Media literacy class ever evolving

  • Heather Ouellette-Cygan discusses the movie “Office Space” during her 11th-grade media literacy class at Concord High School on Friday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 12/4/2016 11:04:17 PM

In the late 1990s, the Concord High School English faculty got together with a new idea.

Teaching English literature wasn’t enough, they decided. Their students were saturated by media including broadcast and print news, political ads, films and music, and teachers decided it was time to help students decipher what they were reading, seeing and hearing every day.

“Our students are entering a world that’s ever-changing,” said Concord High English teacher Heather Ouellette-Cygan. “We want them to analyze a variety of media that they’re seeing and not just take it at face value.”

Concord High’s media literacy class will turn 20 next year; in that time, the number of media sources has grown exponentially.

High school students today are living in the age of the 24-hour-news cycle and social media. They are also coming of age in a year when the president-elect of the United States repeatedly lied throughout his campaign and has continued to do so coming into his White House transition.

“Donald Trump continues to shatter norms about politicians’ disregard for facts,” said Brendan Nyhan, professor of government at Dartmouth College.

Nyhan researches political misperception and has looked at past presidencies including that of George W. Bush, whose cabinet members leaked misleading information to the press about Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein that they then cited as evidence to go to war with the country.

“This is a completely different phenomenon,” Nyhan said of Trump. “Trump can create a kind of informational nihilism where people throw up their hands and say, ‘I don’t know what to believe.’ ”

At Concord, teachers said they are focused more on teaching students core media concepts rather than wading into political arguments.

“You have to remember, they’re not adults yet,” said Kaileen Chilauskas, head of the high school’s English department. “With the election . . . they were so overwhelmed by the level of inaccuracy. They’re not sure who to trust, who’s going to tell them the right information?”

Students go through core concepts, considering who created a message, why is the message being sent, what information might be omitted from a message and how other might people perceive the message differently.

These concepts are repeated throughout the year. A common complaint among students taking the course is that they can’t watch TV or a movie without critically analyzing it. Their teachers say that’s a good sign they’re making the connections.

“It’s really cool to watch, even this early in the year,” said English teacher Cheryl Vaught.

A long history with media literacy

Concord’s class has received national recognition. University of Rhode Island professor and media researcher Renee Hobbs studied the class for 10 years from its creation, writing a book about it in 2007. In fact, the school was the first in the nation to be studied to measure the impact media literacy courses had on students.

Hobbs found Concord High students were less likely to take media at face value, analyzing it more thoroughly than their peers at other schools who didn’t study media.

Hobbs said the goal of a good media literacy course is to get students to question the world around them – even if that means also questioning their own beliefs.

“Really, truly, that’s the foundation of a liberal arts education is to question your own assumptions,” Hobbs said.

Hobbs cited a recent study by researchers at the University of California-Riverside. The study surveyed 2,100 participants between the ages of 15-27 and found that 58 percent were unable to judge if online articles were real or not, especially when the content aligned with their political beliefs.

The study found that that kids who were more politically savvy didn’t necessarily fare better – it was the kids who were exposed to media literacy that were more likely to tell if a story was fake.

Hobbs said the recent onslaught of fake online news demonstrates the importance of teaching media literacy.

Fake news exploded during the last few months of the 2016 presidential race. Websites disguised as real outlets with names like “The Denver Guardian,” “The Boston Tribune” and “Ending the Fed” pushing articles like “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement,” and “FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide.”

These stories were politically sensational. They were also completely false.

Nevertheless, demand for them skyrocketed, coinciding with a politically charged, divisive election and an insatiable reader appetite for stories about Trump and Clinton.

A recent BuzzFeed News investigation found that fake stories generated more than a million more shares, reactions and comments on Facebook than ones from legitimate news outlets.

BuzzFeed’s analysis showed total Facebook engagements for mainstream outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post and CNN fell from 12 million to 7.3 million toward the end of the election, while fabricated stories soared from about 3 million to more than 8 million in the same amount of time.

“Could these stories have an effect on people? Yes,” Nyhan said. “Do we have a way to credibly measure that effect? No.”

There was also money to be made on these stories. Some fake news writers told the Washington Post and BuzzFeed that they could make between $5,000 and $10,000 per month on ad revenue for their websites.

Nyhan calls it an “economy of fake news.”

As more Americans turn to the internet and social media for their news, people like Nyhan and Hobbs are encouraging more people to approach their news sources critically.

Hobbs and her colleagues are working on a project to catalog online propaganda and fake news on the Internet, so that educators and others can look it up easily.

“Partly why we need good journalism more than ever is this tsunami of voice . . . 98 percent of which is crap,” she said.

Though there’s been much hand-wringing nationwide over high school students’ ability to tell the difference between real and fake news, Hobbs said she’s heartened.

One of the findings of the University of California-Riverside study was that 35 percent of students nationwide said they had learned media literacy concepts in school.

“From my point of view, that’s actually not bad,” Hobbs said.

She hopes the number grows in the coming years with a renewed focus on the need for media literacy coming after the election.

“I am absolutely, super optimistic,” she said.

(Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, or on Twitter @ella_nilsen.)

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