Students at Capital Preparatory Magnet School, in Hartford, Connecticut, are watching a video of a basketball drill. “Keep track of how many passes the players dressed in white make,” Marcus Stallworth, a media-literacy educator, tells them. Many of the kids correctly tally the number of passes. But they don’t notice a man in a bear suit who moonwalks across the screen.
Why did so many kids miss the large, furry bear? That’s exactly the question Stallworth asks them. The answer, he says, tells us something important about the purpose of media literacy.
For Stallworth, cofounder of a group called Welcome 2 Reality, the video reveals that people miss much of what’s going on around them. And that doesn’t just apply to moonwalking bears. “It’s the same when we’re reading information online,” he told TIME for Kids. “It’s important to be aware of the messages, and the ways authors are trying to capture our attention.”
Stallworth worked with Connecticut lawmakers to craft and pass two of the country’s most far-reaching media-literacy bills . The laws prioritize this type of education and provide resources to develop a statewide curriculum.
Connecticut is one of several states, including Florida, Minnesota, and Washington, to strengthen media-literacy instruction. All are part of a movement promoted by the advocacy group Media Literacy Now. The goal is to enhance student skills and push for legislation.
“It’s important for children to be able to navigate all this information,” state senator Terry Gerratana says. She proposed both of Connecticut’s bills. “Even as an adult, it’s very hard to sort it all out.”
Fact or Fiction?
The rise of fake news and Russia’s attempts to manipulate social media during the 2016 election fueled the media-literacy movement. “Four years ago, people were not returning my calls,” says Michelle Lipkin of the National Association for Media Literacy Education. “I would have to spend 30 minutes explaining what we do. Now people are seeing media literacy as a part of a solution.”
What is media literacy, exactly? “It’s thinking critically about the information we see, read, and hear,” says Kelly Mendoza of Common Sense Education. The goal is to give students the tools to identify credible sources and discern real from fake news. A 2017 study by Common Sense found that just 44% of kids feel they can accurately spot fake news.
Not every state has gone as far as Connecticut and others to support media literacy. Lawmakers in Arizona and Virginia proposed bills. But laws have not been passed. In Missouri, most legislators were not receptive to similar efforts. “We got blank stares,” Donnell Probst says. She is part of the Missouri-based Gateway Media Literacy Partners. “We decided that we first needed to create more awareness around media literacy if we wanted legislation to succeed in the state.”
Despite these setbacks, Lipkin of the National Association for Media Literacy Education is optimistic. “Progress has been slow but steady,” she says. “We need states and the country as a whole to recognize the significance of these skills to allow our kids to succeed in the world.”
A Free Press
The Newseum (above) in Washington, D.C., is a museum about news. Its mission is to increase understanding of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.
The amendment guarantees five freedoms, including freedom of the press. Many countries do not have a free press. In North Korea and Iran, for example, the government controls what journalists can report.
“It’s the first amendment for a reason,” Newseum spokesperson Sonya Gavankar says. “It’s what our freedom is based on.”
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