Empowering Students: Media As A Tool For Social Change

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The dominance of the constant influx of information and the omnipresence of media, understanding its pervasive influence is paramount. Frank W. Baker, an advocate for media literacy, sheds light on the essential aspects’ students should grasp about this ubiquitous force. From its persuasive nature to the profit-driven motives that steer media decisions, Baker invites reflection on how media shapes our thoughts and actions. Yet, he also emphasizes a transformative potential – the ability of students to harness media for addressing societal challenges. As we dive into this digital age, Baker's insights prompt a broader conversation about the importance of media literacy in fostering critical thinking, active engagement, and a nuanced understanding of the intricate language of various media forms.

What Do We Want Students To Know About The Media? - By Frank W Baker 

First, I want students to know that media is pervasive. It’s powerful and almost inescapable. [Can your students name a place they occupy where no media exists?]

Second, I want students to know that the media are persuasive and influential. Media sets agendas by what it reports (and what it does not) and in many ways tells us what to think, feel, eat, drink. (Can your students offer one or more examples of persuasion and influence in the media they engage with?)

Third, I would want students to know that most media exist to make money, and the decisions media managers and editors make are often based on profit potential. (I like to ask students: who benefits from your purchase of a magazine? Who profits when you click on a link and land on a page filled with ads?)

Fourth, here is something I want young people to know that moves the power of media beyond money-driven objectives. Our students can use the media to produce and distribute messages that address problems and challenges in our community and our world.

Consider this definition of information literacy: “the ability to know when there is a need for information, to be able to identify, locate, evaluate, and effectively use that information for the issue or problem at hand.”

Now consider this definition of media literacy: “It provides a framework to access, analyze, evaluate, create and participate with messages in a variety of forms — from print to video to the Internet. Media literacy builds an understanding of the role of media in society as well as essential skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy.”

My experience as a media literacy consultant leads me to believe that many school-based educators would benefit from more media literacy professional development. The need for media literacy lessons in our classrooms has never been a higher priority. Every educator needs to understand what it is, how important it is, and how to weave it into daily instruction.

If you use video or images in instruction, you have a perfect opportunity to inject a dose of media literacy (which includes visual literacy) into your lesson planning.

Helping develop students’ critical viewing skills (CVS) is essential in a 21st century education. Most of our students view media passively — they watch with the thinking parts of their brains (mostly) turned off. Media and visual literacy encourage us to view media actively. That means being engaged (turning “on” those thinking parts) as we experience what we see.

Consider this definition of active viewing:

“You are paying your full attention to one task (such as watching television) and you are also interacting—you question what happens on screen and want answers.”

Engaging Students Across the Curriculum

Engaging students in critical thinking about media is not super challenging. But it does take some practice. Here are some examples:

An arts educator, displaying a famous painting to students, guides them to look beyond the superficial.

A history teacher, projecting a photo from the Holocaust, encourages students to use inference as they look for clues in the image.

An English literature teacher, showing students a Shakespeare play on film, calls attention to the “languages of film”—how costume and set design imply meaning.

An elementary educator explores the use and meaning of color in signs.

A science teacher has students explore what special effects techniques a filmmaker used to make a scene appear authentic.

A math teacher challenges students to consider “who benefits” and how they benefit when advertisers spend $6 million for an ad during the annual Super Bowl game.

In the past four years, I have explored media literacy’s connections to pop culture and current events and what that means to teaching.

Simply using media in instruction today is not enough: we must take time to help students better understand media messages. That’s where “media literacy” education comes in. It encourages us to take students through a “deep dive” into media’s purposes and meanings.

Every teacher I know uses “the media” in instruction, but not every teacher teaches ABOUT the media. There are opportunities to remedy this situation. And those opportunities exist, in part, in our teaching standards.

In a 1999 op-ed in Education Week Professor Robert Kubey and I elaborated on my analysis of every state’s teaching standards. At that time, elements of media literacy were found to exist in most state’s standards for ELA, Social Studies and Health

A decade later, the introduction of Common Core standards wiped out many of those media literacy elements in state standards. As another colleague and I wrote in a 2011 Education Week commentary:

“(O)ther than a mention of the need to ‘evaluate information from multiple oral, visual, or multimodal sources,’ there is no specific reference in the common standards to critical analysis and production of film, television, advertising, radio, news, music, popular culture, video games, media remixes, and so on. Nor is there explicit attention on fostering critical analysis of media messages and representations.” (source)

If media literacy is to gain traction, new and revised standards must contain specific language that includes contemporary media and contemporary media literacy.

Despite those Common Core shortcomings, many groups now recognize and recommend engaging students in critical thinking about media.

✻ Recently, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) provided guidance to its members through various actions. Consider:

The Definition of Literacy in A Digital Age (Source)

The Report of the NCTE Task Force on Critical Media Literacy (2021) offers a detailed action plan. (Source)

✻ The National Council for The Social Studies (NCSS) provided members with a position statement on media literacy. In addition the newly developed C3 (College, Career, and Civic Life) Framework contains strong media literacy elements—such as “inquiry is at the heart of social studies.”

✻ The National Science Teachers Association (NTSA) “strongly supports students’ scientific literacy by including personal and societal issues.” (Source)

Among other education-related groups recognizing the value of media literacy are the Partnership for 21st Century Skills; the Horizon K12 Report; IFTF’s Future Work Skills 2020; and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

Do you feel as if teaching “media literacy” should be a priority? I do. That’s because recent surveys and studies have made it clear: many of our students don’t think critically about the media they come in contact with, including social media. [See this WSJ article: Most Students Don’t Know When News if Fake.]

Many of the young people we often describe as “digitally savvy” don’t consider the source of something they read or watched on Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, or elsewhere. Others don’t consider the ramifications of spreading fake news or conspiracy theories.

The more I think about this important subject, the more I think I need to add a fifth point to my list, above, of what students need to know about media.

Students also need to know how easily media can be manipulated and shared. And perhaps many of them are already experiencing this via digitally altered images, memes and deep fakes. We need to think seriously how about we address this too in instruction.