Happy News Literacy Week! Originated four years ago by the News Literacy Project, this annual observation “underscores the vital role of news literacy in a democracy and provides audiences with the knowledge, tools, and abilities to become more news-literate.”
It couldn’t come at a better time. Well, to be honest, we could have benefited from such a focus when the first iPhones hit the market in 2007. Or when Facebook first emerged in 2004. Or when the internet was first accessible to the public in 1993. Or when CBS News aired the first live, nightly newscast in 1948. Or when Gutenberg…you get the idea.
Put simply, we are well past the time when America would be better off if its citizens were news-literate, digitally-literate – in short, media-literate.
The state of New Jersey has recognized this fact in a major way, enacting first-ever legislation requiring K-12 media-literacy education in public schools. Illinois adopted similar legislation last year for all high school students.
For its part, Connecticut created the “Digital Citizenship, Internet Safety, and Media Literacy Advisory Council” in 2017 to study the issue. In January of 2020, the Council submitted an 18-page document of guidelines that recommended individual school districts “consider creating curricula that identify the essential skills and knowledge students must acquire and demonstrate regarding digital citizenship, Internet safety, and media literacy.”
Specifically, the council suggested “the establishment of collaboration among the state’s various stakeholders to build a comprehensive learning system that explicitly supports the safe, ethical, responsible, and effective use of media and technology resources.” Among the stakeholders singled out to take leading roles: the State Department of Education, local school boards, institutions of higher education, parents and families, and community businesses.
Curiously missing from that list of leaders were teachers and library-media specialists. I took that omission somewhat personally because I’m an English teacher who has offered “Media Literacy” as an elective for more than 25 years. If we are to develop effective media-literacy education, might we include the frontline instructors among the leaders of the initiative?
So, where does media-literacy education currently stand in Connecticut? Apparently, where it did three years ago when the report was released. To be fair, the timing of the report did not help it gain much traction; COVID-19 closed schools a mere two months later and the following school year was dominated by pandemic mitigation. Suffice to say, media literacy was not foremost on the minds of education leaders at the time.
But another epidemic has since caused serious unease in America: the “infodemic” that ignited the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. Suddenly, media literacy moved front-and-center among the country’s education priorities. Thus, Connecticut – and other states not named New Jersey or Illinois – must take more decisive action.
The first step should be to explain to all stakeholders what media literacy is and what it is not. That lesson might include an analysis of a recent Fox News report in which news contributor Joe Concha explained his objection to New Jersey’s bipartisan media-literacy requirement:
“A majority of teachers are liberal. And teachers’ unions…what do you think they read and what do you think they watch? So yeah, you’ll be watching CNN and saying, ‘All right, Don Lemon, he’s credible, but Brett Baier [of Fox News], he’s not.’ C’mon – it’s so subjective.”
Sorry, Joe, but what’s subjective is your definition of media literacy. As New Jersey’s Republican Senator Mike Testa explained, “This law isn’t about teaching kids that any specific idea is true or false. Rather, it’s about helping them learn how to research, evaluate, and understand the information they are presented for themselves.”
In other words, media literacy is all about critical thinking, a methodical process that includes asking questions, researching topics, analyzing information objectively, and drawing logical conclusions. A properly trained teacher of media literacy understands this process and leaves personal politics at home. As I have written previously, “I take pride in ensuring that my approach is nothing but ‘educational.’ If I indoctrinate my students at all, it is in the ideology of critical thinking.”
Media literacy is the one truly nonpartisan solution to these highly partisan times. America needs media-literacy education now more than ever. This is not the first time I’ve made this point, and it won’t be the last. We must make media literacy a critical component throughout our children’s entire schooling. To do anything less at this point is educational malpractice.
It’s long overdue.