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Megan Makin, a 5th grade teacher at Oglethorpe Avenue Elementary, views the individual screens of all of her students on Sept. 24, 2020 in Athens, Georgia. (Kathryn Skeean, kskeean@randb.com

Micah Shannon enjoyed his Advanced Placement English class at Clarke Central High School. It made him think critically. His teacher would present two perspectives on a topic and have students analyze the flow of logic the authors used to develop their points.

“At least for me, it was a big part of my education, but that … is a pretty high-up course,” Shannon said. “I wish it was a required course.”

Shannon is a senior and the webmaster of Clarke Central’s ODYSSEY Media Group, which produces a news magazine, a digital news website and iliad, a literary-art magazine. He also takes a journalism class that exposes him to the verification process at the core of creating and editing news stories.

His education has set him up to be a critical news consumer. Shannon knows how arguments are created. He knows how facts can be arranged to push a certain perspective. He knows a headline can be misleading. But how prepared is the average student to effectively consume media?

“The techniques that are being used [in media] are so much more persuasive 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 Department of Education has created a digital and media literacy webinar to train teachers on using digital technologies, evaluating online sources and protecting data. But despite students’ constant media exposure in and out of the classroom, Georgia has no statewide legislation requiring these lessons appear in the classroom.

A growing collection of education researchers, teachers, nonprofits and news agencies agree: Media literacy education can fill those gaps.

“I do think [schools] need to be having these critical conversations,” said William Wright, a third-year doctoral student in the University of Georgia’s language and literacy education department. “And tying what they do more specifically to the literate lives that students are engaging with outside of school.”

What is media literacy?

The National Association for Media Literacy Education defines media literacy as the skills needed to “access, analyze, evaluate, create and act using all forms of communication.”

The field isn’t new, and neither are its advocates. Organizations such as 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 it’s being discussed more.

“We’ve seen clearly misinformation going around, and it’s resulting in real-life, very serious consequences, like the attack on the Capitol,” McNeill said. “A lot of people are starting to pay attention and understanding that media literacy is more than decoding an advertisement. … There’s a media system that’s affecting what we’re seeing and when and why.”

The National Council of Teachers of English created a task force on critical media literacy in June 2020. It focuses on making students aware of the choices they make in accessing information, the media institutions around them and how to create their own media to develop understanding.

In Georgia, it’s still up to school districts and teachers to make media literacy a priority.

“[It’s] more about how to consume all of the information that’s out there … and whether or not you’re finding information that’s reliable and accurate,” said Alison Eber, a UGA doctoral student and a fourth-grade teacher within City Schools of Decatur.

In her classroom, Eber asks her students to dig into sources to identify biases and misleading information. Another activity is like two truths and a lie, Eber said. She’ll give articles to her students — some with false information — and have them figure out which is which.

She said it’s a strategy to deepen the critical thinking already in her fourth-grade curriculum and introduce how easily people can manipulate information. By incorporating these activities throughout the school year, Eber wants media literacy education to match her students’ constant media exposure.

“It is a big responsibility, and it can be hard to manage,” Eber said. “And if teachers aren’t comfortable with it themselves, then it can be overwhelming. 

Educating educators

Eber engaged with media literacy education on her own accord. Her teacher training in the early 2000s didn’t touch on it, she said, so she had to figure it out herself.

However, even younger teachers who’ve grown up with new forms of media can struggle with media literacy education, Wright said. He said that’s particularly true with media issues related to power, access and representation.

“A lot of times they might know how to get into a new tool and maneuver around OK,” Wright said. “But they themselves haven’t thought critically about the larger sort of social, economic and political underpinnings of a lot of this stuff.”

As broad as the media literacy field is, the News Literacy Project seeks to help teachers understand the news media aspect of it.

The nonpartisan nonprofit hosts teacher training workshops, which allow teachers to engage with journalists from partnered news organizations to discuss misinformation and verification techniques. The NLP also offers a free learning platform with news literacy units for teachers to use in class and an online forum for educators to connect.

“We believe education is the most effective approach because it empowers people to think for themselves,” said Hannah Covington, part of the education team at the NLP.

More than 2,700 students in Georgia engaged with the NLP’s learning platform this school year, Covington said in an email.

Barriers

Bringing up a polarizing topic such as misinformation can be tricky for public educators.

“I think there’s this sort of pressure among a lot of teachers I work with … to be neutral politically, religiously,” Wright said. “I think neutrality slips into indifference when it comes to critical media literacy sometimes.”

Another obstacle to emphasizing media literacy education, Wright said, is standardized testing. He said the “high-stakes test” system in schools and their focus on education benchmarks can take away from less-testable critical skills, which is a concern for education scholars.

Eber agreed, adding that resource constraints in schools and the level of support from administrators affect media literacy integration as well.

“I think having [school] districts invest in this as a priority is something that needs to happen in more places,” Eber said. “And it’s tough because there are so many competing priorities right now.”

In the meantime, students can apply their critical thinking skills to the media. Shannon thinks his fellow students have a grasp of the personal and institutional biases and blindspots that make their way into news content.

He said they have “a little bit of skepticism” about the information they consume. But he still would like to see media education become standard in high school classes.

“Maybe just a unit on like, ‘Here’s what modern journalism is like,’” Shannon said. “I think that’d be a pretty good thing to teach students growing up in this world.”