Media Literacy: A Student’s Resource

by Genevieve Carlton

Updated May 10, 2021 • 5 min read is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Are you ready to discover your college program?

Not sure if a news source is credible? Use this toolkit to help you spot fake news, make informed decisions, and write stronger papers for class.

What's the best way to evaluate sources? How can you spot fake news and replace it with better sources? Our media literacy for students toolkit dissects the fact-checking process, including how to research the author and critically evaluate the content of a source.

By following these steps, you can identify problematic news sources and find reputable resources for your assignments. More importantly, you'll strengthen the skills you'll need to be an informed media consumer long after earning a degree.

Infographic titled 'Gut Check: Is This Source Valid?' Text as follows: Who's writing it? If it's hard to determine, that's not a good sign. Is the author an expert? It's a red flag if their background and education aren't related to the topic they're debating. Who does it serve? Who stands to gain from this content? How does it make you feel? If you're feeling upset, consider whether the author is trying to provoke a reaction bigger than the subject matter merits. What is its purpose? Is it to inform, entertain, or persuade? What assumptions is the author making? What things go without saying – and do you agree with them? How will the content help the author (or publisher) make money? Does its commercial value undermine or conflict with its objectivity? Who does it portray in a positive – or negative – light? Credible sources strive for representational fullness, including acknowledging where insights are limited. Is it verifiable? Dig deeper if major news organizations aren't publishing the same facts. Click on the source links. Does their information come from credible sources?

Authors (Ethos)

Evaluating an article's author is the first step in determining if you've found a good source or need to dig further, but you should look for more than simply a name. Ask yourself: Does the person's background indicate that they bring expertise in the topic? Has the author published other pieces with reputable organizations?

In addition to looking for author information, check the author's relationship with the publisher. Are they a regular contributor, a one-time guest poster, a full-time staff member, or a freelancer? If you can't tell who wrote the piece, that's a red flag.

  • What does the author share about their background?
  • Does the author's experience or education reflect what they're discussing?
  • Does the author seem knowledgeable?

Article's Audience (Pathos)

Who is the intended audience for the article? Asking this simple question can go a long way toward determining whether or not the resource is trustworthy for your purposes. For example, if the article is aimed at children, it is probably simplified, meaning itmight not be the best resource for a college paper.

Ask whether the piece wants to elicit a particular response from its intended audience. Many articles aim to shock or outrage readers rather than inform them.

  • Who was this written for?
  • What values or preconceptions do the author and audience have in common?
  • Who else might be reading this and why?

Article's Form (Logos)

When evaluating articles, readers should critically examine the format. Sometimes the format — like an op-ed — indicates the author's goals and the standards for evidence.

The way authors choose to organize and present information can also be a clue to its reliability. For example, some pieces take a factual tone and present facts in sequence, while others emphasize a mystery or hook, then reveal information out of order. Identifying the form can provide clues about the author's intention.

  • Does it follow the conventions (standard expectations) of other articles like it?
  • How is information arranged?
  • How would you describe its style and tone?

When you read something, ask yourself: Why should I believe this? What reason, evidence, or justification did the author provide?

Author's Intention (Telos)

What motivated the author to write the article? Do they want to inspire, entertain, or inform the reader?

Understanding the author's goals is a powerful tool for evaluating sources. Readers can examine clues like the author's central argument, whether the writer asks readers to take action after reading, and how the author handles counterevidence to analyze the author's intention.

  • Why did the writer write this piece?
  • Is there a call to action, such as steps the writer wants you to take?
  • Does the article feel balanced or fair?

Article's Context

Removing material from its original context makes it more difficult to evaluate. Who published the piece? Did you find it on a website, in a journal, or in a book?

When you have context, it's easier to identify flaws in an article's information. For example: Are you reading a news piece written several years ago? That data might be out of date. By contrast, scholarly works generally don't have the same "expiration date" as journalism, so an old study is more relevant than an old news article.

  • Where was it originally published? Where did you find it?
  • When was it created? Where was it created?
  • Is the writer applying it outside of its original context?

Article's Content

Content matters for media literacy. When reading an article, you should critically evaluate connections made by the writer, along with the types of evidence they bring to bolster their arguments.

Ask yourself: Does the author bring in counterarguments or simply ignore information that doesn't agree with their perspective? Do they present contradicting information fairly? Are they using logical fallacies?

Check the piece's citations. Are they reputable sources? Also consider the types of evidence the writer uses. Peer-reviewed data from reliable scholars matters much more than anecdotal evidence.

  • What's the article's main idea? Does the author stay on topic?
  • Does the author include and fairly address counterarguments?
  • What kind of evidence does the author provide to support their claim?

Key Terms

  • Rhetoric: language intended to influence people
  • Ethos: the author's credibility or trustworthiness
  • Telos: the author's purpose, object, or goal
  • Pathos: the author's emotional appeal to their audience
  • Logos: the author's appeal to the audience using logic or reason
  • Epistemology: the study of knowledge — as opposed to beliefs or untruths

Why Media Literacy Matters

Media literacy isn't just for school. Yes, knowing how to critically evaluate information will help students succeed in the classroom, but building strong media literacy skills also helps in other areas of life.

The ability to identify "fake news" makes learners more informed citizens and voters. When students strengthen their critical thinking and analytical skills when it comes to media sources, they also become more thoughtful citizens.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Are Examples of Media Literacy?

Media literacy includes asking questions about a piece's audience, the author's goal in writing, the information included and excluded from a piece, and whether a piece uses reputable sources. Readers can increase their media literacy skills by critically analyzing content like newspaper articles and social media posts.

How Can You Spot Fake News?

Readers can identify fake news by applying media literacy skills. This can mean asking questions about the author, the piece's goals, the intended audience, and the content.

What Are the Seven Media Literacy Skills?

In a 2004 book, W. James Potter, a professor at University of California, Santa Barbara, identified seven media literacy skills: analysis, evaluation, grouping, induction, deduction, synthesis, and abstracting.

Header Image Credit: Francesco Buttitta | Getty Images

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