Teaching Media Literacy: 10 Topics To Cover
The Classroom

Teaching Media Literacy: 10 Topics To Cover

Tara Shanley
Jun 28, 2024

Most students love to question the world around them. With so much information available online, students may turn to online sources to get an answer before asking teachers or parents. This approach isn’t always the best because it’s hard for many of them to determine if what they see online is true. We can give them the tools to analyze and validate information online by teaching media literacy skills.

In this article, we’re covering 10 topics to teach in your media literacy lessons and how to give students the skills they need to interact with the content they encounter in the world.

How early should you start teaching media literacy?

Media literacy education can start when students are old enough to access media or use technology. For more and more students, this happens before they even enter school. They often have access to books, devices, and screen time at home. For teachers, that means you can start teaching media literacy basics as early as preschool and kindergarten and continue them through high school graduation. How you teach media literacy and which lessons are appropriate vary by grade band.

Early elementary lessons often focus on how to use technology. Mid- to upper-elementary typically builds on those skills by teaching students how to access teacher-approved content. Middle school is typically when it’s most appropriate to start teaching students about finding and choosing their own content and validating sources. Finally, in high school, the focus is often on engaging with and thinking critically about media and its role in students’ lives and society.

What are the benefits of teaching media literacy?

Teaching media literacy in your classroom has a variety of benefits for students, including: 

  • Teaching point of view and purpose: Talking about bias and the author’s purpose in media literacy can introduce or reacquaint students with the point of view of a piece of content. You can do this for elementary and secondary students.

  • Improving critical thinking skills: Evaluating media helps students question why something is the way it is, and its real-world applications beyond school, which improves critical thinking.

  • Learning about content creation: Students can get a look behind the curtain at the creation process for all types of media and create it themselves.

  • Making other school topics relevant: Tying other lessons to media literacy can make them more relevant to what’s going on in the world today.

  • Linking lessons to students’ interests: When teaching media literacy you can use popular videos or texts that may be more interesting to your students than some of their core curriculum lessons.

10 topics to include in media literacy lessons

To teach all the ins and outs of media literacy, you should cover key topics in your lessons. Some of the most common ones include:

1. How media is made

For students to understand media it helps to learn the processes behind making it. You can teach them about the technical components like research, writing, videography, and editing. But you can also cover more nuanced topics like: 

When students understand the decisions that happen during media creation, they can use that background knowledge to think critically about messages and source validity. 

2. Media ethics

The Society of Professional Journalists follows a code of ethics that highlights how they should do their jobs: look for the truth, minimize harm, act independently, and be transparent. Every person or organization that creates media follows the same type of code. That’s why discussions about media ethics need to happen in media literacy lessons. Some topics you may cover in these lessons include:

  • Bias

  • Yellow journalism

  • Persuasion

  • Empathy

  • Tone

  • Libel and slander

  • Integrity

Media ethics heavily influence content creation and publication, and they often make good tandem lessons. You can use the Newsela SEL collection to teach elementary, middle, and high school units on integrity and other key areas related to media ethics.

3. Finding media

The places and ways students access content are endless, especially online. They need to learn effective research skills to find the content they’re looking for. Examples of skills they need to learn to find media include how to:

  • Use a search engine.

  • Search for content in documents or on apps and websites.

  • Sort things into alphabetical and chronological order. 

  • Use a library card catalog.

  • Use text features like indexes and tables of contents.

  • Be responsible when using AI tools.

It’s important to remember that most students get their information and news from social media and online platforms. While digital media literacy matters, these lessons are also an opportunity to teach students about non-digital ways to get content and information.

4. Verifying facts

A 2018 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study showed that fake news spreads further and faster than real news on social media platforms. This fact is even more concerning when we know many students rely on social media to get their information and that a 2019 Digital Inquiry Group study showed that they’re overall unable to distinguish between real and fake news in general.

To combat both of these issues, teachers need to educate students about determining if sources are credible, factual, and trustworthy. Teaching students how to verify sources can help them determine if engaging with a piece of media is even worth their time. It’s a weeding process that allows them to bypass media that isn’t high-quality.

When analyzing a piece of media as a class or independently, have students follow a checklist to make sure they collect all the information they need to assess the content. Some items on the checklist may include:

  • Find the source: Who wrote or created this? Why did they create it?

  • Contextualize the content: When and where was this created? What was happening in that place or around the world at that time?

  • Validate the information: Are there other trustworthy sources that agree and prove the claims in this content? Are there trusted sources that disagree or disprove it?

These lessons are also the perfect time to discuss bias vs. disinformation. Biased content happens when an author or publisher pushes a particular stance. It’s created in a way that makes the consumer agree with the biased point of view. Biased content doesn’t tell the whole truth, but that doesn’t make it inaccurate. It just doesn’t show the consumer other viewpoints.

