Becoming Media Literate

by Wanda Dengel - Contributing Columnist



Millions are expected to vote in the U.S. presidential election this November. Elections and voters are crucial to any democracy and an informed electorate is equally important to sustaining that democracy.

The presidential debates are just around the corner with the first debate scheduled for September 26, 2016 at Hofstra University in Hemstead, New York. All major networks as well as cable news channels will carry the debates which are planned to run for 90 minutes. The debates will provide a wealth of opportunities for media literacy lessons, as well as, social studies and language arts. The presidential debates “provide a portal through which students can explore a multitude of topics that are critically important to developing their media literacy skills” and preparing them for the role of informed future voters, write Frank W. Baker and Karen Zill in a MiddleWeb blog.

Baker is a professional development educator who maintains The Media Literacy Clearinghouse website and has written several books. His most recent book Close Reading the Media will be out next year. Zill is a freelance writer who has written teacher guides for public television programs and has written essays and articles on media literacy.

Besides helping students understand the significance of debates in an election year, students can hone their analytical skills by examining the words candidates choose and their use of language. Students can also explore the media’s influence on the debate process and its effect on the viewers and voters.

When students become media literate they not only know how to access the media, but can also analyze and evaluate all forms of communication. Becoming media literate can strengthen critical thinking skills and produce proactive voters.

Teachers of students in the middle grades through senior in high school can help their students strengthen these important skills by probing different aspects of the upcoming televised debates. Students can examine the sponsors of the debates and the words the candidates use during the oral presentations. They can explore the images and the production techniques which include keeping an eye out for the cut-away or reaction shot which is a production technique where the camera’s focus changes from one candidate to the other candidate to record the latter’s reaction. Does the camera appear to favor one candidate over the other? Or the split screen shot which shows both candidates at the same time but appears to favor one candidate’s reaction over the other.

Students should become familiar with some of the terminology commentators use before viewing any debate. They may hear words such as “fact-checking”. Fact checking is a technique that some commentators and journalists use to check the accuracy of what a candidate has said. Do students hear any reference to fact-checking? Another phrase that students might hear is “oppositional research”. This term is used to describe supporters or paid consultants of a political candidate who investigate records as well as past media coverage of the opposing candidate. Students may also hear the word “rhetoric” being used. It refers to a candidate’s ability to use words in a powerful way in either speaking or writing.

Further questions that students can explore are: Who was in charge of the debate? Who decided the questions? Was anyone excluded from the debates? Why? Were topics left out? Why?

Other questions students might consider include: How did staging, symbols, split screen, and cutaways affect the debates? Who sponsored the debates? Who were the advertisers?

To make this media literacy lesson even more interesting, teachers might ask some students to volunteer to only listen to the debates using National Public Radio (NPR) or covering the TV during the airing of the debates. Those who view the debates should consider the non-content of the debates such as that mentioned earlier. This would include the production techniques and the non verbal body language of the candidates. The discussion following such an experiment would be riveting as the perspective of just listening is compared to viewing and listening.

The presidential debates offer educators rich opportunities to draw their students into authentic civics experiences. If there is not sufficient time to prepare students for the first debate, there are two additional debates that can be used to teach students how to become better informed citizens. The second debate is scheduled for October 8, 2016 at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. The final presidential debate will be aired on October 19, 2016 from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

Media literacy is a valuable component of every student’s education, particularly when you consider that these students will become our future electorate in practically the blink of an eye.

Wanda Dengel, long time local and Columbus inner-city schools teacher, can be reached at

[email protected]


by Wanda Dengel

Contributing Columnist