5 Questions Students Should Ask About Media

Help kids think critically about the media they consume and create.

April 20, 2016
Kelly Mendoza Director of Learning and Engagement
Common Sense Education

CATEGORIES Digital Literacy, Students, Technology Integration

Interested in helping students learn how to spot a stereotype on a TV show? Or how to identify bias in a news article? Are your students obsessed with becoming YouTube celebs? Do they love to take and edit photos for Instagram? If you answered yes to any of these questions, consider integrating digital and media literacy education into your lessons.

Digital and media literacy expand traditional literacy to include new forms of reading, writing, and communicating. The National Association for Media Literacy Education defines media literacy as "the ability to ACCESS, ANALYZE, EVALUATE, CREATE, and ACT using all forms of communication" and says it "empowers people to be critical thinkers and makers, effective communicators, and active citizens." Though some believe media literacy and digital literacy are separate but complimentary, I believe they are really one and the same. They both focus on skills that help students be critical media consumers and creators. And both are rooted in inquiry-based learning -- asking questions about what we see, read, hear, and create.

Think of it this way: Students learn print literacy -- how to read and write. But they should also learn multimedia literacy -- how to "read and write" media messages in different forms, whether it's a photo, video, website, app, or game. It's through this powerful combination of critiquing media they consume and analyzing media they create that these skills are put into practice.

So how should students go about critiquing and analyzing media? Most leaders in the digital and media literacy community use some version of these five key questions:

1. Who created this message?

This helps students "pull back the curtain" and recognize that all media is constructed by an author with a particular vision, background, and agenda. Yes, this includes questioning the textbooks, apps, and platforms they use.

2. Which techniques are used to attract my attention?

Whether it's a video, commercial, or app, different forms of digital media use unique conventions to keep us engaged.   

3. How might different people interpret this message?

This question helps students consider that people bring their backgrounds, values, and beliefs to the table in interpreting messages. There is no one "right" interpretation.

4. Which lifestyles, values, and points of view are represented -- or missing?

All messages have embedded values and points of view. And oftentimes certain perspectives and voices are missing -- a gap that's important to consider.

5. Why is this message being sent?

In this question, students explore the purpose of the message. Is it to inform, entertain, or persuade, or is it some combination of these? They also explore motives behind sending a message, whether to gain power, profit, or influence. For secondary students, examining the economic structures of the media industry will come into play.   

(See the Center for Media Literacy, the Media Education Lab, and Media Smarts for more ideas.) 

Think about how you can weave these five questions into your instruction, helping students to think critically about media. Could they be useful as students consume news and current events? Could you incorporate these questions during their next multimedia project? Eventually, asking these questions will become second nature to students.

Download our student worksheet (teacher's guide included!): 5 Questions to Ask About Media.

For more media literacy resources, check out our News and Media Literacy Educator Toolkit.

Photo "good question" by Eric. Used under a CC BY-ND 2.0 license.