Org Partner Spotlight: Northwest Center for Excellence in Media Literacy

Recently Emily Bailin Wells interviewed Marilyn A. Cohen, Ph.D., the Director of the Northwest Center for Excellence in Media Literacy based in the College of Education at the University of Washington. 

Early History

The Northwest Center for Excellence, originally known as the Early Childhood Telecommunications Project (ECTP), was launched in 1985.  Its initial focus was to provide educational programming for Washington’s early childhood community via a network involving all of Washington’s PBS stations.

When Marilyn assumed the position of Director, she gradually began to introduce projects that focused on media literacy education.  At first, she found garnering the support of educators quite the challenge.  She encountered limited interest in the early 90s in introducing media-related topics or what was considered “something solely for the purpose of entertainment” into classrooms. Marilyn did, however, meet with quite a different reception from the health community in her state.  She found especially strong support in Washington’s Department of Health (DOH) where there was increasing concern about the media’s impact on teenagers and an eagerness to consider new approaches to some of the major issues they were confronting.

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Focus on Teen Health Issues

With support from DOH, Marilyn and her colleagues were able to launch in 1994 a series of media literacy-based projects focused on teen health issues. The projects were offered as a part of a new DOH-sponsored initiative; this new initiative was entitled Teen Futures Media Network.  As early Teen Futures projects developed by Marilyn and her staff began attracting attention, other Washington State agencies   (e.g. Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and DSHS) joined in a collaboration with DOH to support media literacy-based health education across Washington State.  Their collaborative efforts made possible in 1997 the first media literacy-based teen health conference ever offered in the U.S.  These conferences were followed in succeeding years by a series of similar conferences all organized by Teen Futures and focused on teen health issues from a media literacy-based perspective.  These highly visible conferences helped raise awareness about the importance of media literacy education and proved an important vehicle allowing Teen Futures to reach out to both the education and health communities in the region.

Since the early 90s, the Center has continued with support from a variety of funding sources to address a wide range of teen health issues including sexual and reproductive health, body image, tobacco, alcohol and other drugs, school violence, and youth suicide.  In 2005 the Center also began addressing the area of nutrition for children and youth as well as their parents.  Healthy eating remains an issue of major concern and has been the subject of several of the Center’s recent projects.

Selection of Center’s Name

In 2007, DOH launched a new media literacy-based health initiative.  While the title Teen Futures Media Network described a series of teen health related projects, a name was needed which highlighted the broad role that media literacy education was playing in driving these projects.  An organization dedicated to providing media literacy education to the region required a name that would highlight its mission. The name that DOH determined as most appropriate was the Northwest Center for Excellence in Media Literacy.

Development of Research-Based Curriculum Materials

In addition to the many resources that the Center provides, a major area of focus has been the development of research-based media literacy curricula addressing health issues.  In 2000, the Center began investigating strategies that could be used to help their staff develop an audience-driven curriculum. Over the years, they have continued to refine the curriculum development model that they have used to guide the design of all new curricula they produce.  The Center is strongly committed to programs developed by and presented by teens; therefore, where possible, several of its materials also have the distinction of involving teens in both their development and implementation.

Current Project: FoodMania: Kids and Food in a Marketing-Driven World

The Center is currently involved in a large-scale research project sponsored by the USDA and focused on a new curriculum it has produced entitled FoodMania: Kids and Food in a Marketing-Driven World.  FoodMania offers a media literacy-based approach to healthy eating and is designed for youth 9-14 and their parents.  Both youth and parent groups, as well as Washington State Extension educators in five counties across Washington, participated in the development of this new curriculum.  The project involves collaboration between University of Washington (UW) and Washington State University (WSU). Led by Professor Erica Austin, WSU, the project brings together the Northwest Center  (UW) with WSU faculty and WSU Extension.  One of the unique features of this five-year research project is that it has provided the opportunity to collect follow-up data with participants who have completed the program.  Based on current data as the project enters its fifth and final year, investigators are very excited about the potential of this promising new program.  The FoodMania curriculum will be available for dissemination in 2017.

