Do education standards help students’ media literacy?

March 2, 2021

This is part 14 in Sutherland’s new series that seeks to examine how Utah education standards prepare students to be active citizens. In this part, we analyze current social studies standards for grades 7-12. In this review we are looking at all the social studies courses in grades 7-12, except for the required one-semester “civics course” titled United States Government and Citizenship, which was analyzed separately. 

The famous American newspaper legend William Randolph Hearst said, “When free discussion is denied, hardening of the arteries of democracy has set in, free institutions are but a lifeless form, and the death of the republic is at hand.”

Free discussion is key to a functioning republic. And free discussion is often enabled and disseminated through media, so long as freedom of the press is alive and well.

An important debate today revolves around questions like: How free is America’s “free discussion” currently? How well do we as a society invite all viewpoints into public discussions? Does the media have bias – who and how much?

Each of these issues are topics that Americans – including those currently in K-12 education – will need to engage with at some point. School, like the home, can be a place where they are equipped to do so.

The Utah State Board of Education is currently in the standards revision process for the Utah State Social Studies standards only for elementary school grades (kindergarten through sixth grade), but we think it is helpful to review our state approach to civics education at all levels of education. Sutherland Institute is seeking to understand how well Utah’s current social studies standards help students fulfill their duties in civil society and government. For this review, we are specifically looking at freedom of the press.

To assess how well the current Utah standards help students fulfill their duties in civil society and government, specifically with an understanding of the freedom of the press and media literacy, we have decided to look for two main factors: (1) media literacy (vetting sources, media bias, critical thinking skills, etc.) and (2) the basic concept of the freedom of the press.

Social Studies in grades 7-12 (except for U. S. Government & Citizenship course)

Media literacy like vetting sources, media bias, critical thinking skills, etc.

Two standards very explicitly ask students to tangle with issues of media literacy. For example, one standard prompts students to “evaluate the role of the media and propaganda” specifically within the context of foreign affairs. This may lead to discussions about bias and the need for critical thinking and vetting sources.

Another standard has students “use evidence to demonstrate how technological developments (such as television and social media)… have influenced American culture.”

The basic concept of the freedom of the press

One standard says that students “will identify the civic virtues and principles codified by the Utah Constitution.” Likewise, another standard prompts students to look at “ideas” that led to the development and ratification of the Constitution.

Freedom of the press may come up incidentally in some standards. For example, one standard asks students to use case studies to trace and explain why rights of citizens have changed over time. This may include topics like freedom of the press. Another asks students to identify “methods” used during the Revolutionary movement to either justify or resist it. One method certainly could have been the ability to disseminate ideas. Similarly, one standard has students “evaluate the methods reformers used,” including “writings.”


In short, Utah’s grade 7-12 Social Studies courses may invite students to think about media literacy skills, but the topic may be limited based simply on the number of standards dealing with it. There are a few more standards that may lead students to discuss the provisions and principles that deal with a free press. In a world that’s becoming increasingly difficult to navigate, particularly with trying to understand media, social media and the principle of free press, Utah standards could increase efforts to address those issues specifically.

(Note: What’s a “standard”? It is a broad statement of what students are expected to understand and/or know how to do within a certain discipline.

What’s an “objective”? An objective is a more focused description of what students need to know and/or be able to do within a given standard. 

What’s an “indicator”? These are measurable and observable student actions that enable teachers to judge whether a student has mastered a particular objective.)

Jump to different parts of this series:

Utah Core Standards, Objectives and Indicators referenced:

Source: Utah Core Standards, Utah State Board of Education

UT Standard 3.1

Students will identify the civic virtues and principles codified by the Utah Constitution.

U.S. 1 Standard 3.1

Students will use primary sources to identify the significant events, ideas, people, and methods used to justify or resist the Revolutionary movement. 

U.S. 1 Standard 4.1

Students will explain how the ideas, events, and compromises which led to the development and ratification of the Constitution are reflected in the document itself. 

U.S. 1 Standard 4.3

Students will use historic case studies and current events to trace how and explain why the rights, liberties, and responsibilities of citizens have changed over time.

U.S. 1 Standard 5.3

Students will use case studies to document the expansion of democratic principles and rights over time.

U.S. 2 Standard 2.3

Students will make evidence-based inferences about the cultural values of classical civilizations, using artistic expressions of various genres as primary sources.

U.S. 2 Standard 3.2

Students will examine and evaluate the role of the media and propaganda in promoting involvement in foreign affairs, using events such as the Spanish American War and World War I.

U.S. 2 Standard 7.5

Students will use evidence to demonstrate how technological developments (such as television and social media), government policies (such as Supreme Court decisions), trends (such as rock ’n’ roll or environmental conservation), and/or demographic changes (such as the growth of suburbs and modern immigration) have influenced American culture.

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