National Public Radio or "National Review?": Media Literacy in the Classroom

March 28, 2019 Diane Rubino

What I know about US media is learned. It comes from growing up in the United States, a lifetime of following current events and working as a communication professional. I came into the classroom with assumptions about what educated people like my students should know about “the news.” I expected them to know which outlets are considered progressive or conservative, high-quality journalism or gossipy chatter. My young students, however, often come from other cities or countries and have limited work experience of any kind. They lack the knowledge I thought was obvious. They seemed to conflate the onslaught of information from their devices with “being informed.”  

I observed the impact of their lack of media savvy on their homework. I noticed, for example, an opinion presented as if it were a fact in a research paper. The footnote showed the source was an editorial in a self-described conservative publication. The student was unaware of this source’s perspective and the idea that an editorial is an opinion. Over time I discovered many cases of news confusion.

In-depth study of media literacy is beyond the scope of this article and class. But media literacy is an essential skill. Few can ignore it entirely. I couldn’t. Yet, for whatever reason, I’ve never put my observations about the hurdles students face and what I’ve done in response in one place. I hope this is the launch of a conversation about what we instructors are seeing and doing to manage classroom knowledge gaps. 

Factors Influencing Media Literacy

There are complicating factors making media literacy difficult to achieve in today’s college class. One issue is native advertising. This is marketing designed to look as if it were a news story on a news website. I’ve yet to meet a young student who knew such a concept existed. They’re unaware that some of what’s passing for news is actually an ad and that they need to check the site’s veracity. They also need to determine if what they’re reading is copywriting or journalism. 

The web’s unpaid contributor model also means that what seems like a traditional news source may be a collection of loosely vetted content. Writers willing to work for free can post on sites without clear fact-checking protocol. Some well-known media are changing that dynamic. Forbes started to “strengthen their platform” by investing in writers. The Huffington Post replaced its contributor network with commissioned work. But e-pitfalls abound.  

International students present special media-literacy challenges. Compounding the newness of American media and occasional poor language skills is that nearly half come from countries where the press is rated “not free” by the Freedom House which calls itself a “democracy and freedom watchdog.” Another 30 percent comes from places with press dubbed “partly free” by Freedom House. It’s worth noting though that the idea of judging press veracity, quality, and slant may be an abstraction to someone from a media-restricted environment.

Helpful Assists

Until recently, I assumed I had a handle on knowledge gaps. But an informal survey taught me that I knew less than I thought. I was unaware that few could name more than one American media source or more than one current headline. My follow-up questions about target audiences and reputations became moot. Students showed limited awareness about what a news producer is, seeing “news sources” as Instagram rather than CNN. Still, knowing who says what an essential component of media literacy is. To help students succeed in my course, I dusted off some old media vetting tools I’d put aside, honed ones I’d be using, and added some new concepts.  

I distributed the survey results to the students. I highlighted their useful insights and corrected misinformation. I also solicited their observations about the findings. These discussions allowed them to see widespread media literacy deficits and avoid the everyone-knows-more–than-me trap. Talking about the survey provided a platform to teach about native advertising and unpaid contributor networks. It’s also an opportunity to reinforce how an iffy grasp on media can affect the quality of their work.   

I also shared the survey details with a librarian. She used the information to create a lesson for my class about library tools, how to get help from specialists like herself, and ideas for vetting sources.   

Not every idea worked well or even at all. I used to distribute an approved-sources list. Even though library databases allow users some leeway to pre-select outlets, limiting searches to the list made searching cumbersome. Now I present the sources as an option of some concrete, reliable resources.  

I used this rule for a semester: If the university’s library pays for a subscription, it’s a legitimate news source. I was trying to circumvent unpaid contributor networks. My students showed me this idea’s fatal flaw: Powerful databases link searchers to so many resources it becomes labor intensive to then go back with a bibliography list and compare it to the library’s holdings. So this one didn’t pan out for me. Though, I think it can be retooled successfully. 

What’s Needed Now

I’ve heard pundits discuss the need for media literacy curriculums. Perhaps the next generation will get this training. But until then—and especially in international classrooms—I had to do something different to educate students in order to strengthen their work right now. 

Ultimately the most useful tool was asking simple questions to understand student needs better. I discovered we both needed to learn more. They needed media literacy training. More importantly, I needed to question my assumptions and take actions to educate myself more thoroughly about student needs. 

Read more about media literacy in The Wiley Network interview with Diane Rubino.

What are your thoughts regarding media literacy? Leave a comment below.

About the Author

Adjunct Instructor, New York University & Fulbright Specialist //

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