Erin McNeill: Media Literacy is Essential to Equity, Well-Being, and Democracy

By Erin McNeill, originally published in the March, 2021 issue of Equity & Access

Media literacy is an essential life skill that all students need and deserve in the 21st century. Therefore, equity in education requires that media literacy is taught in a comprehensive way from kindergarten through grade 12 in our public schools. But more than that, media literacy is also key to overcoming systemic racism, which is a root cause of inequity in education.

I’ve had a number of conversations in recent months that started: “I had no idea how big the problem of white supremacy extremists was in this country.” Systemic racism and white supremacy have become much more visible to those, like me, who have had the luxury and privilege to go about our lives in ignorance.

According to Stanford psychologist Steven O. Roberts, media is one of the key factors that support systemic racism in the United States today. By legitimizing overrepresented and idealized representations of white Americans while marginalizing and minimizing people of color, across many media forms, those messages contribute to the attitudes and beliefs that create a support structure for systemic racism.

The MLN team gathered some examples of what he is referring to:

• Across formats, Black males are overrepresented with negative associations, such as criminality, while underrepresented overall — for instance, as characters in video games; as experts called in to offer perspectives and analysis in the news; as computer users in TV commercials; and as “relatable” characters with well-developed personal lives in entertainment programming. (Source 1)

• News and opinion media overrepresent poor families and welfare recipients as being Black and are almost 1.5 times more likely to represent a white family as an illustration of social stability than a black family. (Source 2)

• Scripted TV police programming, through which many people develop their understanding of the criminal justice system according to Color of Change, do not accurately depict racial disparities in the system. In addition, Black people are underrepresented in front of and behind the camera: viewers rarely see victims of crimes portrayed as Black women, while only 11% of writers were women of color and 81% of showrunners were white men (Source 3)

Media literate students can decode the messages, challenge the media systems, and tell their own stories. Media Literacy Now is elevating K-12 media literacy education as a tool to create the society we all deserve: one that nurtures racial equity, social justice, and true democracy. Media literacy skills are also essential to health, well-being, and parenting, and full participation in economic and civic life today. The fight for media literacy education is the fight for educational equity.

The success of our grassroots initiative depends on the actions of a wide range of people: educators, business leaders, parents, and youth can play a part. You can learn more about our mission and sign up at our website. We are organizing so you can add your voice to help change the educational system on the local, statewide, and national levels. Together, we can be effective in fighting for the structural reforms needed so that we can live in a nation that is just and equal for all.

1. Social science literature review: Media representations and impact on the lives of black men and boys (2011).

2. A Dangerous Distortion Of Our Families: Representations Of Families, By Race, In News And Opinion Media, A Study By Dr. Travis L. Dixon, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (2017)

3. Normalizing injustice (2020).

The American Consortium for Equity in Education, publisher of the "Equity & Access" journal, celebrates and connects the educators, associations, community partners and industry leaders who are working to solve problems and create a more equitable environment for historically underserved pre K-12 students throughout the United States.

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Equity & Access - Issue 27

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