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April 30, 2024

The importance of media literacy

In the United States, the average screen time per day hit seven hours and three minutes in late 2023. Children between the ages of 8-18 now spend, on average, a whopping seven and a half hours in front of a screen for entertainment each day. Streaming platforms have replaced cable television for a majority of people, and social media has become the main source of news for even more. 

Reading Partners champions literacy as a transformative tool in the lives of children because it is fundamental to improving their capacity to learn both in and out of the classroom. Literacy also serves as a building block for children to learn empathy, interpersonal understanding, and vital critical thinking skills that will help them well into adulthood. In an age of media saturation, with both children and adults spending more and more time online, these critical thinking skills are one of the most important skills relevant to media literacy. 

a tutor and student working together on reading partners connects; media literacy

What is media literacy?

Media literacy is a set of skills that help people, not just youth, analyze the content of media messages that they receive and send. It ensures that each of us is not a passive consumer, but rather, an active one, using tools to question the things that we are told or see throughout our media consumption. Without media literacy, you wouldn’t understand how to fact-check a piece of content or be able to distinguish between credible news and biased content. It helps you recognize an author’s intent, recognize abstract concepts such as determining the role of media in our culture, and even helps you understand differing perspectives on complex topics such as politics.

How you consume media, however, is only one part of the equation. Media literacy also helps us create our own content responsibly. This could be something as small as sending your friend a meme you made in a direct message or something that holds as much weight as a hard-hitting exposé written for the New York Times

Media literacy skills help us realize that our words carry weight, rid our creations of bias, and even recognize our own point of view. It would be an understatement to call media literacy a necessary tool to navigate the modern-day world—when we are surrounded by media at a rate like never before, this type of literacy is essential to understanding and interacting with the world around us.

The traditional media of previous generations, such as television, radio, and newspapers, were historically the gatekeepers of news—these entities decided who created news and what was deemed newsworthy to share with audiences. The digital age has brought the gift of content creation to everyone, yet one thing remains the same: media, whether created by CNN or a 16-year old on TikTok, is still being created by a person. It is, therefore, up to the user to ask how and why that piece of content was created, consider the author’s or organization’s goals in creation, and assess the client’s level of authority and impact through this lens. 

a tutor and student working together on reading partners connects; media literacy

Changing sentiments

Media literacy is a subject that has historically been neglected in the American school system.  A recent survey by Media Literacy Now found that nearly half of adults ages 19 to 81 did not learn media literacy skills in high school. The average age of respondents was 41. 

The tides are changing, however. Whether it be because of the proliferation of AI, shifting modern sentiments, the 24-hour news cycle, or a newfound interest from legislators and early childhood professionals about the impacts of screen time, the subject of media literacy is finally being brought into the classroom curriculum. 

Journalism and its importance to democracy

With the Maryland Primary Elections this month, it is especially important for all citizens to be media literate so that they can be conscious of any misinformation, propaganda, or fake news they encounter throughout the election cycle. Developing media literacy skills is crucial to interpreting the reliability of different sources, which fosters informed decision-making and encourages participation in democratic processes.

To become an informed citizen throughout the election season, it’s important to go out of your way to have a healthy “news diet.” A news diet refers to the diversity, quality, and legitimacy of the news you consume and how you consume it. 

a tutor and student working together on reading partners connects; media literacy

Social media algorithms often only serve us content, whether that’s advertisements or articles, that align with our current political beliefs. This practice can become a never-ending cycle of affirmation, or an “echo chamber,” preventing you from truly being informed about issues from all sides. It is important to seek out opposing viewpoints from time to time so that you can look at your own beliefs more objectively.

Attention-grabbing, clickbait-inspired headlines also play a part. These headlines may not accurately represent a legitimate opinion or the content of the piece, but rather, focus on what will drive the most traffic to that content’s site. It is important to recognize the business side of journalism and not fall victim to bad actors who are trying to elicit strong emotions, and therefore, clicks, over quality content. Having a good news diet means being cognizant of your relationship with the news, knowing the role of the news, knowing how to determine what is credible and what is fraudulent, and being brave enough to seek out different opinions that will make you question your own beliefs. 

Techniques to practice media literacy

RumorGuard, of the News Literacy Project, is a nonpartisan education nonprofit focused on improving news literacy throughout American society, creating better informed, more engaged, and more empowered citizens. When consuming your “news diet” throughout the election cycle and beyond, try these five techniques to discover misinformation and analyze news through a media literacy lens: 

  • Check to see if something is authentic or not. Can you find any other organizations or blogs covering this same piece of news? News organizations are quick to cover newsworthy topics. If a piece of news is credible, it’s safe to say that piece would be covered by a bevy of different sources. 
  • Verify if something has been posted or corroborated by a credible source. Does the author or sources throughout the content have a proven track record of fair and honest reporting? Are they a part of a larger network, or are they an independent journalist? Standards-based news organizations have guidelines to ensure the accuracy, fairness, transparency and accountability of their content. While these organizations are not perfect, these regulations can offer a baseline level of credibility over other, more independent sources. 
  • Look to see if there is evidence that can be used to back up what is being claimed. Is the piece using evidence that is being taken out of context? Does what is being claimed have any evidence at all? Double-check linked sources to determine their legitimacy or what biases might be present. Fabricating or having a lack of sources can be a telltale sign of fake news.
  • Determine if a piece’s context is accurate. Is a particular event or photo being taken out of context? Use reverse image search to find out the original date and context of when a photo was taken. An aerial photo of a crowd of passionate sports fans celebrating their team’s win years ago could be spun as a political protest that happened yesterday, for example. Context is everything. 
  • Ask yourself if the post is being made using solid reasoning. Check for logical fallacies and other errors in reasoning that are often used in place of actual evidence. For example, the slippery slope fallacy, alludes to a small action inevitably leading to a chain of larger, unfounded reactions. “If the U.S. were to lower the voting age to 16, then 15-year-olds will be wanting to vote too! Then eventually, we’ll have to let babies vote!?”

a tutor and student working together on reading partners connects; media literacy

Incorporating techniques such as these will help shield you from bad actors or media made with the intent to deceive or confuse you. Those who are media literate will realize when they are being fed news that reinforces one opinion or confirms their preexisting doubts, and won’t completely write off other news sources solely because the outlet published a piece they did not agree with. Please keep in mind though, that none of these techniques on their own is a silver bullet to determine whether a news source is credible or not. Rather, these techniques should all be used in combination with each other to ensure your time spent consuming news media is well spent. Without media literacy, you may find yourself believing something that was taken completely out of context, especially during the highly sensationalized political election cycle. 

Conclusion

Preparing children to navigate the internet by themselves and teaching them how to be conscious, deliberate users is essential for empowering well-informed future voters and citizens. But, media literacy isn’t just an issue for future voters. All of us need to practice this essential form of literacy to consume the whirlwind media cycle through a critical eye.

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