Why Teaching Media Literacy Is Optional in California

By Mary Perry, California State PTA Communications Commission

When it comes to media literacy, our students may be in real trouble. 

For example, nine out of ten students who participated in a 2019 national research study related to media literacy floundered in their ability to “evaluate digital sources on the open internet.” The study, conducted by the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG), looked specifically at “civic online reasoning (COR)—the ability to effectively search for, evaluate, and verify social and political information online.”

This was one of a multitude of studies that led the RAND Corporation, a highly respected national research organization, to the conclusion that our nation faces a serious threat. They labeled it “Truth Decay” and describe it as “the diminishing role that facts, data, and analysis play in our political and civil discourse.” One of their strongest recommendations was that Media Literacy Education needs to be increased and improved in the United States.

First, What is Media Literacy?

An approach to processing information, Media Literacy refers to the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and communicate various media messages in a variety of forms. A central concept is that all media are constructed for a purpose and thus, inherently come with some degree of bias or filter. Media Literacy education also considers how different kinds of media and technologies affect the nature of communication. 

For more background, see the RAND Corporation’s Media Literacy Standards. 

Following up on their initial study, RAND published a brief entitled Media Literacy Standards to Counter Truth Decay that identified four trends at the heart of the problem:

  • Increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data
  • Declining trust in formerly respected sources of facts.
  • A blurring of the line between opinion and fact.
  • The increasing relative volume and resulting influence of opinion and personal experience over fact.

A variety of other organizations have made similar recommendations and have been working, in some cases for decades, on efforts to make Media Literacy an integral part of school instruction. But, as the Stanford researchers pointed out, “Education moves slowly. Technology doesn’t.”

The Good News: California is Among a Few States With Laws Regarding Media Literacy Instruction

California law includes a broad spectrum of subjects that public schools are required to teach and the list is on rare occasions updated to reflect changes in our society and its needs. Typically, that process takes several years, at a minimum, once state policy dictates that it is required. 

Prompted in part by the SHEG research, the California Legislature in 2018 passed Senate Bill 830 (Dodd), on a bipartisan basis. The measure required the California Department of Education to identify and share resources on media literacy. This was less ambitious than the original version of the bill, which called for the development of a model curriculum. Soon after the bill was signed into law, a Public Forum on the topic was also held and is still available to view. The Center for Media Literacy (CML), located in Malibu, California, was one of the hosts of the forum and also one of the long-time advocates for Media Literacy education. 

As a result of SB 830, there is now a section on the CDE website devoted to Media Literacy. Using criteria from the California School Library Association, a wealth of resources were selected as well as full curriculums and a list of organizations that provide professional development and training for teachers. These resources, posted in 2019, fulfilled the requirement of the legislation and were also recently updated to include resources appropriate for distance learning. There is no requirement that schools use them or directly teach media literacy skills. 

According to a 2021 U.S. Media Literacy Policy Report published by the advocacy organization Media Literacy Now, a few other states have taken stronger action:

  • Illinois is the first state to require that media literacy be taught in classrooms.
  • Colorado is requiring their state board of education to adopt revisions to the reading, writing, and civics standards that identify the knowledge and skills related to media literacy. 
  • Utah established a Digital Wellness, Citizenship, and Safe Technology Commission to “ensure that students are digital media-literate, and able to use technology safely and ethically.” 
  • Washington established an advisory committee to develop statewide plans for media literacy instruction, created model policies and gathered resources for use by local school agencies, and funded a media literacy grant program.  

Impact on Your Local Schools: Little is Known About Local School Policies and Practices

State leaders in California do not track local instruction in media literacy so there is no single source for assessing what is happening in local school districts. The organizations that do look at that question are national in their scope, but provide some possible insights.

If California is like most states, there is a good chance that the majority of schools are addressing media literacy in some way, according to a 2021 RAND brief based on a survey of teachers in the U.S. Teachers also reported integrating media literacy concepts into their broader instruction, an approach many experts recommend. 

On the other hand, according to the RAND report, media literacy (ML) education “appears to be enacted in a classroom-by-classroom manner instead of directed or supported centrally by school, district, or state leadership … Students might receive a very different experience with ML education depending on their teachers’ decisions. Additionally, a majority of teachers reported a considerable slate of obstacles they face in using ML, such as a lack of training and a lack of instructional resources.”  

This blog is the second in our series on media literacy. The first asked Should Media Literacy be part of your school’s curriculum?

In coming weeks we’ll explore two more important questions:

  • What resources are available to support schools, classroom teachers, and families in teaching our young people about media literacy?
  • What do we know about the extent to which this is happening in California schools and steps we can take to make it stronger?

If you, your family, or your school would like to share how you are addressing the media literacy challenge, or have other questions you’d like to pose, drop us a line at communications@capta.org.