Critical Media Literacy in Diverse Communities

Routine discussions of “fake news” have prompted widespread calls for media literacy in education. Despite the fact that literacies tied to media, news, and digital formats have been around for decades, legislators and departments of education across the U.S. have shown newfound interest in media literacy curriculum. While this curriculum is certainly welcome, especially with the U.S. lagging woefully behind other nations in these efforts, the vision and implementation largely misses something (Chen 2007, Kubey 2003).

“Critical media literacy,” a subset of media literacy, specifically centers on the fundamental role identity and a politics of representation play in media. As pedagogy, it goes beyond assessing the veracity of media, and instead unearths embedded ideologies and the powerful role they play in relation to identity and diversity. Inspired by scholarly work around critical media literacy (Kellner & Share, 2007; Morrell, 2008), Critical Media Project (CMP) launched in 2013 to put critical media literacy into practice. Unlike many other text based sites, CMP is a free, media-rich web resource for educators and students focused on representations of gender, race and ethnicity, sexuality, socio-economic class, religion, age, and disability. The repository model is ideal because it facilitates literacy through actual media that youth can dissect, challenge or emulate. Through its lesson plans and questions on each piece of media, CMP prompts complex and difficult discussions around identity, privilege, and prejudice. It works to promote empathy and understanding across difference. Students also build capacities to advocate for change through telling their own stories and creating their own media.

CMP has also served as a tool for community engagement. Since 2015, I have sent USC undergraduates into underserved public high schools to teach critical media literacy. Finishing our third year, we have worked directly with three schools, in classes ranging from English to ethnic studies to journalism to filmmaking, reaching approximately 100 high school students each semester. Over these three years, we have developed an 8 lesson curricular unit centered on the questions, “who am I?” and “how am I represented?”

The unit begins with an overview of identity and social construction, using a video called “Being 12.” We follow with lessons on deconstructing stereotypes and seeing how ideology operates through BuzzFeed’s series, “I’m---, but I’m not---” (from our race and ethnicity playlist). Given the impact immigration and gentrification have on the local communities, we explore place and displacement using CMP’s playlist on immigration, diversity, and the “American Dream.” CMP applies an intersectional frame to understanding identity with all media filtered and tagged to help students think about the privileges and/or prejudices associated with intersecting identities. This ACLU video encourages students to grapple with these ideas. Students further consider representational norms and the way industries construct and perpetuate them through examples like “this” and “this.” By the end of the unit, students create final projects. CMP features many basic prompts that situate media genres (music video, PSA, remix, social media storytelling, animation, story map, podcast, vox pop) in the context of the questions of identity and representation students have explored.

While CMP’s high school partnership has had great success, we’ve encountered roadblocks in circulating the curriculum and doing outreach across the district. Some of this is tied to the labyrinthine nature of the school district, but such obstacles also underscore a lack of flexibility in curriculum design and an unwillingness to introduce new resources and materials. Even with the widespread support for media literacy education, its implementation and quality of execution is less certain.


Chen, Guo-Ming. (2007). Media (literacy) education in the United States." China Media Research, 3(3), 87-103. 

Kellner, D., & Share, J. (2007). Critical media literacy, democracy, and the reconstruction of education. In D. Macedo & S.R. Steinberg (Eds.), Media literacy: A reader (pp. 3-23). New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

Kubey, R. W. (2003). Why U.S. Media Education Lags Behind the Rest of the English-Speaking World. Television & New Media4(4), 351–370. 

Morrell, E. and Dunan-Andrade, JMR. (2008). The art of critical pedagogy: Possibilities for moving from theory to practice in urban schools. New York: Peter Lang.

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