Why Is Media Literacy Important?

In an uncertain world with social feeds increasingly filled with fake news, we must ensure students are equipped with news and media literacy skills. Here's how we do it.

By Mary Ryerse , Lauren Wilson

By Mary Ryerse, Head of Schools and Lauren Wilson, Director of School Success

It’s no exaggeration to say that today’s high school students are bombarded with media. In and out of the classroom, students make choices every day about what media to consume, what sources to believe, and how to understand the world in light of new information or perspectives.

The ability to identify and make sense of different media—aka, media literacy—is vital for students to understand the world and their place in it. Yet a 2018 report found that “97 percent of the educational professionals feel it is important to raise the level of digital and video literacy among teachers and students.” This has only gotten more important with the rise of TikTok and other forms of video content, and the prevalence of “fake news.”A survey by the nonprofit group Media Literacy Now found that nearly half of adults ages 19 to 81 did not learn media literacy skills in high school. 

Teachers work endlessly to instill skills in students that last a lifetime, like how to encourage healthy discourse, think critically about the world, and engage with others in a respectful and civilized way. At XQ, we know the importance teachers have in fostering learning experiences and have placed creating meaningful and engaged learning as a core design principle within XQ schools. We are also sponsoring a Student Journalism Challenge by PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs for 13-18 year-olds in the U.S. The deadline to enter is December 2, 2022.

As noted in the New York Times article, “These Students Are Learning About Fake News and How to Spot It,” students are not always provided with the tools and strategies needed to properly evaluate the wealth of information that is accessible. While students may be tech-savvy, that doesn’t mean they are news-savvy. News and media literacy teaches students how to analyze and evaluate online content critically—whether with images or stories—so that they can make informed decisions about the world around them.

What is Media Literacy?

Common Sense Media defines media literacy as “the ability to identify different types of media and understand the messages they’re sending.” To do this, students need to be critical readers, approaching media with the intent to not just absorb it, but to ask questions, interrogate ideas, and consider why that piece of media might have been created.

Media Literacy Now provides a three-part definition of the purpose of media literacy

  • Develop critical thinking skills around all types of media
  • Build an understanding of how media messages shape culture and society
  • Give people tools to advocate for a changed media system

Benefits of Media Literacy for High School Students

Media literacy is particularly important for teenagers, given the high volume of media they consume. High school students today are more media-saturated than ever. According to a 2021 report from Common Sense Media, screen time for teenagers grew by 17 percent from 2019-2021, to reach an average daily screen time of eight hours and 39 minutes for teenagers ages 13-18. 

Media literacy empowers students to respond to this deluge of information as active participants, rather than passive consumers. Common Sense Media outlines several benefits of media literacy, including: 

  • Building critical thinking skills
  • Recognizing different points of view
  • Creating media responsibly
  • Identifying the role of media in our culture
  • Understanding the author’s goal

The importance of these skills is far-reaching. One of our XQ Learner Outcomes is to help students become original thinkers: people who can make sense of conflicting knowledge, create ideas despite ambiguous and new situations, and critically analyze from different perspectives. Media literacy supports this by emphasizing active, critical thinking.

Effective Strategies in Practice

The New York Times article referenced above about fake news outlines tips you can give students that will help them decipher what is and isn’t a credible source:

  1. Practice Lateral Reading: When encountering an unfamiliar website, open additional tabs to determine its reliability. You can start by browsing what authoritative websites, or organizations considered to be experts in the field, have said about the site you’re evaluating. You can also research the author who wrote the piece you’re reading to see if they are an authority or expert in that field.
  2. Demonstrate Click Restraint: Instead of clicking on the first result of a search, scan the results list to find ones that articulate the source of their information. An article may be engaging and well written, but without clearly sourced facts, statistics, reports, and other referenced articles, it’s hard to measure the accuracy of the content.
  3. Apply IMVAIN: A mnemonic that helps you remember characteristics for good and reliable news—Independent sources; Multiple sources; Verified evidence; and Authoritative, Informed, and Named sources.
  4. Deepen Related Knowledge and Skills: Learning is an incredibly interdisciplinary process, and often two learning processes need to occur simultaneously. For example, The News Literacy Project encourages educators to teach students the skills they need to become smart, active consumers of news. This also helps students become informed participants in civic life.

Student Intuition on Media Literacy 

We also asked students what their favorite hacks are for interrogating online sources. Through our conversations, we learned that most students have a decent idea of how to distinguish between good and bad sources, but very few students we spoke to had clear instructions on these important skills. Here are a few tips that come from their own intuition:

  1. Check the obvious: One student said that he only uses vetted and reliable sites—many of which end in .org, .gov, and .edu.
  2. Do your due diligence: Students that we spoke with said that each time they are getting ready to write English papers, their teachers remind them to look at the author’s credibility (do a quick search on an author’s name), date of publication (the newer the better), and, of course, evaluate the overall source.
  3. Quantity and quality: Verify multiple sources on the same topic to see if the information lines up with each other, one student remarked. Remember to check that the spokesperson hasn’t contradicted themself across multiple sources.
  4. Pause and consider feasibility: Another student said that his first strategy is to pause and ask “Is what I am reading really possible?”

Examples From XQ Schools

Across the nation, XQ schools are learning how to give students access to tools and resources as well as the skills to properly navigate the challenging media landscape, skills students can apply not just in the classroom, but to evaluate media in their own lives. Here are some quick snapshots of how they are accomplishing just that.

Crosstown High School in Memphis, Tennessee, teaches students to be critical readers. In fact, it’s one of their core competencies. One way they do this is through meaningful and engaging learning (on of the XQ Design Principles). In one project, students examined immigration policies, tweets from President Trump, and documents from the Iranian Embassy to understand diverse perspectives and the validity of sources.

At Washington Leadership Academy, teachers designed a “fake news” unit where students aggregated information from Twitter and other media sources to evaluate their validity.

At Elizabethton High School, in northeastern Tennessee, biology students studying genetics and mutations explored how narratives can be distorted, and how one source may not be sufficient for reliable evidence. This led them to do a deep research dive where students interviewed multiple experts. They spoke with their community to understand audience awareness, multimodality, and the importance of synthesizing information.

In response to COVID-related school closures, Purdue Polytechnic High School’s design thinking coach, Andew Goodin, instilled the importance of vetting “multiple, credible sources” in his Morning Announcements Video (11:10-12:42). This message was especially relevant to student’s lives in the midst of the pandemic, as students navigated a wealth of digital content around COVID. 

The skills and tips outlined above are important for all of us to keep in mind whenever we’re performing an online search. Media literacy helps ensure that the information we’re receiving is reliable and worth sharing.

When it comes to students, it’s even more important to provide them with high-quality sources and the know-how to find these sources on their own.