Media Literacy Education in the Social Studies: Teacher Perceptions and Curricular Challenges

Article excerpt


Despite the pervasiveness of U.S. media at home and abroad, the U.S. lags behind a number of countries in the study and practice of media literacy education in middle and high schools (Kubey, 2003; Megee, 1997). Media literacy education entails teaching people "to decode, analyze, evaluate and produce communication in a variety of forms" (Aufderheide & Firestone, 1993; Carnegie Council, 1995).

While Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and others have had formal media literacy education initiatives and programs in secondary schools for decades, the U.S. only began incorporating media literacy education into their state educational standards in the 1990s. (1) Although there are many reasons to consider treating media literacy education as its own area of study, educational policymakers have generally envisioned media literacy education as being embedded within existing core curriculum, particularly within the areas of English language arts, the health sciences, and the social studies disciplines of history, government, and economics. Film studies found some early, informal inroads into the language arts classroom as part of a movement to study the popular arts in the 1960s and 1970s. Many teachers viewed films, like literary texts, as artifacts that students could analyze and appreciate as an art form. The desire to protect children against the widespread marketing of unhealthy products such as alcohol, tobacco and sugary foods was the impetus for the introduction of media literacy education into the health sciences (Carnegie Council, 1995, p. 118). Although media literacy education may have come late to the social studies, many social studies teachers perceive a need for media literacy education in their classrooms. One survey of high school social studies teachers found that a majority viewed media literacy education as a necessary and appropriate subject for social studies classes (Tuggle, Sneed, & Wulfemeyer, 2000). However, to date, few states have undertaken curriculum development and teacher training around media literacy education in the social studies.

Media literacy education is relevant to the social studies for a number of reasons. Media provide compelling fiction and nonfiction narratives about people, places and events. Indeed, many young people's knowledge of world events and cultures comes from media representations (Postman, 1985). Media also help shape attitudes and opinions about history, government and politics (Gerbner, 1999; Graber, 1984; Iyengar & Kinder, 1982). As citizens, students rely on media for information about elections, public policy and political processes. Consequently, media literacy education in the social studies can promote student understanding and appreciation of the role media play in shaping and disseminating particular views of the world. For example, teachers can employ media literacy education to hone students' abilities to evaluate media as evidentiary sources, to identify bias in mediated constructions of history and society, to understand how media frame issues, to separate fact from opinion and to assess the credibility of media sources.

Moreover, media literacy education can help build analytical and reasoning skills (Hobbs, 1999) and serve as an important tool for examining issues of democratic citizenship and the political process in U.S. society (Considine, 1995). More than thirty states include media literacy education components in their education standards for social studies classes, including history, economics, geography, and civics (Kubey, 2004; Kubey & Baker, 1999). (2) Despite the growing recognition of media literacy education as a field of study, few researchers have focused on its implementation. Instead, most explore why media literacy education is germane to the social studies classroom. For example, several scholars highlight the common goals media literacy education shares with social studies disciplines, particularly creating a more democratic society by fostering an informed, knowledgeable and active citizenry (Hobbs, 1998a; Katz, 1993; Kubey, 2005). …


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