A pair of California bills tackle media literacy education

For a long time, Erin McNeill, president of Media Literacy Now, a group advocating for media literacy education policies, has had difficulty getting policymakers onboard. In the wake of a presidential election cycle where “fake news” was a major talking point, she says her job will get a lot easier.

“I think with the renewed attention, we have a much better chance of seeing some action in terms of media literacy policy. It’s been very hard to get anybody’s attention for years because I think it’s a complicated subject,” McNeill says. “[Media] affects so much of our lives; it’s like the fish swimming in the ocean: they don’t really notice the water.”

A number of states, working with the education advocacy organization, have proposed and pushed through media literacy initiatives. Legislators in California, though not directly working with Media Literacy Now, are the latest to have proposed curriculum changes in order to educate students about the media they consume every minute of every day. The suggested changes have manifested in two bills: Senate Bill 135, and Assembly Bill 155.

Both proposals use the spread of false and misleading media during the 2016 presidential election as a springboard. The Senate bill, introduced by Sen. Bill Dodd (D-Napa) and titled “Pupil instruction: media literacy,” seeks to educate California students on the inner workings of media, and how to decipher the signal from the noise. Dodd said the proposal would also make media literacy resources and training available to educators.

“People may be getting the same fake news, but they’ll know when it’s fake and when it’s real,” Dodd said.

The Assembly bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez (D-Los Angeles), uses the spread of false and misleading articles and news outlets as a springboard to take action for media literacy, saying “the inability of young people to distinguish between real news and fake news makes them less informed about important civic issues and poses a direct threat to our democracy.”

Dodd said there is precedent for the California legislature proposing and passing curriculum legislation like this, and that these types of bills are meant to build a framework that the state Board of Education can work around.

“We’re not mandating lesson plans … there’s absolute precedent where the legislature can direct this kind of legislation.”

Lisa Levine, a photography professor at Academy of Art University San Francisco and co-president of Media Literacy Now’s California chapter, said although she had not been a part of the drafting process for either bill, she looked forward to tracking their progress and working with lawmakers. She said her own experience with students is what led her to be active in advocating for media literacy education.

“It’s been alarming to me that in a college classroom, it’s the first time students are being asked to think critically about media, which is their landscape. We talk about it as a landscape and I say to my students ‘this is not the 19th century, you can’t go out and paint a bucolic landscape. Your landscape is the media,’” Levine said.

Studies have shown students who participate in scholastic journalism are more likely to be civically engaged in the future. Media literacy and civic reasoning education go hand-in-hand with the kinds of topics covered in journalism classes, encouraging students to think critically about the role of journalism, and the information they consume and share.

Additionally, publications often face pushback from their fellow students – just look at Wesleyan, where peer-generated complaints put a newspaper’s funding in peril. This curriculum could also serve to educate students not participating in journalism about the newsgathering process, and encourage readers to participate in the media dialogue instead of battling their publications.