Disinformation is content created specifically to mislead, harm, or manipulate people. It can also be biased, but the implications are worse. Disinformation isn’t rooted in fact. It’s not skewed to make a certain argument. It’s outright fake or false. A biased source can still be credible to a point. A disinformed source is never credible.

5. Representation in the media

Anyone anywhere can create and share media, but publishers, producers, and algorithms curate and control mass media—like newspapers, television networks, or social networks. Discussions about who has this kind of control and why they choose to create and curate the content they do lead to conversations about representation in the media.

Collections like our LGBTQIA+ Authors text set can help students look at content created by people who are sometimes underrepresented in mass media. Then they can discuss how things would differ if there was more widespread representation of these groups in the media.

Representation conversations help stress the point of looking for multiple sources when consuming media. Different sources report different details on the same topic. Students can gain a better understanding and a wider perspective on an issue by engaging with different content on the same topic. Some topics you may cover during these discussions include:

  • Diversity

  • Stereotyping

  • Censorship

  • First amendment rights

6. Media and self-image

Media has the power to influence society in big ways. The content students consume often sends messages about mental and physical health, body image, social status, relationships, and self-identity. Similar to discussions on representation in the media, it’s important to talk about how the media portrays certain people and topics can affect how students see themselves and their world. Topics to cover in these lessons may include:

  • Diversity

  • Gender

  • Body image

  • Self-image

  • Cyberbullying

  • Mental health

Our identity and self-concept lessons for elementary, middle, and high schoolers can help introduce the topic of self-image and scaffold discussions about how it’s affected by media portrayals and content.

7. Media and consumers

Media also influences our purchasing decisions, so media literacy is tied to consumer awareness. Teaching students about the persuasive power of media and marketing is important. It’s also a way to connect digital literacy to financial literacy in your lessons. 

Consumer media is an especially hot-button topic for social media literacy. Ad content often blends right into social feeds with non-commercial content. Students should know what to look for and how to tell the difference between sponsored and non-sponsored content to recognize when companies are targeting their money.

Tools like our elementary, middle, and high school social media text sets can help you teach students how to navigate social media and interact with content from brands and influencers who encourage them to spend money. Other topics you may cover during these lessons include:

  • Advertising

  • Marketing

  • Branding

  • Product placement

  • Persuasion

8. Interactive media

Digital media is unique because it’s interactive. Comment sections, sharing, and other features let students interact with content—and other content consumers—in the moment. They can have real-time discussions about what they’re consuming and air their opinions with no vetting.

That freedom doesn’t come without rules or expected social norms. Apps and platforms often have codes of conduct or terms and conditions. A user has to agree to them before they create an account.

Discussing interactive media is a time to cover certain parts of digital citizenship, which looks at how to interact with other people in digital spaces. Communication in digital spaces often decreases empathy. You can discuss these issues with your students using our Cyberbullying and Empathy text set

You can also use our ELA Debate and Discussion collection when discussing interactive media. Encouraging students to have courteous and respectful in-person discussions can help them scaffold that behavior into digital conversations. 

9. Remixing media content

Another hallmark of digital content is the ability to remix media that already exists into something new. Platforms like Instagram and TikTok make it easier than ever for users to collect, revamp, and share audio, image, and video content. This style of easy content creation means teachers need to educate their students on the difference between admiring and appreciating other people’s work and stealing it. Topics to cover may include:

  • Copyright laws

  • Fair use

  • Sampling

  • Plagiarism

  • Citations

  • AI-generation

10. Privacy and security

Especially in digital media, online privacy and security are important. They’re a key part of learning how to access and use content tools responsibly. You can create technology safety lessons that discuss things like fraudulent websites and receiving ads and emails from people you don’t know. 

These lessons should also stress that if students don’t follow privacy and security rules, they’re at risk of getting hacked, adding viruses to their devices, or exposing their personal information online. Additional technology safety topics to cover include:

  • Clickbait

  • Phishing

  • Hacking

  • Password best practices

Teaching media literacy with Newsela

With Newsela ELA, you can teach students how to interpret multimedia using a variety of relevant, real-world content. Our SEL media literacy text sets for elementary, middle, and high school give you the resources you need to cover topics like:

  • Freedom of the press and its role in democracy

  • Determining fact from fiction in news

  • The impact of social media advertising

  • Protecting your privacy online

Our ELA Standards and Skills collection also has resources for each grade band to make adding media literacy lessons to your classroom even easier. Plus, for Newsela Social Studies subscribers, you get access to our Digital Citizenship and Media Literacy course for middle schoolers with units for grades 6-8.

Not a Newsela customer yet? Sign up for Newsela Lite for free to access content and skill-building scaffolds for teaching students to interpret multimedia content.

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