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Media Literacy Education in 2021: Holistic Curriculum or Fake News Spotting?

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Media Literacy Education in 2021: Holistic Curriculum or Fake News Spotting?
The term “fake news” has become part of the American lexicon and started a national conversation around media literacy, but has President Trump’s favorite catch-phrase helped or harmed the growth of media literacy initiatives? A group of media literacy educators discuss what “fake news” means for their work.

There has been a litany of press coverage around what has been dubbed “fake news” both before and after President Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the contentious 2016 US presidential election. Soon after the election it was revealed that state-backed actors inside the Russian Federation mounted a campaign across US social media networks designed to spread misinformation, false reports, and exaggerated claims about both major US political parties.

Much of the coverage surrounding fake news has questioned whether US voters can differentiate truthful or accurate information from false or deliberately misleading messages. A national conversation has developed regarding public media literacy. But does the specter of “fake news” end up narrowing what media literacy entails? Are educators only focusing on “fake news” or are they taking a more expansive, holistic approach when helping students better understand the media environment around them?

To explore these questions I communicated with a small group of media literacy experts to learn how “fake news” impacts their work with students. This group of educators and advocates come from a variety of backgrounds. Some champion media literacy as organization board members, others design media literacy curriculum at the primary, secondary and higher education levels — nearly all directly teach in one form or another.

Defining Media Literacy

Media literacy can mean different things to different people. For me being media literate means that a person has the ability to interpret and hopefully understand the complex media messages we see everyday, along with the systems (both technical and cultural) that produce those messages. Those media messages include news, advertising, movies, music, television, art, educational material and more. I feel that a person begins to understand the media around them when they know (or at least question) the motivations for that media’s creation. A savvy media consumer must ask themselves critical questions about the media they encounter. Why was this piece of information or media created and what are its authors trying to say?

The educators I communicated with have their own definitions for media literacy and why it’s so important in this moment in US history. I first asked them to define media literacy in regard to their work.

Katherine Fry is a professor and the department chair of Brooklyn College’s Department of Television and Radio and takes an expansive view of media literacy. “I approach media literacy as a very big umbrella […] which means understanding how messages are created, by whom, for what purpose,” said Fry. “It includes understanding how audiences [or] participants interpret and use media. It includes understanding the various controls on media messages and technologies. It also includes understanding how media and communication forms change over time, and thus how we, socially, culturally and individually, change as well.”

Fry’s societal focus in media literacy education was echoed by some of the other educators I communicated with. Jayne Cubbage, an Assistant Professor of Communications at Bowie State University in Bowie, Maryland, stressed why media consumers might need an expansive view of their media environment. “Media audiences have a need to know and understand the full spectrum of media machinations, and how they are impacted by each of these systems,” said Cubbage. “A failure to fully understand media ecology including the technological and economic structures of media along with the implications of those structures renders audiences mute and unable to engage fully in the discussion in which they are a central part of.”

Madlyn Epstein Steinhart is a board member for the National Telemedia Council, one of the oldest media literacy advocacy groups in the US. When defining media literacy education Steinhart made special mention of the overwhelming nature of today’s media environment. “Media Literacy must include an understanding of all mass media — media ecology, messaging, and the information overload that all citizens have to deal with now and in the future,” said Steinhart. “It is so much more than teaching critical thinking skills.”

Media Literacy educator and researcher Alan Berry is currently observing media literacy programs backed by UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) and the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) in the former Yugoslav nation of Kosovo. Similarly to the other teachers I spoke with Berry also believes that any media literacy education curriculum should encompass a large host of topics. But he also feels that no matter the scope of the curriculum there should be an emphasis on providing students with new tools of observation and creation. “I don’t prescribe to the notion that there is only one way to teach media literacy, but I do think media literacy education is strongest when it’s linked to participation and activism, so that students develop more purposeful and responsible agency to shape media landscape, as well as becoming more critical consumers of media,” said Berry.

