More States Mandate Media Literacy Education In Schools. This Is What Democracy Needs.
Media literacy education is the best long-term solution to America's disinformation problem. Delaware, New Jersey, and California are setting the example of how it should be implemented at scale.
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We cover the threat of disinformation a lot in this newsletter. We look at the authoritarian tactics within disinformation campaigns, discuss how we entered the disinformation age, and break down the political figures perpetuating this problem. We also outline media literacy and anti-disinformation tactics we can personally implement in our day-to-day lives.
Today, we’re going to look at the states and lawmakers who are implementing the best long-term solution to disinformation: media literacy education.
The National Association for Media Literacy defines media literacy as “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act using all forms of communication.” I like this definition because it encapsulates the broad curriculum media literacy education requires.
Media literacy isn’t just about learning how to responsibly consume and disseminate news content specifically - it’s about how to navigate a complex digital landscape where an overabundance of information is the norm.
If every American had robust media literacy skills starting from a young age, we would have a more informed and productive society. Disinformation would have less of an impact, and our democracy would function significantly better.
We’ll never totally get rid of disinformation entirely. Authoritarians and grifters have existed since the beginning of humanity. But what we can do is blunt the impact of disinformation by arming people with the skills necessary to exist in an information ecosystem the human brain has not yet evolved to handle.
Media literacy tactics for the modern era require an understanding of how content is created and disseminated in an ever-evolving technological landscape. This requires a new way of thinking about and consuming information. The context of how we got to this era, disinformation tactics, how to glean the intent of messages, and perpetuation mechanics have to be understood.
This is a lot to cover, and it can’t be learned in one or two classes here or there. That’s why we need media literacy education at scale. We’re beginning to see that in states across the U.S.
The rise of media literacy education hasn’t gotten as much media attention as the right-wing assaults on education. And that’s understandable. The threat is massive.
According to Education Weekly, since January 2021, 44 states have introduced bills or taken steps to restrict how teachers can discuss American history, racism, sexism, and LGBTQ issues. 18 states have enacted these restrictions through legislation, executive actions, or school board decisions. Book bans have also surged in states like Texas, Florida, Missouri, Utah, and South Carolina.
All of those initiatives will make students more susceptible to disinformation and erode democracy. Fortunately, we’re beginning to see an answer to this.
Delaware, New Jersey, and California have all passed and signed robust media literacy education legislation for K-12 schools into law. According to a May 2023 report by Media Literacy Now, at least 18 states, including Illinois, have taken some action to teach some components of media literacy in schools. But Delaware, New Jersey, and California have gone the furthest and set the best example.
In this piece, we’re covering those three states because they require comprehensive standards or frameworks that will be enforced at the state level for K-12. I think the way they approach it is best among the states. Other states like Illinois, for example, only have media literacy requirements for high school students. I’m also excluding Texas, which does have a media literacy mandate for K-12. Why? Because the bill undermines itself by targeting race education. So, I won’t include that here as a model for other states to follow.
As someone who has written about media literacy extensively and delivers media literacy lectures to high school and college students across the country about how to navigate this disinformation age, I feel strongly about the importance of this education. What we’re seeing from these states makes me optimistic about the future of our democracy.
Let’s talk about the trailblazing progress these states are making in media literacy.
In August 2022, Senate Bill 195 was signed into law by Delaware Governor John Carney (D). This law is remarkable because it doesn’t simply provide resources or recommendations - it mandates standards for schools across the state.
Delaware Secretary of Education Mark A. Holodick talked about the law in a statement:
“Delaware is proud of its achievements in media literacy instruction for all kindergarten through grade 12 students. In August 2022, Senate Bill 195 – known as the Digital Citizenship Education Act – successfully required the Delaware Department of Education (DDOE) to adopt evidence-based media literacy standards for use by each district and charter school.”
Districts and charters must align their instructional programs to these adopted standards. SB 195 additionally provides DDOE the authority to support, implement and enforce this regulation. Clear media literacy standards promote strong digital citizenship and help ensure all students receive thoughtful instruction on how best to navigate media safely with an inquisitive mindset using reliable and trustworthy information and sources.”
According to the bill language, the standards cover how to engage in responsible and healthy online behavior, including:
The purpose and acceptable use of different social media platforms.
