Recess Blog

Media Literacy in the Fake News Age

By Nate Phillips, PhD
Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Instruction

A few months ago, in a classroom conversation I observed in a middle school on the south side of Chicago, a group of seventh and eighth graders talked about how the stories they see in the media about the place where they live are often inaccurate and biased. They called what they saw in popular media as efforts to “throw shade” on Black people, on young people like them, and on their communities. They shared their desires to speak back to these negative narratives, to reject racism, to take action and to fight on behalf of their communities and spaces utilizing media and communication methods available to them.

This conversation was facilitated by UIC COE doctoral students Simeko Washington (Curriculum Studies) and Shawndra Allen (Literacy, Language, and Culture) as part of our research efforts to co-design, with CPS teachers, ways of teaching and learning what we’re calling “spatial argumentation”—that is, critically interpreting and producing evidence-based arguments that use spatial data and spatial representations (e.g., maps that show election results or US census data).

These efforts are a very small piece of a much broader pedagogical focus on media literacy education. Media literacy and media literacy education have gained attention recently as “fake news,” media bias, media bubbles, fact checking, social media and candidate Donald Trump’s Twitter usage all played out as key elements of the US presidential election and of post-election conversations and calls to civic engagement and action. Media literacy education is focused on teaching and learning practices to critically interpret, create and act on media messages and media productions (including sound, print, visual, social media, television, film, news and other forms and genres of media).

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Media literacy education works to support all of us in asking critical questions of the media that comes our way and determining ways to respond. For example, who created this media message? How? For what purposes? What perspectives are represented here? What perspectives are missing or unrepresented? Why? And how can we respond or take action related to these media messages?

Of course, critically asking these questions of all media messages is time-consuming, difficult and does not necessarily guide readers, viewers and listeners away from their own biases and bubbles—particularly when these critical questions are used to shore up one’s own perspectives and reject those of others. It is also challenging for anyone to evaluate the credibility of the flows of media constantly streaming around us—even when we know what to be looking for and where to look.

But these challenges should not deter educators, parents, mentors and friends from continuing to engage with young people and with ourselves in critically interpreting media and, importantly, in creating counter-narratives to speak back to messages that marginalize and work to weaken our communities. Our research is committed to supporting young people in connecting their lived experiences to new technologies and multiple media so that they can learn to understand and build media to effect change in the world around them.

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