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Media Literacy beyond understanding content; its role in social justice & empowerment

A smart phone beside a television and a radio.
People need to increasingly thing about the content they consume from their smart phone, television, radio and other sources.

Understanding the impact media can have on individuals and society has been a concern for educators and communications professionals alike. Syracuse University Newhouse School researchers find media literacy is more than just understanding content in various types of media.

Developing research in the Newhouse School is trying to understand what should be taught about what’s in traditional, social, and digital media, what many consider typical media literacy. The study is also considering where the information or facts come from, and increasingly how to use media as a tool for change. Communications Professor Doctor Shrivi Ramasubramanian is finding people should consider sources, but also their motivations.

“Why is the message being put out. Is there a profit motivation? Is there a political motivation? And to think about the viewpoint from which this message is being told,” said Ramasubramanian.

She’s leading research on ‘mapping media literacy’ to see what’s being taught in schools and community programs.

Doctoral student Shannon Burth refers to recent social movements, such as Me Too and Black Lives Matter, for which messages were widely shared in media. So now, media literacy necessarily includes the ability to act.

“It’s being able to use the media to share your voice, to uplift voices that maybe aren’t uplifted. … so having access to media is huge,” said Burth.

Both of these concepts – verifying the source and motivation of content and using media to engage around issues – are critically important in elections. Burth notes Gen Z has more access to information than any group before.

“Think about how easy it would be to go and look at where a political candidate stands, what their values are, different decisions they’ve made, " Burth explained. "They have the opportunity to be so informed during the election, but then media literacy comes back into that; what kind of information area you're looking at.”

Broadening out from political information, Doctor Ramasubramanian says teaching people about what’s in – and the impacts of – information, entertainment and social media, might help them make better choices in their media diet.

“Just like we think about the quality and quantity of what we consume in terms of food, there’s also to think about the quality and quantity of the sources of media we consume, and to think about how that shapes our attitudes, our thoughts, our belief systems, and understanding others and the world around us,” said Ramasubramanian.

They hope their work can inform future curriculum, classes or other media literacy efforts, and Burth notes it’s all getting more complicated.

“We may have to think about if this is AI generated or photoshopped, and how do people react to that," added Burth. "Do people want to be told to think critically about their media? Do people want to be media literate? Some people don’t.”

Burth and Ramasubramanian spoke about their research — and the collaborative Code-Shift project — on the latest episode of our Newhouse Impact Podcast, available here.

Chris Bolt, Ed.D. has proudly been covering the Central New York community and mentoring students for more than 30 years. His career in public media started as a student volunteer, then as a reporter/producer. He has been the news director for WAER since 1995. Dedicated to keeping local news coverage alive, Chris also has a passion for education, having trained, mentored and provided a platform for growth to more than a thousand students. Career highlights include having work appear on NPR, CBS, ABC and other news networks, winning numerous local and state journalism awards.