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Media literacy is no longer distinguishable
from education. In the modern world, it is more necessary than ever that
students understand how to approach and react to media if they are to have a
successful education. And yet, despite the prevalence of media in the everyday
life of the American citizen, the United States continues to fall behind a great
number of countries when it comes to a strong media literacy education. Nowhere
is this more prevalent than at the middle and high school levels, where it is
perhaps most important. While Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and other
developed nations have had formal media literacy education initiatives and
programs in secondary schools for decades, the United States only began
incorporating media literacy education into their state educational standards
in the 1990s (Kubey, 2003). However, a central area of concern for educators,
specifically social studies educators, is the lack of a foundation on which to
implement the instruction of media literacy into the curriculum. This is
something that must be changed if the American educational system is to
transition into the modern world. If students are to become successful adults
and productive citizens, then it is crucial they be taught how to navigate
through their media-saturated environment.

The call for an education in media
literacy is not an unpopular one. According to one survey, a safe majority of
high school Social Studies teachers “viewed a media literacy education as a
necessary and appropriate subject for Social Studies classes” (Tuggle, Sneed,
and Wulfemeyer, 2000). From this, it is safe to say that the need for media
literacy in students is not only necessary, but obvious. And yet, the push for
this crucial education has been met with little success. Precious few states
have begun to integrate media literacy into the Social Studies curriculum. What
makes this so problematic is that media literacy is almost fundamental for a
successful Social Studies education. Despite the education system’s best
efforts, it is, and always will be, the media they encounter that most strongly
shapes students’ perceptions of the world around them. If they are not taught
to process this information properly, many students can find their worldviews distorted
by the media, rather than informed by it.

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As students prepare to enter the “real
world”, they must have the necessary skills to become responsible and
knowledgeable citizens. It is in this respect that the need for a media
literacy education moves beyond simply strengthening the Social Studies
curriculum. The success or failure of students to use the information they
glean from the media wisely can have a direct impact on how they vote in
elections and on public policies. As Laura Stein and Anita Prewett put it, an
effective media literacy education can help “improve students’ abilities to
assess media as evidentiary sources, to identify bias in arbitrary
constructions of history and society, to understand how media frames certain issues,
to separate fact from opinion, and to assess the credibility of media sources”
(Stein & Prewett 132). Therefore, it is not only beneficiary, but essential for students to learn these
skills if they are to ever be capable of forming educated and informed opinions
from the media they encounter.

“Media literacy education has become an
academic imperative given the influence media has over students’ conceptions of
history, politics, culture, and knowledge” (Trask, 2002). The spectrum of communications
technologies that students encounter in their everyday lives is simply much
greater than the one they are prepared to encounter in school. A report by the
American Academy of Pediatrics notes that children spend more time with various
media (an average of eight hours per day) than they do in any other daily
activity, aside from sleeping (2016). If schools truly aim to prepare students
to function in society with proficiency and intellectual diligence, then it is
absolutely necessary that they catch up to this elevated frequency of media in
American life. Media is not just a source of entertainment or information, but
an insuppressible force that infiltrates almost every aspect of people’s lives.

To put it simply, today’s students not
receiving the critical thinking and analyzation skills they need to
successfully operate as fully media-literate citizens. As the amount of time
Americans spend consuming media continues to rise- and at rather alarming
rates-, students remain unable to adequately analyze and differentiate media
messages and formats with the precision they require. For instance, while
students may “express confidence that media messages have clear meanings and
sources that can be easily identified, media literacy demands nuanced thinking
about message creators, as well as their goals and values” (McLaughlin, 1994).
Students should be trained to constantly ask who is saying something, who is
benefitting from what is being said, and whether or not the information is even
credible.

From what’s been discussed thus far, the
importance of media literacy should be clear. Helping young students become
media-literate, therefore, should be viewed as an important goal not only for teachers,
but parents, administrators, and policymakers all across the country. Media
literacy should continue to be incorporated more prominently into primary and secondary
education settings, and educators- especially those in the Social Studies
department- should work to emphasize the significance of a media literacy
education. According to Stein and Prewett’s “Media Literacy Education in the
Social Studies: Teacher Perceptions and Curricular Challenges”, there are three
major points we can focus on that can be used immediately by Social Studies teachers
to help better implement a fulfilling media literacy education.

The first of the key points discussed by
Stein and Prewett is “Mindful Consumption”. In essence, students must learn to
filter what they perceive from the media. Too often, people are conditioned to
absorb the content they see in the media without pausing to question its
authenticity or relevance. The dangers of this are self-evident; if one simply
vacuums up whatever is fed to them, whether it be based in fact or nonsense,
they make themselves vulnerable to being swayed to a certain point of view
without critically analyzing it first. Therefore, a goal of good media literacy
education should be to teach students how to determine for themselves what they
should and should not take from the media they consume.

The next point established by Stein and
Prewett is “Media System Knowledge”. Before students can accurately evaluate
what they encounter in the media, they must first understand how the media
system itself works- and the role that different factors, such as advertising,
play in it. All of the media we consume goes through a significant degree of processing
before we are exposed to it. As such, it is crucial to be aware of how the
messages we take away from the media have likely been shaped to fit a specific
narrative or point of view. Media representations may not always be as aligned
with reality as many of us are conditioned to believe; understanding this, and
the factors behind it, is fundamental to any education of media literacy.

Finally, Stein and Prewett list
“Individual Responsibility” as the third key point of a media literacy
education. All too often, we are quick to cast the blame on the media itself
when it feeds us false information, or attempts to coerce us to a certain point
of view. However, students must learn that the responsibility for how they
allow the media to influence them falls on their shoulders alone. The problems
with the media are simply the nature of the beast; there is little to nothing
that can be done to change them. Instead, understanding that it is the
responsibility of the consumer to make wise choices about what they consume
goes a long way towards increasing careful evaluation of the media we are
exposed to.

As media scholar Marshall McLuhan pointed
out, “humans live in constructed media environments as unconsciously as fish in
water” (McLuhan, 1994). All educators, and especially those in the Social Studies
field, must be equipped and enabled to help students analyze what the media presents
to them, and understand the fact that they frequently offer incomplete or inaccurate
portrayals of the world they live in. Social studies educators should be the
most concerned with the implementation of media literacy because it is their very
purpose to help shape the kind of citizens their students will one day become. Once
students are media literate, they should be unable to take a media source, be it
anything from a T.V. commercial to a political campaign, at face value. Instead,
they should instinctively analyze, question, and reflect on the message being
portrayed- and the consequences it could hold. All educators, Social Studies and
otherwise, should strive to provide this to their students every day, in whatever
capacity they can. Media literacy, though currently lacking an adequate
foundation in the United States education system, is without doubt one of the
single greatest methods to accomplishing this.

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