Teaching media literacy in a world of active shooters

I teach in a world of active shooters.

Whenever I teach a university-core communication course, I always include a bit of media literacy, even if it’s a speech/interpersonal-oriented class. If this will be the only exposure non-majors receive to the discipline, I believe one of the most practical skills I can teach them is how to be wise consumers and distributors of information.

This is how that played out in a classroom in Arkansas.

It began as an aside early in the semester, when two television reporters in Virginia were shot and killed live on-the-air by a disgruntled former employee, who also filmed a first-person account of the murders and posted it to social media. We talked about social media algorithms and structure, and how, for a brief time, the horrific scene played out on the feeds of users who never wanted to see it, but also never considered autoplay anything but a convenience. We talked about decisions by traditional media to air various edited versions of the video, and the New York Daily News freezing the last facial expression Alison Parker would ever make and slapping it on the front page.

By the time we spent focused lecture time on media literacy, the San Bernardino shooting became our case study. An ever-changing victim count, speculation about motives, a misidentified shooter – we pulled out our smartphones, tablets, and laptops and began searching the Web for information. Students would shout new information from different corners of the room, required to provide both the source reporting the news , as well as that source’s source (e.g., “CNN says 14 people are dead; they’re attributing it to the police chief”). Then we checked to see if anyone found confirming or disconfirming reports, and judged whether or not the piece of information was valid.

At some point, our conversation shifted to campus shootings. In addition to the well-publicized October shootings in Oregon, Texas, and Arizona, there had been one in September at Delta State, just across the Mississippi River. In between, a student at Central Arkansas was arrested for making terroristic threats online.

We talked about what would happen if, God forbid, such an incident occurred on our campus. Where would we go for information? What would we do as potential mass communicators, social networks at our fingertips? What would you Tweet? What would you Yak (quasi) anonymously? (“Wait, professors know about Yik Yak?” one asked.) Suddenly a valued source to the campus, the community, journalists, and loved ones, could you exercise judgment and communicate accurately and effectively?

I didn’t plan the scenario, but it clearly made the class think, not only about how the news gathering process works, but how they contribute to it.

It was an unexpected teaching moment, even if it was grim.

Thursday was the last day of classes for the semester. Students were giving their final presentations when, in between speakers, an audience member jumped in.

“Um. One of my friends just texted me. There’s a shooter at Arkansas State.”

Within the next few minutes, other students began receiving group texts and seeing social media posts from friends on campus at ASU.

Being the final meeting of the semester, we had to finish our work. I felt bad for the remaining presenters; very few in the class were listening to them anymore.

Between speakers, we’d hear an update or two. I began to notice how they were sharing the news.

“I’m in a GroupMe with some friends who go there. They say a bunch of people have been shot.”

“I don’t know,” another added. “The school just sent out a Tweet saying they’ve got the guy surrounded and that no shots were fired.”

Critically analyzing sources. Trying to separate truth from fiction.

We finished presentations with about 15 minutes to spare. But given the choice, most in the class stayed and continued gathering information about the active shooter situation.

As we continued, I asked “Have any of you shared any of this information?” A couple had retweeted the university’s initial alert.

“Anything else?”

“No,” one replied. “I don’t want to be wrong.”

I don’t like talking about this stuff. The rash of school shootings across the U.S. is despairing. I don’t understand it and, though I’m ashamed to admit, it makes me uneasy. I don’t like that it’s something our students have to think about when they walk across campus.

And I don’t like that over the course of a semester, high-profile shootings essentially demanded to be the context in which media literacy was discussed. But I teach in a world of active shooters, and if that is going to be the dark reality, at least it can be used to bring forth some light.


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