Guest column: Learning when to look behind the curtain

Understanding how media generate information is the first step to thinking critically about news stories, writes Roger Plothow.

Like journalism, media literacy is an actual thing, with a generally agreed-upon definition and organizations working to advance its cause.

One such organization, the National Association for Media Literacy Education, defines media literacy this way:

“Media literacy is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create and act using all forms of communication. In its simplest terms, media literacy builds upon the foundation of traditional literacy and offers new forms of reading and writing. Media literacy empowers people to be critical thinkers and makers, effective communicators and active citizens.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but media literacy and news literacy are similar, but different. As NAMLE suggests, media literacy involves any information from “all forms of communication” while news literacy focuses on previously unknown information – the fundamental definition of the term “news.”

Over the next few weeks I’m going to focus on the broader issue of media literacy, simply because we need come to grips with that before we can hope to hone in on successfully separating news from the rest of the stuff bombarding us from all sides.

Former television journalist Frank Baker has been teaching the media literacy gospel for two decades now, and he’s worried. For starters, he says, our colleges aren’t preparing future teachers on the topic.

“We’re graduating teachers who don’t know what media literacy is,” Baker said. He now runs a consulting business in which he crisscrosses the country holding seminars on teaching media literacy. Once they’re introduced to the topic, he says, they “get it.” But, he’s just one of a handful of people focused on this issue, and that’s too few.

“If we don’t engage teachers and students in 2017, then we are developing … media illiterates,” he told me.

Baker has written a number of books, including “Media Literacy in the K-12 Classroom.” A second edition is coming out soon. He also operates the Media Literacy Clearinghouse web site at

Instead of teaching media literacy as an independent topic, Baker prefers to integrate it across the curriculum, from math and science to English and history. Common Core and the focus on STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – are unintentionally diverting attention from “critical thinking about media issues,” Baker says.

The good news, he says, is that teaching media literacy isn’t rocket science. Both teachers and students grasp the ideas quickly. The basic idea is to pull back the curtain to reveal what’s really going, just as Toto did in the Wizard of Oz. Understanding how members of the media generate information is the first step to thinking critically about it.

Media literacy can start by understanding a most fundamental concept – the term “the media” is meaningless. When someone says “the media” did this or that, the statement can be ignored. It’s the same as saying “the people” did one thing or another. Let’s commence our media literacy journey by agreeing to stop using “the media” as a catchall term and get more precise. More on that next time.

Roger Plothow is Editor and Publisher of the Post Register. This is part of a yearlong weekly series on media and news literacy.