Illustration of an open eye and a closed eye, juxtaposed in front of illustrations of newspapers
Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

Scrolling smart

In the face of information overload, the USC Annenberg community cultivates media and news literacy among K-12 students. 

“I’m a girl, but I’m not weak.”

“I’m Asian, but I don’t play piano.”

“I’m Mexican, but I’m not an immigrant.”

These are the voices of South Los Angeles teens confronting stereotypes they face every day in the media. They documented their experiences through video for the #ITOOAM Critical Makers Lab, one part of youth media literacy efforts led by Alison Trope, clinical professor of communication.

Those stereotypes gain their pernicious power from a complicated, seemingly all-consuming media environment. Media — including everything from video sites to feature films and TV, traditional news to social media — play a pivotal role in molding the contemporary experience of growing up in the United States. As of February 2020, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry estimated that teens spend up to nine hours a day on average watching screens.

“We’ve reached peak saturation,” said Trope, who also serves as director of undergraduate studies for communication. “Media is increasingly saturating our lives in different ways, minute by minute, and I think we can agree that it has an impact on how we understand ourselves and others.”

This complex media landscape requires that K-12 students be prepared to analyze and interpret the context and motivations behind the media messages they’re exposed to throughout each day.

USC Annenberg faculty, students and alumni are answering the call and empowering youth to be critical consumers and creators of media. For some, it takes the form of helping young people see through the misinformation and disinformation that often infiltrates social media and news outlets. Others aim to open children’s and teens’ eyes to the harmful ways race, ethnicity, gender and other innate characteristics are frequently represented in media.

“Media literacy is essentially about being a 21st-century citizen,” said Gabriel Kahn, professor of professional practice of journalism, who co-teaches the undergraduate course “Discover, Deconstruct, Design: Navigating Media & News in the Digital Age” with Trope.

“Understanding how these systems work is the equivalent of understanding how a bill becomes a law, because this is how opinions are formed, how decisions get made,” he continued. “Teaching students to understand the media environment gives them greater power over that environment, and greater purpose in the way that they interact with it.”


For Michele Johnsen, a 2015 graduate of the master of public diplomacy program, media literacy is a human right. 

“We are really seeing the damage that can be done with what I call ‘informational abuse,’” she said. “I don’t think we can continue as a global community, as local communities, without giving people some skills.”

Johnsen’s communications agency, Ignite Global Good, is an affiliate of the Center for Media Literacy. Founded in 1989, the center works to translate research into practical instruction in media literacy. This includes training educators, librarians and university audiences, offering resources for and curricula about ferreting out misinformation, and conducting research and advocacy.

“At the center we have five core concepts for media literacy,” Johnsen said. “We believe that children who learn them today will grow into an informed population that is able to make wise decisions tomorrow.” 

These concepts invite thoughtful consideration of integral ingredients for any type of media: the message’s author, the format and creative techniques being used, how different people might understand the same message differently, the points of view represented in the content, and the purpose for which the message is being sent.

Johnson points out that it’s important for people of all ages to effectively interrogate what they’re seeing, hearing or reading, especially if the content pushes their buttons. 

“Outrage tends to turn off that intellectual part of the brain, and people just react out of emotions,” she said. “We’re not saying which media you should or shouldn’t watch. It’s simply teaching the right questions to ask so people can be wiser consumers and producers of media.”

Gaming the System

Ioana Literat, who earned her doctorate in communication in 2015, embraced the mission of improving youth media literacy as a natural outgrowth of her research about how young people express themselves politically online. She was alarmed to see the distortions that youth were exposed to and then passed along to their peers.

“I got to learn a lot about how misinformation circulates among young people, especially on social media,” said Literat, associate professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “With that understanding, I wanted to make creative tools in the fight against misinformation.”

She surveyed what was available to help youth gain a deeper understanding of what they see and hear in the media, and a largely unfilled niche presented itself.

“Games are a really underutilized vehicle,” she said. “They have a way of portraying complex ecosystems in simple ways, and the immediate rewards can really reinforce certain concepts.”

Collaborating with colleagues in education, communication, cognitive studies and game design at Teachers College’s Media and Social Change Lab, which she co-directs, Literat created the card game “Lamboozled!” It launched in October 2020, and an online version is under development.

The game is designed to teach youth about both the things that can be seen right away — such as suspicious URLs or excessive use of all-caps and punctuation, common giveaways that a story is questionable — and more skills-based knowledge — such as the practice of seeking out other news sources covering the same subject matter. 

