In the age of TikTok, teen depression, and information overload, parents and lawmakers have increasingly turned to K-12 schools to teach students how to navigate our media environment. Eighteen states have legislated media literacy standards for schools, with New Jersey among the most recent to join the movement. But given our nation’s actual literacy problems, lawmakers are naive to imagine that another public school program will improve students’ ability to traverse media misinformation.
Proponents say media literacy education gives students the ability to analyze and evaluate the media they consume. Most would likely see no problem with teaching students internet etiquette and proper online research practices. But media literacy advocates don’t stop there—they actively design curricula to inculcate students with progressive ideology, using their position as arbiters of “reliable sources” to turn students against alternative viewpoints.
Basic literacy skills would address the concerns of media literacy just fine as students would understand narratives, motives, and rhetoric. Yet schools do a terrible job in this area. Among many other factors, the replacement of phonics education with inferior alternatives has led to a prolonged decline in literacy. Two-thirds of eighth graders can’t read at grade level. If students already struggle with basic reading comprehension, teaching them tips and tricks to spot fake news only gives them a set of biased heuristics that they will inevitably misapply.
Chicago Public Schools (CPS) demonstrates how extreme these programs can be. The district will teach K-12 students “critical media literacy,” using a Marxist lens to critique so-called “power structures”—in other words, fixating on the relationships between arbitrarily-defined “oppressor” and “oppressed” groups. In 2022, CPS budgeted $10,000 (the actual expense was later reduced to $3,000) for a “progressive” education consultant “rooted in … social justice and anti-racism practices” to help develop media literacy curriculum for high school students.
Project Look Sharp, an upstate New York nonprofit which specializes in “constructivist media decoding” on topics like environmental justice and social justice, charges between $1,000 and $1,800 for media literacy professional development workshops for teachers. Wide Angle Youth Media, an organization which views media literacy as a way to “promote social justice,” lists Baltimore City Public Schools as a client.
Chicago may be at the forefront of critical media literacy education, but academics and advocates want this to become the new normal. One academic paper positively referenced in CPS emails states that it is “deeply problematic” if instruction only teaches students to be careful and polite online. That’s because such teaching doesn’t address the inherent “ills within our culture such as racism, misogyny, and heterosexism.” Another paper claims that instruction should focus on the more complex task of teaching students to understand the motives behind content using “critical lenses.” Basic literacy skills would fulfill students’ abilities to recognize narratives and motives, all while avoiding political bias.
Media literacy education invites a slew of nonprofit organizations and consultancies into the public school system, many of which have their own political agendas. The National Association for Media Literacy Education held 17 sessions on critical media literacy in its 2021 conference. Common Sense Media, which offers digital literacy lessons to over 70 percent of schools in the U.S., advocates for limiting children’s exposure to vaguely defined “hatred” and “racism” online by giving the government more authority to moderate online content, which will inevitably lead to ideologically-based decisions.
These organizations allow their biases to directly enter the classroom by providing ready-made curricula and materials for teachers to use. KQED, an NPR affiliate which partners with many California schools to offer media literacy instructional materials, provides several resources for teachers and students to use to learn about the Black Lives Matter movement and American policing. KQED asks teachers, “How do we address the systemic nature of racism and police violence?” One resource on addressing bias leads to a video on “Microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations.” Another article leads to a lesson which misleadingly attempts to claim that American policing was primarily developed to deal with slavery. An article for teachers, “The Urgent Need for Anti-Racist Education” provides resources to “help teachers challenge white supremacy in themselves, in schools and in classrooms.”
Street Law offers a lesson plan that provides examples of satire, news, opinion, and erroneous news. The organization provides articles from right-wing sources, such as The American Conservative and Newsmax, as examples of biased and unreliable news. Meanwhile, it uses a Washington Post piece as a model of real news. Do left-wing outlets never get things wrong or publish intentional distortions? Of course they do. Helping students discern truth requires leveling with them about the fallibility of right and left media sources, as well as legacy outlets that seem to be in the center: In 2021, The Washington Post retracted portions of two stories regarding the Steele dossier. In what may feel like ancient history to some students, the vaunted paper once had to famously retract an entirely fabricated feature that won a Pulitzer prize.
Media literacy advocates claim these lessons are apolitical. Illinois Media Literacy Coalition President Yonty Friesem, who helped write the state’s media literacy law, argues that critical media literacy isn’t political because conservatives could use these practices to challenge progressives in power. Yet if Friesem and others like him support challenging progressive media, why don’t they easily include such examples?
Furthermore, education psychology research on transfer of learning has long failed to find strong evidence that students can apply knowledge from the classroom to different contexts. When school districts like CPS only seek counsel from “progressive” educators, media literacy advocates naturally invite bias into their lessons. Students may not think that deeply about the distinctions between media outlets, especially outside of class. But they will attach positive and negative associations to certain news outlets if they receive this kind of instruction consistently.
Legislators who are concerned about online misinformation may wonder if the focus on the programs’ ideological biases is disproportionate. But the evidence on whether media literacy actually changes behavior is also weak. Common Sense Media has not once evaluated the effectiveness of its programs, despite offering media literacy lessons since 2010. A study that looked at media literacy education in elementary school children, like most papers on media literacy, failed to look at behavioral outcomes. Another study that looked at a media literacy intervention for adult Facebook users found small effects on participants’ beliefs in false headlines, which declined to almost zero in a matter of weeks.
The urge to “do something” in the face of fear is impeding our ability to evaluate the costs of such programs. So far, the evidence shows almost no benefits. It does, however, show significant costs monetarily and ideologically.
Policy makers would be better served by reforming core curricula to improve literacy rates. Children with sufficient reading skills can then be allowed to make their own decisions about which media they should trust.