes civic life.
In the future, McNeill said, Media Literacy Now hopes to do follow-up research on implementation, and what standards look like across the country.
Training teachers and surveying instruction is complicated in part because the media landscape itself is shifting so quickly, said McNeill. "That's why it's so hard," she said. "The curriculum would have to constantly change to keep up."