Media Literacy in the Time of COVID-19

August 25, 2020

Once again, a national crisis has called attention to our country’s need for media literacy education. COVID-19 is not only a pandemic – it has inspired an accompanying infodemic, as well, and we are all trying to sort through this latest onslaught of information, fake or not. At the same time, COVID-19 promises to upend many aspects of life that we as Americans have long taken for granted. Today, starting a new school year is no longer exciting and something to look forward to – but instead, children’s education is increasingly becoming the parents’ responsibility, with school being perceived as a dangerous place, whether because of infectious diseases or school shootings or “rape culture” at universities.

In a July 2020 survey of California parents that the Center for Media Literacy (CML) conducted, only 44.4% said that their children’s schoolwork helped them learn to question the information they were receiving about COVID-19, while 93.62% of these parents said that they support improving their children’s critical thinking skills through the teaching of media literacy at school. There is definitely an enormous gap between supply and demand when it comes to teaching media literacy in California schools – and the same is undoubtedly true across the nation. California parents also indicated that they are ready for change in how their children are being educated: 72.6% of parents said they were willing to continue homeschooling their children if given the opportunity. In interviews with parents, CML learned that parents are considering pods – small groups of children identified through neighbors or friends – for study groups and socializing, or for hiring teachers or tutors full or part-time, while other parents are going it alone or longing for “the way we were.” But more than likely, “school” will never be the same again.

Media literacy is uniquely suited to serve as a unifying, interdisciplinary framework for this new way of teaching and learning. Today, content is plentiful – but schools are still organized as if content is scarce. When information is available at the touch of a button, and the best teachers can be available through Zoom, it is essential to teach children the process skills of media literacy from an early age, so that youth learn to access, analyze, evaluate, create and participate with media in all its forms. It is these skills and instruction on process that are scarce, when they should be plentiful. There is now global demand for media literacy, but not enough trained people to teach media literacy, since media literacy has seldom been taught in teacher education programs or in classrooms.

Instead of a factory-model of education where seat time is the measure of success, media literacy provides critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication – all essential in a globally-connected world. Students learn to acquire, contextualize and apply content knowledge through a process of inquiry, learning through meaningful and exploratory ways, rather than through directives and rote learning. Students learn to navigate media as a global symbolic system, and they learn how to operate in the virtual world as well as the “real” world. From a youth’s perspective, there is no difference between these worlds; they are merged and seamless. It is through the small screen of a smartphone that young people experience the world, and yet that small screen contains the world. No one knows this more than parents, who realize more than anyone else how important the media is to their children. The need for anywhere, any time learning confronts us every day, and again, a solid, evidence-based media literacy framework is a pathway to helping children make sense of the myriad of messages they receive and produce.

All of CML’s work is based on our evidence-based frameworks, which we developed and evaluated after organizing basic materials for professional development, for parents and for community organizations. The Empowerment Spiral of Awareness, Analysis, Reflection and Action is one such framework; the other is CML’s Questions/TIPS, featuring the Five Core Concepts and Five Key Questions of media literacy ( These frameworks have gone viral globally, and have been translated into numerous languages. But just reading the frameworks isn’t enough – they have to be internalized and applied to any message, anytime, to be effective. Our research shows that CML’s frameworks and methodology do make a difference, with a positive correlation with student knowledge, attitudes and behaviors.

CML was founded by Sr. Elizabeth Thoman in 1989, and in those early days, CML published Media&Values Magazine to help introduce media literacy to the United States. Media literacy does not tell people what to think or how to believe or what choices to make; instead, media literacy helps individuals or groups process information and make their own choices, based on their own priorities and values. Trust in people and their judgment is essential to media literacy; it is the underpinning for encouraging a resilient population capable of discernment and responsibility in a democratic way. Today, NATO has declared media literacy a strategic defense priority; UNESCO has a world-wide program around media and information literacy; the EU and the U.S. State Department have made media literacy a strategic defense priority. 30 years have made a difference, and today, media literacy is a global movement, an academic field with a strong research base, and a pedagogy.

But most encouragingly, media literacy offers hope in a world where we feel discouraged, with COVID 19 ravaging lives throughout the world. We can hope that education will ultimately be bettered through lessons learned during the pandemic. We can hope that media literacy will become central to education, rather than on the periphery. We can hope that the financial, social and human capital needed to build and sustain media literacy will be forthcoming, and that there will be career paths that can make media literacy work financially sustainable. And most importantly, we can hope that education will be tuned to the needs of children, parents and society today.

I have spent 20 years working in the media literacy field, and I see the promise of media literacy more than ever before. How gratifying! Yes, call me a media literacy “hope-aholic.”

Written by

Tessa Jolls

Tessa Jolls is President and CEO of the Center for Media Literacy, a position she has held since 1999. She also founded the Consortium for Media Literacy, a nonprofit which provides research and a quarterly leadership publication. Jolls was awarded the 2020 NATO Fulbright Research Award in Brussels, as well as Visiting Scholar positions at American University/Brussels, UCLouvain, and the University of Latvia Faculty of Social Sciences. She also served as a 2019 Fulbright Specialist for a two-week assignment in Bulgaria.

In 2015, Jolls received the Global Media and Information Literacy Award, in recognition of her work in Media and Information Literacy and Intercultural Dialogue, from the UNESCO-initiated GAPMIL, in cooperation with the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC). In 2014, Jolls was honored with the International Media Literacy Award by Gateway Media Literacy Partners; in 2013, she was recognized with the Jesse McCanse Award for Individual Contribution to Media Literacy by the National Telemedia Council. She was invited to attend the Stanford Graduate School of Business Executive Education, WICT Senior Executive Summit in March, 2018.