Media literacy not new, but school inclusion is

Governor Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 873 in October, which integrates media literacy into the core subjects that all students learn throughout K-12 in California’s public schools. California joins New Jersey, Illinois, and Delaware in teaching media literacy in grade school, in particular.

The bill was authored by Assemblymember Marc Berman (D-Menlo Park), and supported by the Los Angeles County Office of Education, Common Sense Media, the California News Publishers Association, and Media Literacy Now, among others.

If you’re not familiar with the term, media literacy is a discipline that develops critical thinking skills around media to determine its credibility and accuracy. It’s something we have woven into our workshops, internships and policies at Davis Media Access (DMA) for decades, and I’m really pleased to see the legislation pass because I believe it to be one of the most important tools we have to counter disinformation.

The bill specifically addressed the urgency of youth’s almost wholesale reliance on the internet and social media to consume news and information. As implemented into law, AB 873 directs the state’s 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.

According to a press release from Berman’s office, AB 873 also “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. Additionally, it includes teaching students how to create media thoughtfully and conscientiously.”

How much of a problem has a widespread lack of media literacy caused? Berman noted, “A 2019 Stanford University study gauged students’ ability to evaluate digital sources on the open internet. 96 percent of high school students surveyed failed to consider that ties to the fossil fuel industry might affect the credibility of a website about climate change, while more than half believed a grainy video that claimed to show ballot stuffing (which was actually shot in Russia) constituted “strong evidence” of voter fraud in the United States.

“Another study found that 82 percent of middle school students struggled to distinguish advertisements from news stories.  According to a 2022 report by the United Nations, 17% of public TikTok content related to the Holocaust either denied or distorted it. The same was true of almost 1 in 5 Holocaust-related Twitter posts.”

The best thing about media literacy is its content agnosticism and nonpartisanship.  It’s a tool to teach critical thinking, and it can be applied to any media type. In DMA’s workshops and summer camps, typically targeted for the 9-13 age range, we watch a variety of media with kids.

The first pass is just watching—and typically giggling. The second pass begins to ask questions: what message do you think they’re trying to give? What is this commercial trying to get you to do? Who do you think made this? How can we find out? And so on.

Noncommercial community media centers such as DMA have taught this practice for years, because helping our communities understand and use media is what we do.

On the plus side, CA’s new law signals widespread awareness that we are all inundated with disinformation and misinformation, that social media platforms and community apps are key conduits for spreading both, that youth are particularly susceptible, and that online actions have real-world consequences. The law is welcome news, especially for its intent to embed media literacy in core subjects throughout K-12 and not be a standalone subject.

Still, according to Media Literacy Now—a nonprofit that champions 21st-century literacy skills—California’s approach doesn’t include funding to train teachers, an advisory committee, input from librarians, surveys or a way to monitor the law’s effectiveness. So while I find this new law a hopeful and forward-thinking development, time will tell.