Understanding the negative impact of inappropriate technology use, including online bullying and harassment, hacking, intentional virus setting, invasion of privacy, and piracy of software, music, video, and other media.
Social media behavior that promotes cybersafety, cybersecurity, and cyberethics, including etiquette, safety, security, and the identification of hate speech.
Identifying credible sources of information and how to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and participate in all forms of digital communication.
The standards also require critical thinking skills, including:
Understanding how media messages shape culture and society.
Identifying target-marketing strategies and naming techniques of persuasion used.
Recognizing bias and misinformation by discovering parts of the story that are not being told and evaluating media messages based on personal experiences, skills, beliefs, and values.
In another cool inclusion, Delaware requires education around identifying the purpose of media messages and how they are constructed, including all of the following:
Explicit and implicit media messages.
Values and points of view that are included and excluded.
How the media may influence ideas and behaviors.
The importance of obtaining information from multiple sources.
This is a pretty comprehensive curriculum that covers everything from basic media literacy skills to how to navigate modern digital platforms. This is the kind of education we need more of.
The standards will be implemented in classrooms in the 2024-2025 school year.
New Jersey has mandated information literacy be taught in K-12 schools. The bill was signed into law in January of this year. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy released a statement highlighting the importance of this action:
“Our democracy remains under sustained attack through the proliferation of disinformation that is eroding the role of truth in our political and civic discourse. It is our responsibility to ensure our nation’s future leaders are equipped with the tools necessary to identify fact from fiction.”
New Jersey is mandating that each school district in the entire state incorporate information literacy into their curricula, and it is required within New Jersey Student Learning Standards. This is not a recommendation or a set of guidelines. It’s a mandate.
According to the bill language, at a minimum, students will be required to learn:
The research process and how information is created and produced
Critical thinking and using information resources
Research methods, including the difference between primary and secondary sources
The difference between facts, points of view, and opinions
Accessing peer-reviewed print and digital library resources
The economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information
The ethical production of information
New Jersey is covering a pretty broad curriculum. The students who get this education will be well-informed.
In October 2023, California Governor Gavin Newsom (D) signed a new media literacy education bill into law - Assembly Bill 873.
Assemblymember Marc Berman (D-Menlo Park) released a statement after the bill was signed:
“Teaching media literacy is a key strategy to support our children, their families, and our society that are inundated with misinformation and disinformation on social media networks and digital platforms.”
Unlike the mandates in New Jersey and Delaware, California uses a change in frameworks, not standards. California is also seeking to incorporate media literacy lessons into every subject. Berman expanded on that later in his statement:
“AB 873 directs the Instructional Quality Commission (IQC) to incorporate media literacy content into the English language arts/English language development, science, mathematics, and history-social science curriculum frameworks when those frameworks are next revised.
Media literacy, also known as information literacy, develops students’ critical thinking skills around all types of media and teaches students to evaluate online information that affects them, their communities, and the world. It includes digital citizenship, which is a diverse set of skills related to current technology and social media, including the norms of appropriate, responsible, and healthy behavior.”
It will be interesting to see how this is implemented.
Will Other States Follow?
In many states that currently have more limited media literacy initiatives, it’s likely they will continue to beef up their media literacy curricula.
When it comes to other states, it’s very likely that states with Democratic governors and legislatures will eventually incorporate robust media literacy curricula in K-12 schools. There are multiple advocacy groups, like Media Literacy Now, who are pushing for this.
Debunking every lie we see is like playing disinformation Whac-A-Mole. Media literacy education in K-12 schools is the long-term solution we need.
As these media literacy efforts gain more traction, we’re likely to see an increase in right-wing backlash. I can almost hear the false cries of “indoctrination!” from here. Fox News has already taken a swing at this kind of pushback. But states have to remain steadfast and do what’s best for our democracy long-term.
While many of these state-level media literacy bills were bipartisan, I doubt we’ll see media literacy legislation at the federal level. Republicans nationally would oppose it.
An educated voter who won’t fall for the GOP’s authoritarian disinformation tactics is a threat to their power.
An informed electorate that is resistant to disinformation is every authoritarian’s worst nightmare. Let’s build one.