By Nolan Higdon and Mickey Huff
California is currently considering two media literacy bills, both of which have sailed through the California State Assembly and are being reviewed by the Senate Education Committee. The first, Assembly Bill 873, authored by Assemblymember Marc Berman, D-Menlo Park, requires teaching media literacy in K-12 schools throughout the Golden State. The Second bill, sponsored by Jesse Gabriel (D-Woodland), Assembly Bill 787, mandates schools to implement curriculum at every grade level and relies on a more informed and civically engaged society. As part of these efforts, the bill seeks input from teachers, tech experts, and researchers on how to teach media literacy in California schools. Although this represents a major step forward for California to catch up with other nations that have mandated media literacy for decades, we need stronger measures to ensure that non-profit educational institutions and scholarly experts – not just industry insiders from corporate media and Big Tech representatives – shape the media literacy education curriculum offered in California.
Indeed, media literacy scholars have long been concerned about the ways in which media companies have viewed media literacy education as an opportunity for industry to enter the classroom to advertise their products and collect student data. In 1992, media and education scholars and practitioners in the U.S. developed the definition of media literacy as “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act using all forms of communication.” However, while many other countries began offering media literacy courses in the late 20th century, the U.S. did not. There was resistance to bringing media into classrooms by traditionalists, those who saw new media as a corrupting influence on education. Further, America’s decentralized schooling system has made it difficult to develop a national media literacy curriculum. However, the post-2016 moral panic over fake news and reporting around the ensuing pandemic advanced those efforts, making Americans acutely aware of the necessity of media literacy education. In response, many states passed media literacy policies. In 2018, California passed legislation that made optional media literacy guidelines that focused on teaching about online privacy and safety available to schools. That simply is not enough.
While we are excited to see leaders on national and local levels increasingly recognizing the value of teaching media literacy in an age of mis- and dis-information, not all media literacy education is equal. We are troubled that lawmakers do not seem concerned that corporate media and Big Tech companies may exploit these bills as a profit-making venture without teaching students how to be more responsible or critical media users. If past is prologue, this should sound some alarms for lawmakers. Dating back to the 1990s, Channel One created morning news broadcasts for classrooms to teach media literacy, but in reality, the broadcast had commercials aimed at selling items to an audience forced to watch the video by their teachers. Similarly, Big-Tech companies such as Twitter, Facebook, Google, and others create content to train teachers to offer media literacy that socializes students to use their branded tools. Furthermore, companies such as Apple have long “donated” products such as Macbooks and iPads for the purpose of hooking future customers and analyzing student data. Indeed, changes to student privacy since 2012 have allowed schools to share students’ personal data with ed-tech companies, who can do what they want with the data. Ethical concerns around this cannot be overstated yet are rarely addressed.
Educators must ensure that they are offering students a critical news literacy, not a corporate sponsored one. Corporate-driven media—such as Facebook, Google, and Nickelodeon—discourage and outsource critical thinking while enhancing brand awareness and socialize students to adopt more corporate-centered ideologies. Meanwhile, according to scholars Douglas Kellner and Jeff Share, critical media literacy education focuses a critique of dominant ideology by “analyzing the politics of representation of crucial dimensions of gender, race, class, and sexuality; incorporating alternative media production; and expanding textual analysis to include issues of social context, control, and pleasure.” It teaches students how to think like journalists, evaluate and analyze sources, separate fact from opinion, interrogate the production process, and investigate the politics of representation. Critical news literacy education not only empowers students to determine the veracity of information, but to interrogate the power dynamics expressed in media content. This requires investigating the producers of media content and platforms such as Big Tech and corporate news media.
A critical news literacy education should be administered by well-trained educators whose goal is to teach students how to think, not what to think. If these critical voices are included, and these prescriptions are adopted, these bills could be an important step in making these goals a reality. Education is the most promising solution to make a more media literate society. These bills show great promise for making the solution attainable. However, lawmakers and schools must ensure that non-profit and scholarly critical media literacy groups – such as Project Censored, Critical Media Project, and Mass Media Lit – have a central voice in ensuring that media literacy education does not become corporate indoctrination.
Nolan Higdon is a Project Censored National Judge, and a lecturer at Merrill College and the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is co-author of The Media And Me: A Guide To Critical Media Literacy For Young People and Let’s Agree to Disagree: A Critical Thinking Guide to Communication, Conflict Management, and Critical Media Literacy. He is also the author of The Anatomy of Fake News: A Critical News Literacy Education.
Mickey Huff is the director of Project Censored and a professor at Diablo Valley College. He is co-author of The Media and Me: A Critical Media Literacy Guide for Young People and co-author of Let’s Agree to Disagree: A Critical Thinking Guide to Communication, Conflict Management, and Critical Media Literacy.