Americans are inundated with messaging—from television, radio, and print to video streaming services, social media, and online advertising. While media plays an important, informative role in society, it’s also a powerful, influencing force.
Media literacy is the ability to identify different types of media and understand the messages they’re sending. Today, it’s one of the most important skills that educators can teach, says Britt Watwood, a professor within Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies.
“The biggest challenges we contend with today are privacy and misinformation—being able to separate facts from fakes,” he says. “We need to help our students not only navigate these issues but learn how to use media smartly—to network and find jobs and take advantage of opportunities.”
Distinguishing information that’s credible from what’s not—particularly on social media—has become a growing concern. In the three months before the 2016 U.S. presidential election, for example, one report found that fabricated pro-Trump stories were shared 30 million times.
Following the election, the Justice Department charged 13 Russians and three companies for executing a scheme to undermine the election and support Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Russians used stolen identities to pose as Americans on Facebook and Instagram in order to create Facebook groups, distribute divisive ads, and spread misinformation.
Today, Americans spend almost half of every day interacting with media, according to data and measurement firm Nielsen. As media has become widely accessible—with nearly anyone capable of creating it—having the skills to be thoughtful about and critically evaluate media are key to better understanding the messaging.
Why Media Literacy Is Important
The benefits of media literacy extend beyond discerning whether a piece of media is reputable. According to Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization, teaching media literacy also helps students to:
- Think critically: In evaluating media, students are able to consider why certain information was included or excluded, and identify what the message is actually saying.
- Recognize point of view: Understanding different perspectives and identifying the author’s point of view helps students put information into context.
- Create media responsibly: Students should understand that their messages have an impact. They should also think critically about their point of view and how that relates to their messages.
- Identify the role of media in our culture: It’s important to understand how media shapes the way students see the world, and how it encourages people to think or act in certain ways.
- Recognize the author’s goal: Understanding influence and the intended purpose helps students make more informed choices.
Incorporating Media Literacy into College Courses
Higher education instructors and educators can incorporate media literacy into their teachings in a number of ways, Watwood says. These range from purposeful exercises to more subtle integrations. Below are some tips and ideas for how to do it.
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1. Dissect a website.
One exercise that Watwood likes his students to perform is to pick a political action committee and dissect it: Determine who created the website, who’s paying for it, how long it’s been around, and how it’s changed since it launched, for example.
“People are used to googling something and accepting the first answer as truth,” he says. “But people need to realize that the Web is actually pretty fluid and you need to be a little savvy to correctly use it. This is one literacy skill that everyone can continue to hone.”
2. Explore search engines.
For many people, an internet search begins with Google and ends on the first page of results. Limiting your search habits this way, however, is a mistake, Watwood says. “You’d be surprised how many people have used technology forever and have no idea that things like advanced settings exist to help you search better,” he continues.
One exercise he asks his students to do is perform a search using multiple search engines, then compare the top results. The answers are often different, he explains, which underscores the importance of diversity of information.
3. Use a medium regularly.
Watwood encourages his students to learn more about a platform through immersion. Throughout the semester, as a supplemental way to communicate with his online classes, he shares a prompt for students to answer using Twitter. This might include looking for an educational or training blog that resonates with them, then sharing it to the social network, or discussing why Canvas or Facebook might make a better learning platform and why, he says.
“Not only do students learn through Twitter and increase their own digital literacy, they report that they get to know each other better than in typical online classes,” he says. “The social side of Twitter begins to replace the social side of being in a physical classroom together.”
4. Look for teaching opportunities.
Watwood says that many of his course assignments present opportunities to include media literacy components. “For instance, during one week, students create and share a screencast video. To keep it fun, I ask them to make it about their favorite vacation spot,” he says.
Another week he asks students to take one of their existing weekly lessons or training workshops and update it with digital tools and practices. By injecting opportunities to explore media more thoroughly, students are able to further improve their media literacy skills.
5. Know when to take a break.
Watwood explains that, because we are inundated with messaging from media throughout the day, it’s important that students recognize when they need a break. “If there are times when students are feeling overwhelmed with politics or negative news, they need to disconnect for their own personal wellness,” he says.
He suggests turning to something that has a positive effect on their wellbeing—exercise or meditation, for example, “something to pull your eyes away from your phone,” he says.
Continuing Your Education
Helping college students acquire and sharpen media literacy skills is more important today than ever before, Watwood says. Educators looking to apply these topics into their curriculum should consider pursuing a Doctor of Education at a top university like Northeastern.
Through research and theory, Northeastern’s Doctor of Education encourages students to investigate, explore, and transform organizational and institutional landscapes. Students begin work on a dissertation that identifies a problem of practice and develops an action plan using data collection, analysis, collaboration, and reflection.
Northeastern’s Doctor of Education degree helps students build their resumes so they stand out in this competitive field. Upon graduation, students are poised for success: Eighty-eight percent of students reported it was helpful in obtaining a new job, career, promotion, or raise.
To learn more about Northeastern’s Doctor of Education program, visit the program page.