Eschewing potentially polarizing current events, they set these lessons against the fictional backdrop of Green Meadows and its population of anthropomorphic sheep. And to make the game as accessible as possible, they tested with teachers and schoolchildren, even engaging some kids to create elements of the game. Winners amass a hand with the most evidence about the veracity of a sheep story.

“It’s not about what is real or fake,” Literat said. “It’s more about the process of investigation.”

News to Me

Other USC Annenberg alumni have focused on news literacy, a distinct facet of media literacy in part because of journalism’s unique professional guidelines.

“In news, there are standards,” said Ebonee Rice, who earned a bachelor’s of communication in 2010 and a master’s in communication management in 2012. “There’s a code of ethics, and if you break it, there is accountability.”

She is now senior vice president of the educator network at the News Literacy Project, which has helped teachers develop students’ skills and knowledge to separate fact from falsehood in the news since 2008. One signature offering is Checkology, a virtual classroom with lessons and resources covering topics such as bias in reporting, the basics of the First Amendment and how to effectively evaluate evidence.

“News literacy is really the cornerstone of our democracy,” Rice said. “If we don’t actively empower young people, we are placing them at a great civic disadvantage.”

Another Trojan at the News Literacy Project, Elizabeth Price, serves as manager of professional learning. She helps oversee NewsLitCamp, which provides daylong interactive trainings for educators that include sessions led by journalists in their newsrooms. The program aims to improve pedagogy around the perception of bias, the effects of social media, the basics of how news is reported and more.  

According to Price, who earned both a bachelor’s in communication in 2012 and a master’s in communication management in 2014, the expertise of news professionals is a strength of the initiative — as is the project’s commitment to impartiality. Rather than prompting educators to tell students what to believe, the News Literacy Project’s curriculum enables their audiences to teach vital skills for vetting and unpacking news content.

For instance, Price’s team promotes the “PEP” model, encouraging key qualities that enable better judgment: having the patience to understand what you’re reading, the empathy to put yourself in another perspective, and the persistence to dig deep, with questions delving into what the story is really about, who wrote it and where it’s published.

“We have just about any kind of information we want right at our fingertips whenever we want it, which is a beautiful thing,” she said. “We have to take a step back and realize, having that access includes the responsibility of understanding what’s actually behind the headline.”

Who Are You?

Trope’s campus-based initiative approaches media literacy through issues of identity and representation. She launched the Critical Media Project in 2012 in collaboration with the undergraduates in one of her courses. The project hosts a free online repository of more than 700 pieces of indexed media, along with lessons customized for educational levels from middle school through college. 

Among the vast library are excerpts from movies such as Boyz n the Hood and Shrek, clips from TV shows such as The Simpsons and Stranger Things, news footage from outlets such as CNN and CBS, and online videos from sources as various as Time magazine’s web presence and BuzzFeed.

Each semester since 2015, the project has sent 10 to 15 USC Annenberg students to teach at local schools weekly. Their curriculum, which has reached 2,000 middle- and high-school students so far, explores how media portrays issues such as race, ethnicity, gender and class — as well as how students perceive this media and can, in turn, find ways to represent themselves more authentically.

In addition to media literacy, Trope and her team embed lessons in empathy.

“We learn about ourselves through media, and when we think about harmful stereotypes, we learn about other groups as well,” Trope said, adding that such stereotypes can create divides between people. “There’s already too much hate in this world, even in schools.”

The #ITOOAM Critical Makers Lab began in 2020 to make lessons even more engaging in the face of challenges that came with the pandemic. Undergraduate mentors guide middle- and high-school students in creating their own media that express their identities — in formats such as music videos, collages, audio interviews, comic books and mock movie posters. About 185 students in five South L.A. schools participated virtually this past Spring, and 500 more students in six schools and one after-school program are taking part this Fall.

“This is based in inquiry, not indoctrination,” Trope said. “We’re not telling them what to think about any of this media. We’re trying to get them to ask the questions that help uncover the meanings behind the media.”

Columbia’s Literat — who was a teaching assistant to Trope as a doctoral student — sees the lens of identity for media literacy as an important complement to the question of whether information is accurate.

“Misinformation is at the center of attention, but that’s just one aspect of media literacy,” she said. “The representation part is more important than ever now.”