Micah Shannon enjoyed her Advanced Placement English course at Clarke Central High School. It made him think critically. Its teacher would present two perspectives on a topic and ask students to analyze the logical flow used by authors to develop their points.
“At least for me, that was a big part of my education, but it’s… a pretty high course,” Shannon said. “I would like this to be a compulsory course.”
Shannon is a senior and webmaster of Clarke Central’s ODYSSEY Media Group, which produces a news magazine, a digital news website and iliad, a literary art magazine. He is also taking a journalism course which exposes him to the verification process at the heart of story creation and editing.
His upbringing has enabled him to be a critical news consumer. Shannon knows how arguments are created. He knows how the facts can be arranged to push a certain perspective. He knows that a title can be misleading. But how prepared is the average student to effectively consume media?
“The techniques used [in media] are so much more convincing and sophisticated that students don’t necessarily make that connection between the critical thinking skills they’ve learned, ”said Erin McNeill, founder and president of the nonprofit Media Literacy Now.
The Georgia Ministry of Education created a Digital and Media Education webinar to train teachers in the use of digital technologies, online source assessment and data protection. But despite constant media exposure of students in and out of the classroom, Georgia does not have statewide legislation requiring these lessons to appear in the classroom.
A growing number of education researchers, teachers, nonprofits and news agencies agree that media literacy can fill these gaps.
“I think [schools] need to have these critical conversations, ”said William Wright, a third-year doctoral student in the Department of Language and Literacy Education at the University of Georgia. “And tie what they do more specifically to the literate life that students engage in outside of school.”
What is media education?
The National Association for Media Education defines media education as the skills necessary to “access, analyze, evaluate, create and act using all forms of communication”.
The field is not new, and neither are its defenders. Organizations like Media Literacy Now and the News Literacy Project have been around for at least a decade. NAMLE, founded in 1997, has held an annual Media Literacy Week since 2015. And that is the subject of more discussion.
“We have clearly seen disinformation circulating, and it has very serious consequences in real life, like the attack on Capitol Hill,” McNeill said. “A lot of people are starting to pay attention and understand that media literacy is more than just decoding an advertisement. … There is a media system that affects what we see, when and why.
The National Council of English Teachers created a Task Force on Critical Media Education in June 2020. It aims to educate students about the choices they make to access information, the media institutions around them. and how to create their own media to develop their understanding.
In Georgia, it is still up to school districts and teachers to make media literacy a priority.
“[It’s] learn more about how to consume all the available information… and whether or not you find reliable and accurate information, ”said Alison Eber, UGA PhD student and fourth year teacher at Decatur City Schools .
In his class, Eber asks his students to tap into sources to identify bias and misleading information. Another activity is like two truths and one lie, Eber said. She will give her students articles – some containing false information – and ask them to determine which is which.
She said it was a strategy to deepen critical thinking already in her fourth year program and introduce the ease with which people can manipulate information. By incorporating these activities throughout the school year, Eber wants media education to match the constant media exposure of his students.
“It’s a big responsibility, and it can be difficult to manage,” Eber said. “And if the teachers themselves aren’t comfortable with it, it can be overwhelming.
Eber got involved in media education on her own. Her training as a teacher in the early 2000s didn’t touch it, she said, so she had to find out for herself.
However, even younger teachers who have grown up with new forms of media can struggle with media education, Wright said. He said this is especially true with media issues related to power, access and representation.
“A lot of times they can figure out how to get into a new tool and maneuver around OK,” Wright said. “But they themselves haven’t thought critically about the broader type of social, economic, and political underpinnings of many of these things.”
As vast as the field of media education is, the News Literacy Project seeks to help educators understand the media aspect of it.
The non-partisan nonprofit runs teacher training workshops, which allow teachers to engage with journalists from partner news organizations to discuss disinformation and verification techniques. NLP also offers a free learning platform with literacy units for teachers to use in the classroom and an online forum for educators to connect.
“We believe that education is the most effective approach because it allows people to think for themselves,” said Hannah Covington, member of the NLP education team.
More than 2,700 students in Georgia have engaged with the NLP learning platform this school year, Covington said in an email.
Bringing up a polarizing topic such as disinformation can be tricky for public educators.
“I think there’s that kind of pressure among a lot of the teachers I work with… to be politically neutral, religiously,” Wright said. “I think neutrality sometimes slides into indifference when it comes to critical media education. “
Another obstacle to the emphasis on media literacy, said Wright, is standardized testing. He said the system of “high-stakes testing” in schools and their focus on educational benchmarks may reduce less testable critical skills, which is a concern for education academics.
Eber agreed, adding that resource constraints in schools and the level of support from administrators also affect the integration of media education.
” I think I have [school] districts investing in this as a priority is something that needs to happen in more places, ”Eber said. “And it’s difficult because there are so many competing priorities right now.”
In the meantime, students can apply their critical thinking skills to media. Shannon believes her fellow students have an understanding of the personal and institutional biases and blind spots that weave their way into news content.
He said they have “a little skepticism” about the information they consume. But he still would like media literacy to become the norm in high school classes.
“Maybe just a unit on the genre ‘This is what modern journalism looks like’,” Shannon said. “I think it would be a very good thing to teach the students who are growing up in this world.”