media literacy

How media literacy is critical to saving our democracy

A Stanford study suggesting how easily manipulated students are online should be a wake-up call for school leaders nationwide.

Historically, we did not have to teach our students how to question the validity of information when we ensured the books in the library and in our classrooms were selected by educators. Providing our students exclusively with vetted information is no longer sufficient. Yes, we need to continue to give our students high-quality content, but we also need to prepare our students for a world that does not have a Dewey decimal number on the book jacket and is in their hands or pocket 24-7.

We also need to recognize that various media channels have different structures that require very specific lessons for literacy. At a minimum, our students should be in a position to say that they do not know, instead of confidently claiming to understand. Unfortunately, there are powerful forces in place—such as our traditional assessment designs—that keep us from creating innovative, web-based lessons. In this country, we tend to teach what we test. I do not know of any state or national test that measures web or media literacy. Without a test that requires this skill, we may be stuck in our paper-based definition of what it means to be literate.


Just as we ensure that our students do not misinterpret a quotation to be attributable to the main author, we should also ensure that our students know the simple difference between a modified tweet, a retweet, and an original tweet. We also must teach students how to develop a line of inquiry in tracking down a primary source to verify an opinion on a website. One powerful fact-checking tool that all of our students (and adults) should know how to use is the Wayback Machine (, which has been backing up the web since 1995. Students can use this tool to find historical information online, such as what an organization or politician stated years ago, and then compare it to what is being reported in the present time.

We are in a mission-critical state of losing our democracy unless we broaden our definition of what it means to be literate today. As with reading print, web and media literacy needs to be embedded across the curriculum and within the design of assignments across all grades and subjects. Students need practice, practice, practice.

The one thing we can count on is that the web will get messier and nastier. We must prepare our students to navigate the reality of this messy world. Hanging on to the idea that somehow we can control the information our students access is counterproductive to one of the original tenets described by the Founding Fathers: “Education being necessary to its [democracy’s] success, a successful democracy must provide it.”

eSchool Media Contributors
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