Direction for the Future: Media Literacy Education

The Northwest Center for Excellence in Media Literacy  focuses its future on the importance of media education. Research, training and outreach remain critical areas of focus for the center.

  • Research As a former board member of Alliance for a Media Literate America (known today as NAMLE)  and chair of its first Media Literacy Research Summit in 2007, Marilyn notes that there have been important developments in media literacy research; however, there is still a great deal more to be done.  The body of evidence we are amassing has major implications not only for the research community but also for practitioners who find the need to discuss relevant findings as they attempt to convince local school districts to address media literacy education in their classrooms.
  • Training There is an ongoing need to offer high-quality media literacy education training programs in all parts of the country. Training is necessary not only for preservice and in-service teachers but also for all staff working in schools, after school programs and organizations and community groups serving children. Developing more training programs and consider, when feasible, possibilities for providing additional training opportunities online, allows for greater reach towards individuals who might not otherwise be able to participate.
  • Outreach Teachers need to find ways to integrate media literacy education into their current classroom schedules since it is highly unlikely that most will have an opportunity to create new course offerings. Our outreach efforts must also include helping teachers to access resources since many are unclear as to how to go about finding material to meet their needs.

Training opportunities are becoming much more commonplace online and social media is allowing us to reach out regularly with updates to our constituencies while also garnering the attention of new potential supporters. Researchers from around the globe can now meet online to discuss their projects and share ideas and resources without having to shoulder the expense that regular face-to-face meetings would entail. NAMLE is a well-established, vibrant organization with a growing membership and a recognized online presence. Given all the important developments that have taken place during the past 25+ years that she has been involved in media literacy education, Marilyn offers a prediction about the future of our field by quoting the title of a once familiar song, “The Best Is Yet to Come!”

Action for Media Education Celebrates Washington State’s New Legislation

Marilyn and her colleagues in Action for Media Education have a great reason for celebration this year.  Not only is this their organization’s 25th anniversary year, but also members of AME played an important role in Washington’s ground-breaking bill that brings media literacy education onto the public agenda. The bill that was passed in this year’s legislative session includes provisions for bringing media literacy education into all the state’s 295 school districts.

AME dedicated itself to the passage of this legislation which was signed into law by Washington’s Governor Jay Inslee on March 29, 2016. This bill has been a major milestone for Washington and for media literacy advocates across the state.  AME was extremely fortunate to have been able to collaborate with the Washington State Library Media Association and its members throughout the entire legislative process. Their help and support was invaluable to the passage of this bill.  Teacher-librarians who are already positioned in many of the state’s school districts will also play a vital role in the bill’s implementation.

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While it would be very difficult to mention each of the many individuals all across Washington who generously gave their help and support, Marilyn especially wishes to acknowledge AME Board members whose efforts helped bring this bill to fruition: Claire Beach, AME chair, Michael Danielson, Ethan Delavan, Lilia Cabello Drain, Barbara Johnson, Linda Franklin Kennedy, Nick Pernisco and Lynn Ziegler.  We are especially appreciative of Senator Marco Liias who served as the bill’s primary sponsor and its eloquent spokesperson as well as his colleagues Representatives Strom Peterson and Lillian Ortiz-Self, the bill’s sponsors in the House. Marilyn also wishes to acknowledge Erin McNeill of Media Literacy Now for all her encouragement along the way. As Washington becomes the first state to pass this ground-breaking legislation,   Marilyn and her AME colleagues look forward to helping and supporting others in the media literacy community across the U.S. in their quest to pass similar legislation in their respective states.

More about Action for Media Education

As AME prepares to commemorate its eventful 25-year history, the organization’s members also plan to take time to reflect on AME’s many accomplishments over the years.   Its founding members who included the then-Governor’s wife, Jean Gardner, and many other prominent members of the local community were committed to forming an organization that addressed the power of the media and its impact on children and their families. Over the years, AME members have gained recognition for their many efforts to promote and foster efforts supporting media literacy education.  They have developed and implemented a wide variety of media literacy-based projects in both schools and community programs serving Washington’s children.  AME members have served as classroom teachers, community group leaders, curriculum consultants, workshop leaders, and keynote speakers. For more information about AME, please check out its website at

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