Defining “Fake News”

For the educators I spoke with finding a definitive definition for “fake news” posed a challenge. Most felt that the term “fake news” is too vague and ends up being a catch all term for a variety of misleading, deliberately bias, or completely false reporting.

“Certainly we know for sure that blatant and consciously distributed misinformation is and has been bandied about online, in print, on television and so on,” said Katherine Fry. “But if you really understand how news is gathered, packaged, distributed, and so on, you quickly begin to understand that terms like ‘fake’ and ‘real’, ‘truth’ and ‘lies’, ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ are meaningless when applied to news or news sources if you end the conversation right there.”

Alan Berry feels that the term “fake news” has been weaponized for political gain. “I don’t like the term ‘fake news’ as it has become a political weapon too easily used to undermine legitimate news reporting and the critical responsibilities of media consumers.”

Jayne Cubbage wants to remind students and media literacy advocates that however you define it “fake news” is not new. “While ‘fake news’ can be defined as any news story, which is ‘untrue’ or that is not actual news, yet is presented to an unsuspecting audience as such, it is not a new or recent phenomenon,” said Cubbage. “In fact, since the inception of news and mass distribution of news there has been an infusion of false or questionable journalism, such as the penny press, yellow journalism, tabloid news, video news releases and “infotainment” to name a few genres.”

Expanding the Conversation

Each educator I spoke with thought that the current “fake news” conversation opened the door to media literacy holding a more prominent spot in American education systems. But many were also concerned that “fake news” presented a distraction to the wider media literacy curriculum the teachers advocated.

“The concept of ‘fake news’ is definitely directing the media literacy conversation right now, unfortunately, just as President Trump’s Tweets and his constant attacks on ‘fake news’ are dominating our media landscape — I think both of these trends are dangerous,” said Berry. “While media literacy is being publicly discussed more than ever now, I’m worried the conversations being had are creating a greater misunderstanding of media literacy and media literacy education.”

The greatest worry among the educators regarding the public dialogue around “fake news” was that the conversation so far has been too narrow or limited in scope.

“The discussion of fake news while important, feels reactive and woefully inadequate to fully illustrate the impact of media in our lives today,” said Cubbage. “The idea that media literacy is the way to get people to be able to distinguish fake news from real news is just so very limited,” said Fry.

Madlyn Steinhart is hopeful that media literacy educators can find a through line between identification of “fake news” and a more complete conversation on the importance of media literacy. She advocates for the teaching of person-to-person communication skills. “Media Literacy has fallen victim to the old question of reality versus perception,” said Steinhart. “We are in a world in which we don’t talk or communicate — perhaps media literacy should be focusing on communicating face to face which is why it must be a balance of old school and new school thinking.”

No matter how exactly media literacy educators define “fake news” or quantify and address its impact, the goal of creating critical consumers of media is at the heart of media literacy education. Each educator I spoke with agreed that the advent (or perhaps resurgence) of “fake news” shouldn’t change the purpose of media literacy education. Any media literacy curriculum should be designed to create more informed citizens, regardless of its pedagogical focus — be it “fake news”, interpreting adverts, or understanding the media creation process.

“Media messages have great influence over the choices we make and the ways we engage with our communities and the world, and media technologies alter the ways we interact and think and learn,” said Berry. “I think our education system is failing not only individual students but our society as a whole if it’s not addressing the outsized role media play in shaping us.”

Professor Cubbage may have summed up the need for media literacy education best. “It is vastly important for educators to incorporate media literacy into their curriculum because we live in such a media saturated society,” said Cubbage. “We are media connected 24/7 and there is no real escape beyond moving off the grid. Given the impracticality of that choice for many, we must learn to engage with media in an informed and critical manner.”

Understanding the media messages we are bombarded with on a near constant basis sounds daunting, but it’s a vital skill for communicating with the media rich world around us. If you have ever traveled to a country where you don’t speak or read the language, you can begin to imagine how frustrating and potentially hazardous it is to navigate a world without complete understanding. To understand the media messages that surround us is to live more completely — to see with clearer eyes and stand with stronger legs.