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News and Media Literacy

What is media literacy, and why is it important?

The word "literacy" usually describes the ability to read and write. Reading literacy and media literacy have a lot in common. Reading starts with recognizing letters. Pretty soon, readers can identify words -- and, most importantly, understand what those words mean. Readers then become writers. With more experience, readers and writers develop strong literacy skills. (Learn specifically about news literacy.)

Media literacy is the ability to identify different types of media and understand the messages they're sending. Kids take in a huge amount of information from a wide array of sources, far beyond the traditional media (TV, radio, newspapers, and magazines) of most parents' youth. There are text messages, memes, viral videos, social media, video games, advertising, and more. But all media shares one thing: Someone created it. And it was created for a reason. Understanding that reason is the basis of media literacy. (Learn how to use movies and TV to teach media literacy.)

The digital age has made it easy for anyone to create media. We don't always know who created something, why they made it, and whether it's credible. This makes media literacy tricky to learn and teach. Nonetheless, media literacy is an essential skill in the digital age.

Specifically, it helps kids:

  • Learn to think critically. As kids evaluate media, they decide whether the messages make sense, why certain information was included, what wasn't included, and what the key ideas are. They learn to use examples to support their opinions. Then they can make up their own minds about the information based on knowledge they already have.

  • Become a smart consumer of products and information. Media literacy helps kids learn how to determine whether something is credible. It also helps them determine the "persuasive intent" of advertising and resist the techniques marketers use to sell products.

  • Recognize point of view. Every creator has a perspective. Identifying an author's point of view helps kids appreciate different perspectives. It also helps put information in the context of what they already know -- or think they know.

  • Create media responsibly. Recognizing your own point of view, saying what you want to say how you want to say it, and understanding that your messages have an impact is key to effective communication.

  • Identify the role of media in our culture. From celebrity gossip to magazine covers to memes, media is telling us something, shaping our understanding of the world, and even compelling us to act or think in certain ways.

  • Understand the author's goal. What does the author want you to take away from a piece of media? Is it purely informative, is it trying to change your mind, or is it introducing you to new ideas you've never heard of? When kids understand what type of influence something has, they can make informed choices.

  • When teaching your kids media literacy, it's not so important for parents to tell kids whether something is "right." In fact, the process is more of an exchange of ideas. You'll probably end up learning as much from your kids as they learn from you.

    Media literacy includes asking specific questions and backing up your opinions with examples. Following media-literacy steps allows you to learn for yourself what a given piece of media is, why it was made, and what you want to think about it.

    Teaching kids media literacy as a sit-down lesson is not very effective; it's better incorporated into everyday activities. For example:

  • With little kids, you can discuss things they're familiar with but may not pay much attention to. Examples include cereal commercials, food wrappers, and toy packages.
  • With older kids, you can talk through media they enjoy and interact with. These include such things as YouTube videos, viral memes from the internet, and ads for video games.

Here are the key questions to ask when teaching kids media literacy:

  • Who created this? Was it a company? Was it an individual? (If so, who?) Was it a comedian? Was it an artist? Was it an anonymous source? Why do you think that?
  • Why did they make it? Was it to inform you of something that happened in the world (for example, a news story)? Was it to change your mind or behavior (an opinion essay or a how-to)? Was it to make you laugh (a funny meme)? Was it to get you to buy something (an ad)? Why do you think that?
  • Who is the message for? Is it for kids? Grown-ups? Girls? Boys? People who share a particular interest? Why do you think that?
  • What techniques are being used to make this message credible or believable? Does it have statistics from a reputable source? Does it contain quotes from a subject expert? Does it have an authoritative-sounding voice-over? Is there direct evidence of the assertions its making? Why do you think that?
  • What details were left out, and why? Is the information balanced with different views -- or does it present only one side? Do you need more information to fully understand the message? Why do you think that?
  • How did the message make you feel? Do you think others might feel the same way? Would everyone feel the same, or would certain people disagree with you? Why do you think that?
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  • As kids become more aware of and exposed to news and current events, you can apply media-literacy steps to radio, TV, and online information.

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