A Conversation about Media Literacy with Newsela Editors

Stephanie Vatz is an Editor at Newsela. After studying journalism at Columbia University’s journalism school, she worked for an ABC news station in rural northern California, running its website. She moonlighted as an interactives producer for the San Francisco Bay Area’s PBS station. More specifically, she worked for a blog called The Lowdown that combined news and history for middle school to high school students.

 Jacqueline Barba is an Associate Editor at Newsela. She studied journalism in the master’s program at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. Before joining Newsela, she was an associate editor at Scholastic, where she wrote feature stories and created teaching materials for Scholastic’s classroom math magazines for elementary and middle school students.

 Interview conducted and condensed by Emily Lepkowski, Educator Specialist

Q. What is media?

A. Jacqueline - In short, media is any means used to communicate a message or information. This can refer to traditional means, like print or broadcast news, or digital means, like Facebook and Twitter. The messages can be made up of words, images, videos, or sounds; they can be formulated and presented as news or opinion or entertainment or advertisement. It's a big bucket term. When we talk about media literacy, we're talking about the ability to think critically about this influx of messages that all of us are constantly receiving as readers, viewers and consumers in a digital world.

Q. What sorts of media do my students need familiarity with?

A. Stephanie - For students, obvious media types include images, maps, video, writing — but also advertisements. Students are exposed to ads that are both online within a page, within search results, or on TV.  They need to understand all of those different mediums, and when they are gaining information or when someone is trying to sell them something. That difference is important. Then, students need skills to be able to interact with a variety of types of news and be able to identify a fake news site from a blog from a legitimate news source, and identify an opinion piece from a feature from a basic news story.

A. Jacqueline - What Stephanie mentioned about familiarity with advertisements brought to mind for me the newish phenomenon of advertorials, this breed of ad content that is designed to look and read like unbiased, unpaid for editorial content. This is just one more example of a new medium that requires a well-developed skill set, so that students are able to confidently differentiate between paid-for, branded content that masquerades as editorial content, and the real thing.

Q. What skills or traits do editors have that my students would find valuable?

A. Stephanie - Students, like editors, need the ability to think critically. Teachers have the opportunity to really stop this proliferation of fake news by teaching students that the skills they use for research can be applied to their media consumption. That way, the students will know that their sources are legitimate because they did their own research to confirm the legitimacy of those sources.

Q. What sorts of media do my students need to learn how to create?

A. Stephanie - If students are sharing sources, they need to learn to share accurate sources so that they do not perpetuate lies and can be respected by their peers. Twenty-first century students will probably need to learn how to make a website, how to make a YouTube video, and how to communicate their ideas in ways beyond writing. Kids need help with social media, though. While you might think, “What can I teach my students about social media? I’m not on Snapchat!”, the lessons teachers can impart have to do with privacy. Students need to learn what information can get them into trouble. They need to avoid creating a record that could come back to haunt them later.

A. Jacqueline - Of course, apart from any new tech skills required for students creating and sharing digital media, the skills they would have used to create effective messaging in the old forms are still highly applicable here. Accuracy matters just as much in a YouTube video or, as Stephanie mentioned, in sharing sources as in a written essay. So background research, fact-checking, and critical thinking should still be the foundations, and really the starting points, of all media that students create, regardless of form.


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