CRT and Media Literacy: Necessary Partners for Teaching the Truth

By stephanie flores-koulish, PH.D, namle board member

The NAMLE21 conference theme this past summer was Social Justice, and throughout our planning process, we witnessed a rise in various forms of repression related to acknowledging truths embedded in our U.S. society. In fact, to counter this rising tide, #TeachTruth rallies, sponsored by the Zinn Education Project happened across the U.S. just this past weekend to spread awareness that the legislation being proposed in 28 states to prevent teachers from teaching about racism and oppressions in our society is antithetical to good teaching, or teaching the truth.

So much controversy has emerged in recent months about Critical Race Theory (CRT) and its role in education, which should beckon media literacy educators to wonder how we might respond. First, it’s important to provide a basic definition of CRT; Learning for Justice defines it as “a school of thought that explores and critiques American history, society, and institutions of power (including government and legal systems) from a race-based perspective.” Some media literacy practices could easily neglect the tenets of CRT, but a meaningful and robust media literacy curriculum would not. The process of media literacy education involves teaching those same truths of endemic racism in society through the analysis of media texts. The primary reason is that racism, the air we breathe, inevitably plays a part in media institutions, and therefore, CRT must also play a part in media literacy practice as a part of a complete education process.

As examples, NAMLE’s analytical questions fall within 3 categories: authors and audiences, messages and meanings, and representations and reality. For the category of authors and audiences, NAMLE suggests we ask, “Who made this?” or “Who paid for this?” When asking about the purpose of a particular piece of media, unpacking economic intentions and motivations inevitably play a part in the analytical process. That is, big media are a major engine of corporate America, beholden to shareholders and corporate interests, and their raison d’etre is to increase their bottom lines. As a result of longstanding, ongoing discrimination against people of color since the founding of our nation, there are significant wealth disparities between White people and people of color. Therefore, the target audience for most media include those with the most disposable income, frequently White people, even if the gaze is on Black bodies. Black entertainers have had influential sway in media productions, but most often in a way that’s built for White consumption. Elvis Presley is but one classic consumer of Black culture that resulted in huge monetary gain, but there are countless others. Simply analyzing the purposes of media productions, therefore, compels us to include discussions of race and racism in U.S. society.

But there’s more. When practicing media literacy and analyzing responses to or meanings of media messages, NAMLE suggests we ask, “How might different people understand this message differently?” We urge students to think about others’ perspectives, because we cannot help but see a media text through our own viewpoints using our cultural lenses, shaped by aspects such as our family, our community, our values, etc. Bronfrenbrenner’s ecological systems theory (1977) is useful here to name these categories of influence on our development, and the theory compels us to combine with CRT, given that racism in U.S. society pervades each of the concentric circles surrounding a child here.

Bronfenbrenner’s (1977) Five Ecological Systems

We are helplessly bound to the legacy of slavery and discrimination necessitating education practices like media literacy that require us to unpack, acknowledge, and perhaps one day atone for our mistakes. The questions emanating from the media literacy category of messages and meanings help in this process. Asking about the techniques used to attract our attention could lead us to consider some of these ideas. Asking these questions begins the process of unpacking and acknowledging for sure. Asking how different people might understand this message differently affords us the opportunity to consider empathy in our perceptions. As for atonement, following analytical skill-building as described above, the process of (student) creation could yield independent creations that begin to move the needle for the revolutionary changes CRT reveals.

Today, seemingly more than ever before, representations and reality are ripe categories for analysis. Misinformation is pervasive, and some might argue that it’s a process of obfuscation that’s illustrated by the type of legislation being attempted in these 28 states. In other words, CRT’s very intention of unpacking the roots of racism in our society is being portrayed as a threat to our democracy. Simply teaching the truth has become a dangerous refrain in the news media, seeping into the consciousness of individuals willing to disrupt democratic processes happening in school board meetings and state government. Misinformation has as its intention to confuse and subdue points of view, and clearly the campaign against CRT has met with pockets of success. If we are perennially being exposed to life as a shell game, then cynicism or apathy sets in to prevent us from acknowledging truths of our past, because why should we trust any particular perspective? Apathy breeds inaction, and thus, we cease to evolve in the ways that are needed, in the ways that bring about the reconciliation required to acknowledge and heal from our brutal racist underpinnings. By ignoring and neglecting to acknowledge these truths through processes like media literacy education, endemic racism persists. Schools must encourage students to unpack the credibility of media messages to determine whether we are hearing facts, opinions, or something else? And teachers should be able to continue to inspire a hopeful future where students engage in active inquiry and critical thinking to promote a robust and equitable democracy for everyone.

If we engage in “active inquiry and critical thinking about the messages we receive and create” with utmost integrity, then we would be committing a type of media literacy malpractice without a consideration of the ways that racism is bound up in our media institutions. As we learned from many of the robust presentations at #NAMLE21, social justice and media literacy are partners, and CRT is one of a suite of important social justice perspectives we should fully embrace. And therefore, yes, CRT should play a part in the underpinnings of media literacy practices. And yes, media literacy educators should respond in solidarity with educators who are calling for teaching the truth now more than ever before. 


Stephanie Flores-Koulish is a Board Member of the National Association for Media Literacy Education. Her primary area of expertise and research has been within the field of Critical Media Literacy Education since the mid-1990s. Read her full bio here.

The views and opinions expressed on the Community Spotlights are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of NAMLE or its members. The purpose of Community Spotlights is to provide authors with a place to share their reflections, opinions and ideas.