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What Will Media Literacy Education in California Look Like?

A journalism teacher at Monta Vista High School in Cupertino, Calif., crafted her own media-literacy curriculum with Ted Talks, documentaries, articles about TikTok’s algorithm and examples of AI-enhanced images.

Three students sit with desks together during a powerpoint presentation on AI in journalism
Monta Vista High School students work in a journalism class on Monday, Jan. 29, 2024, in Cupertino, Calif. A new state law now requires schools to teach media literacy.
Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group/TNS
(TNS) — As dozens of Cupertino high schoolers strolled into class one January morning they were met with an image projected on the board — Donald Trump praying alone in a church.

“Is there anything strange about the photo?” prompted journalism teacher Julia Satterthwaite.

The class immediately noticed the former president had an extra finger on his right hand. The AI-generated image of presidential piety had been making the rounds on the Internet after Trump recently shared it on his Truth Social account.

As students broke into small groups, they discussed the deeper ramifications of this type of computer-generated photo — and other manipulated images they might see online. What work do citizens need to do to find the truth? Could fake news and images possibly impact the 2024 presidential election?

Welcome to Media Literacy Monday at Monta Vista High — coming this year to a California classroom near you.

The class is a preview of a new law that requires schools across the state to teach media literacy to all students from kindergarten to 12th grade. Assembly Bill 873 directs California’s Instructional Quality Commission to add the content into four core subjects — English language arts, science, mathematics, history and social science — the next time curriculum frameworks are revised.

“Media literacy is probably the most essential skill that our high school students need right now as AI becomes more prevalent,” said Satterthwaite, a teacher for more than 19 years.

Once she realized her students were spending hours each day on social media, Satterthwaite started crafting her own curriculum composed of Ted Talks, documentaries about the dangers of social media and articles about TikTok’s algorithm. She’s since added AI-enhanced images to the mix. The mission is to equip students with tips and tools to think critically about what they see and hear online. Kids also learn how to be better digital citizens as they create their own content.

Assemblymember Marc Berman, D-Menlo Park, wrote AB 873 after witnessing widespread COVID-19 vaccine and election fraud misinformation circulate across the web. It passed with bipartisan support and no major opposition from outside groups, and took effect Jan. 1.

“Large segments of society really believed in these lies that spread so quickly and so easily online,” he said.

Research shows many students struggle to recognize the differences between fact and fiction online. In a 2019 Stanford University study, 96 percent of high schoolers surveyed judged a climate change website solely on its presentation and did not consider why its backers — the fossil fuel industry — could affect the site’s credibility. And 52 percent believed that a grainy video claiming to show ballot stuffing during the 2016 Democratic primaries was real evidence of voter fraud, even though an online search would have produced articles debunking the video.

“We’ve given them the tools and no guidance. So who gets hurt? They all get hurt. The girls are hurt. The boys are hurt. It changes their lives,” said Erin McNeill, CEO and Founder of Media Literacy Now, a nopartisan national organization that advocated for the new law.

The more kids are inundated with online content, the likelier they are to develop mental health struggles, experience cyber bullying or even come across groups seeking to radicalize young minds, McNeill said.

California is only the fourth state, following Delaware, New Jersey and Texas, to mandate such instruction for K-12 students. But the rollout into classrooms will be slow.

Many school districts in the Bay Area, including Hayward Unified and Fremont Unified, said they are waiting for statewide instructions to guide the lessons. According to the California Department of Education, the Instructional Quality Commission has no timeframe on when updated curriculum frameworks may be released.

Still, some school districts have started to integrate media literacy lessons into classrooms sooner.

Dublin Unified in Alameda County this fall will offer a new high school elective course titled Media Literacy: How to Trust What You Read and Hear, while Jefferson Union High School District in San Mateo County intends to rely on KQED’s curriculum tools.

At East Union High School District in San Jose, 22 teachers gathered over the summer for a daylong training session devoted to media literacy development. The event, held by the Santa Clara Office of Education, offered staff free resources and curriculum to help build lessons.

Tara Holcomb, a school librarian, left the session hopeful the curriculum could lead to less misinformation and fake news in the world, as well as empower kids to become responsible media navigators, something she’s already seen students express interest in.

“They understand the importance of being really critical about what information they’re consuming and discerning between reputable sources,” Holcomb said. “I think it’s making them stop and pause and really think about what information they are consuming.”

Not all parents are on board with the plan. Lance Christensen, a parent activist and the Vice President of Education Policy at the California Policy Center, a conservative public policy think tank, said that without statewide curriculum or proper implementation, many instructors will be ill-equipped to handle difficult conversations.

He fears teachers may wind up teaching their students not how to critically think, but what to think, letting their own biases bend media literacy lessons. Students would be better off if teachers stuck to their own subject expertise, instead of attempting to shoehorn in weighty issues, Christensen argued.

“Most teachers aren’t media literate in the first place, so we’ve now emboldened people to be more aggressive about calling out what they think is true or false,” said Christensen.

But Monta Vista high school senior Taryn Lan said she’s benefitting from the lessons, which have helped her to be a better reader and writer when it comes to consuming online content.

Now at the end of the school day, she can sit across the dinner table from her dad and have a productive conversation without raising their voices.

“We have different perspectives because of the news outlets we’re reading and we talk through that, like ‘What did you hear?’ ‘What did you hear?’” Lan said. “And we figure out more about the story and do research.”

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