I first came across media literacy not as an advocate nor as a teacher but as a high school senior in 2017. My junior year of high school coincided with the 2016 Presidential election. Buzzwords like “fake news” and “disinformation” saturated the pixels on my computer screen, and questions about journalistic integrity and objectivity permeated the very ink of the articles I read. The 2016 election imbued me with a great appreciation for journalism. More importantly, it explicitly put media on my radar.
Inspired by my newfound interest in journalism, I signed up for my high school’s Mass Media class my senior year. I expected to learn about the history of print journalism and to maybe even gain insight into the inner workings of broadcast media. Instead, the class challenged not only my narrow conception of media but my worldview as well.
The class’s very first assignment was to track media usage over the course of two weeks. I can easily recall the hubris I felt when I received the assignment. Confident that I only engaged with “prestigious” news media, I felt ready to impress the teacher. However, my hubris quickly faded into a sense of revelation. The teacher clarified the assignment, asking the class to track every piece of mediated information we consumed. He began to detail a list that included newspaper articles, social media posts, television shows, movies, podcasts, blogs, advertisements, and even billboards. By the end of the two weeks—with a long, dense list in front of me—my understanding of media had completely transformed.
I have since spent the last three years of my life studying media. I have read research papers about the post-truth era, I have analyzed two-hour long films shot by shot, and I have thrown around names like Jacques Lacan, Edward Said, and Laura Mulvey. Nevertheless, I often return to the lessons I learned in my high school Mass Media class. There, I learned what I think is perhaps the most fundamental lesson in media literacy: how to be aware.
In War and Peace in the Global Village, the pioneering media theorist Marshall McLuhan writes, “one thing about which fish know exactly nothing is water.” My high school class taught me that the media are so ubiquitous, they frequently go unnoticed. My high school class taught me to see and understand the water.