Teaching Media Literacy With A Cape After SXSWEdu

Before I attended danah boyd’s campfire discussion at SXSWEdu on Media Literacy, I had been promoting it heavily with the hashtags #savetheworld #teachmedialit. In her talk, however, boyd strongly questioned the notion of media literacy’s ability to save the world.  Slowly tucking my cape back into my bag, I walked out of the keynote unsettled, which was probably her point. Some of the old school methods, as boyd pointed out at SXSWEdu, may not be effective against the new “weaponized digital media,” trolls, bots and online political forces with millions of dollars behind them. She has concerns about the good will and the truth that many bloggers are sending out over the internet.  She sees neo-nazis and other extremists filling the new digital media with mirrors of truth, hate and evil. In a post-modern way, I believe she also argues whether or not the truth can be found
This was a tough message for me to hear as a trainer of truth-seekers and someone who firmly believes in the power of the student voice. boyd is a professor of the complex, and she’s very good at delving into it. I am more “Mr. Easy.” In my journalism classes, I have one lesson plan: SEEK TRUTH AND REPORT IT.   boyd left listeners I talked to at SXSWEdu uneasy and unsettled as they tried to decipher her speech. In my own presentation, with my cape back on, I discussed ways I still believe we can save the world from fake news and eliminate many of the problems media is facing today.  A few disgruntled, cynical truth-seekers brought up boyd’s points about the darkness and complexities of teaching media literature in 2018, but no one could quite put their finger on her meaning, or how it practically applied to teaching media literacy in the future.

Iowa City High School journalism adviser Jonathan Rogers speaks during his presentation at SXSW. (Photo: Don Goble)

boyd’s speech has unsettled me, but it has also made me believe more in the ways I have found to teach media literacy. Now back in my classroom, I see students grappling with bias, publishing important stories, reading the news on their phones through a variety of sources, and taking pride in the rising power of student voices. The complexity of the screen world doesn’t look so complex to me when I see real students working in a journalism classroom. Presenting on media literacy during the past year, I have also learned that teachers are not islands.  There are well-funded media literacy resources being developed to fight the darkness and complexity of the web that are far from the old school methods that boyd rightfully criticized. Many can be found on my website. I also think it is important to look at examples of journalism done right. The focus too often is on how journalists are doing it wrong. The Journalism Education Association and Flipboard have created a magazine showcasing the best high school journalism students that are models of responsible digital citizenship. Teachers need to use the good models of stories that tell the truth. It is fun to look at the Hot 50 fake news stories on Snopes, but it is more important to discuss the journalism that is bringing truth. For the rest of this article, I think I can put my cape back on, or at the minimum give teachers three easy “buttons” for teaching media literacy. I believe that if teachers follow these methods, students will become media literate, critical thinkers and truth-seekers with powerful voices. Will some of them possibly use these new skills for evil?  It’s possible, but in almost 15 years of teaching journalism, I haven’t lost too many to the dark side.

1. Social Media and Google Searches are Dumpster Fires of Bad Information

At first, I was a bit nervous about attacking Google, Twitter and Facebook. Now, I am not. Social media and Google are to blame for the fake news and information crisis online. Teachers need to inform students not to get their news and information from Google, Twitter and Facebook. They also need to teach students not to share false information on Twitter, as a new MIT study shows how fast fake information is spreading on that platform.

2. Student Journalism Works to Teach Media Literacy and Gives us All Hope

Student journalists are amazing, and teaching students to publish following the SPJ Code of Ethics and to take pledges to follow the code of the Quill and Scroll Journalism Honor society is the best way to teach media literacy and bring student voices into schools. Period.   Some of the ethical codes that high school journalists follow include seeking truth, doing no harm, being unbiased and being transparent.  At the end of each school year, The Little Hawk journalism team at Iowa City High School in Iowa City, Iowa, inducts students into the Quill and Scroll society of journalists. Students read this code by candlelight and take it seriously. The initiation concludes with students pledging to the following: Painstakingly seek truth no matter your profession; Aid the best interests of your community; Aid in the cause to better journalism no matter your job. These mottos and codes were used this past month after the Parkland shooting. This incident and the subsequent movement have let the world know how talented student journalists are and the power of their voices as noted in “It’s Not Just a Story:  It’s Their Lives’” by NPR and “How Parkland Students Changed the Gun Debate” in the Atlantic. If anyone doubts the quality and responsibility of student journalism, I highly suggest reading the JEA Flipboard magazine of the Best High School Journalism or the Best of School Newspapers Online.  

Some of the staff members of the Little Hawk student newspaper read their latest edition. (Photo: Jonathan Rogers)

This past month reaffirmed my belief that a strong high school journalism program is essential to every high school and to media literacy — but closer to home.  As the adviser of The Little Hawk, my student reporters covered walkouts on school safety and have been some of the voices driving for change.  Mainstream media outlets from the Washington Post to Vice News to CBS to the Des Moines Register have all interviewed them on their role as student journalists — and also as activists. These students have been trained in the code of the journalist and take their responsibility seriously. When boyd suggested that training students as journalists or arming them with the new “weaponized” media could lead to neo-nazi bloggers or extremist ideas being published on the web, I couldn’t disagree more. In almost 15 years as a high school publications adviser, I have never seen a student use their power in irresponsible ways. To suggest that teachers not train high school students how to be journalists is exactly the wrong answer to the media literacy problem. Now is the time to arm students with their First Amendment rights and give them more digital citizenship training.  

3. Millions of Dollars are being Spent on Well-Developed Online Resources

From Newseum to Checkology to NAMLE to Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers, the internet is full of ways teachers can incorporate media literacy lessons into any class at any grade level. Teaching these lessons to help students get beyond social media and Google searches is essential 21st century skills training. To suggest not teaching these skills is dangerous, and sadly most students are not being taught how to get news on their phones or how to fact-check stories or information, or how to research online. At my session at SXSWEdu, medical students and science teachers all expressed how much more difficult it is to teach students how to find reliable sources and come to authentic “truths.” This problem is well beyond getting the news. I think teaching students how to get news from a variety of sources online is a start, but media literacy is a Kindergarten-until-death topic that all subjects and grade levels should be teaching. I do believe there is a new hope in student voices and new ways to teach media literature effectively. This is not the time to tell any teacher that we should take off our capes. It’s just time to remind kids that with great power comes great responsibility.   Jonathan Rogers is a journalism adviser for Iowa City High School and serves as a Master Journalism Educator. He is the president of the Iowa High School Press Association and was voted IHSPA Journalism Teacher of the Year in 2015. He also works as the JEA Professional Outreach Chair and is a Dow Jones Distinguished Adviser.
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