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Media Literacy: The Research Is In!

Tessa is President and CEO of the Center for Media Literacy.

With the explosion of social media and new opportunities to participate in a global media culture, media literacy skills have become more important than ever before. After all, no technological filter is as effective as an individual’s ability to discern and express according to personal values, anywhere, anytime.

Unfortunately, media literacy is not yet embedded in the U.S. education system, and there has been a consistent call for research to “prove” the effectiveness of a media literacy approach. Health educators who address issues such as violence prevention, addiction, nutrition and sexuality typically agree that media has significant impact on students’ perceptions and behaviors, but without research backing, media literacy curricula have not been available for classroom teachers.

As anyone who has undertaken such evaluation can attest, there are high hurdles to overcome, including the cost of research and analysis, the turnaround time for conducting the research, and the challenge of enlisting districts, schools, teachers and students to participate. Our review of media literacy evaluations unveiled only 28 such studies during the past two decades, which addressed a myriad of health issues, and used different pedagogical approaches with a large range of effectiveness.

The Center for Media Literacy (CML), with the Southern California Injury Prevention Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), undertook a longitudinal study to evaluate whether CML’s curriculum, Beyond Blame: Challenging Violence in the Media, focused on violence prevention among students in the 6th through 8th grades, is associated with:

  1. Improved knowledge of media literacy
  2. Healthier beliefs about violent media
  3. Changes in use of specific mediums, including television, video games, the internet, music and print materials
  4. Decreased total consumption
  5. Decreased aggression

Beyond Blame was structured around CML’s framework for media literacy, including its Five Core Concepts and Key Questions, as well as its Empowerment Spiral of awareness, analysis, reflection and action. The study included 1,580 students from Southern California who participated in the initial post-test, and 426 who completed the second post-test (20 schools and 31 teachers were part of the study). The teachers themselves delivered the curriculum, which met educational standards in language arts, health, and technology (the curriculum has now been screened for applicable Common Core standards).

The results from this study painted a consistent picture: there were statistically significant improvements in knowledge and beliefs. Students who engaged with the Beyond Blame curriculum also exhibited statistically significant behavioral changes, in that, compared with controls, they were less like to report pushing or shoving another student, and threatening to hit or hurt someone. For such a short trial, these results are promising, and further application and evaluation of media literacy curricula are warranted, particularly those using the theory employed by Beyond Blame.

Today’s global media promote health-related values, practices and products through television, music, film, websites, games and social media, yet audiences are unprepared to filter this information. Media literacy is well-suited to fill this void, but to be an effective health intervention strategy, it must be consistent, measurable and replicable. An important next step will be to more widely teach and evaluate CML’s framework for learning and living, and other health issues, in addition to violence prevention.

Cover image courtesy of Flickr.

Tessa Jolls is President and CEO of the Center for Media Literacy, a position she has held since 1999. During that time, she restructured CML to focus, grow and change, preparing to meet the demand for an expanded vision of literacy for the 21st Century. Her primary focus is working in partnership to demonstrate how media literacy works through school and community-based implementation programs. She actively contributes to the development of the media literacy field internationally through her speaking, writing and consulting, with curriculum development and research projects, and through publishing and disseminating new curricular and training materials.


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