4 essential skills for media literacy

I would confidently argue that media literacy is the most important topic of our time. Media impacts every aspect of our lives, specifically affecting how we relate to, learn about, and interact with the people around us. Whether it’s through social media, blogs, advertising, or the nightly news, all aspects of media cumulatively affect our perception of the world and what is happening in it. With such an incredible impact on our daily lives, the ability to navigate, verify, and trust information is vital for everyone.

The organization I work for, The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), is the umbrella group for media literacy education in the United States. To us, the issue is nonpartisan. It doesn’t matter what political party or belief system you follow; everyone is constantly exposed to media’s influence, which means we all must understand the messages around us.

Skill #1: Slowing down in a fast-paced world

One of the first challenges we encounter is keeping up with the speed of information. The rate at which media is produced and distributed is both fascinating and overwhelming. Oftentimes, news outlets don’t have the luxury of time because of how fast they’re expected to keep information flowing to their audience. They’re often forced to sacrifice accuracy for speed. As the consumers, we must be willing to do our own verification, especially in a world where the term “fake news” is being used with abandon.

There is an art to patience. The good news is that it can be taught. Just by emphasizing the importance of slowing down, stopping to verify a source, and backing it up with three other credible publications, we can better equip our students with the basic skillset and understanding to intelligently digest media.

By doing so, and by taking time to understand the information we receive, we can start to break the bad habits of our rapid-fire media consumption and sharing.

Skill #2: Finding the source(s)

There was a time when the dots of information were clearly connected, with fewer go-betweens from the direct source to the media outlet that was publishing it. Now, everything is significantly more complicated. When it comes to online media, start by following the links. They’ll help take you back to the places where the information came from. If they lead to a personal social media account, you might want to consider your confidence in the information before sharing it.

For all media, backing up a source by comparing the information on several different media networks is always a good idea. Are there noticeable differences between the facts that are being shared? What bias is there? Using multiple reputable national news sources as a reference is always a good idea.

Personally, I never believe what I hear right way. It’s not a matter of being overly cynical but consciously skeptical. The key is to find the right balance for you. Take the time to say, “Let’s see who else is saying this.” Backing up information is a great way to verify that it’s true.

Bottom line: If you don’t have time to verify it, you shouldn’t share it.

Skill #3: Exploring media as a creator

Not long ago, the definition of media literacy expanded to include media creation. No longer are students merely passive consumers of media—they are now active content creators via online sharing, posting, and commenting. Every time our students “Snap” a picture to a friend or comment on Instagram, they are contributing to the media landscape.

Include tools in your classrooms that help empower students to create their own media. For example, consider teaching students how to create videos, integrate coding skills, and explore and use apps. As we empower students to become effective creators, we instill critical thinking skills to support them as they navigate the incredible information flow they encounter daily.

And as they learn to create, they will also learn to question what others have created, what they are consuming, and what they choose to share.

Skill #4: Understanding bias

We hear a lot about media bias. Evaluating the media for bias includes asking questions about news sources, point of view, stereotypes, loaded language, etc. Identifying this type of bias is extremely important and is often covered in media literacy classes.

But I’d like to challenge educators to include personal bias in media literacy lessons. Personal inherent bias, also known as implicit bias, refers to beliefs or attitudes we have that impact decisions we make. These biases are often unconscious rather than explicit. We may not even understand that we have them or know how they impact our actions. Our personal bias impacts the way we see the world and interpret media messages.

Helping children understand that they may process news or information differently based on their personal bias is a key component of critical thinking and media literacy skills. Teaching students that they see the world a certain way based on factors including their environment, hometown, race, gender, and family make-up is important. I can only see the world through my eyes. My perception is colored by my life experience, my belief system, my childhood, my age, etc.

Getting to know your personal bias not only helps you understand yourself, but it also allows you to understand your reaction to media and to others.

Teachable moments

Personal bias can come up in the classroom in many ways. Debates and disagreements among students about a shared text can be a great opportunity to explore bias and teach empathy.

Educators can also be role models in showcasing their own bias. In my classroom, students know I’m going to tear up if I see a sweet moment in a commercial or a film about a mother and child. They also know I prefer satire to action and sitcoms to dramas. That’s me.

You can also explain to students that you chose specific books, films, and articles for your teaching because they are the resources you believe work best. Reiterate that these resources are not the only ones available, but they are what you decided are the best for the task at hand.

With the vast amounts of information we receive today, it’s critical that we—and our students—understand where our own values, beliefs, and experience come in when assessing media. Arming students with critical thinking skills, including an understanding of personal bias, will better equip them to be successful and empathetic in the classroom and beyond.

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Michelle Ciulla Lipkin, Executive Director of NAMLE
Michelle Ciulla Lipkin, Executive Director of NAMLE
Michelle Ciulla Lipkin is the Executive Director of the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE). She began her career in children’s television production and is currently an adjunct lecturer at Brooklyn College, where she teaches media criticism and media literacy.

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