Turning the Lens on Media Advocacy and Human Rights Perspectives in Social Work

Applying Media Literacy Skills and Human Rights Perspectives

Profile of person holding a globe.

Social Work and Media Advocacy: Overview

Media literacy and media advocacy skills are important for social workers, especially so in the area of international social work. Students must learn how to recognize superficial representations of global issues, and of other regions of the world. They must understand how these misrepresentations can negatively shape public perception, and affect foreign aid and other policy decisions. According to Chitat, Chan and Sage (2020), social work students can use media advocacy to better inform and educate communities, influence public policy, and create participatory action. Unfortunately, there is little attention to media literacy and advocacy in social work programs (Lens, 2002). 

This lesson plan provides a blueprint for preparing students to inform about issues, teaching them to access, critically evaluate and create media that counter misconceptions and more effectively inform and influence policy. Materials are designed to equip students with the knowledge and skills needed to inform about issues on the international stage, applying a global human rights perspective to educate and influence decision-makers through media outlets that matter to them.  

Preliminary "building block" exercises are aimed at building media literacy skills. Intermediate exercises are provided that offer students additional opportunities to apply and practice these skills. The final Media Advocacy Assignment has students producing media messages, developing a vlog or short video, writing an editorial, or blogging.  

An optional collaborative online component is detailed where students and faculty can collaborate on assignments across countries and/or disciplines. This option allows students to make connections to people from other cultures, enhancing their confidence in using and developing intercultural and interpersonal skills.

We hope that the widespread adoption of this content will help to internationalize programs by enhancing students’ critical engagement with global issues and, more importantly, prepare them to effectively influence public perception and public policy related to important global concerns.

Note: While the focus here is on global issues, materials can easily be adapted to focus on any topic of interest, from local to global.   


Media literacy is defined as the ability to critically analyze media for accuracy, credibility, or evidence of bias 

Media advocacy is defined as producing media to effect action, influence policy, or alter the public's view of an issue.

Building Blocks: Preliminary Media Literacy Exercises

The following exercises are designed to help students analyze, evaluate and ultimately produce media messages about global issues that are sufficiently nuanced, demonstrate interconnection among the countries, and that keep sight of local perspective. They address common challenges such as: 1) locating credible sources; 2) including diverse perspectives; 3) fact-checking and spotting misinformation; and, 4) applying a human rights perspective. 

Credible Sources

Estimated Completion Time: 30 Minutes

Learning Objectives: 

  • Students will compare how different news mediums contrast in their news coverage.
  • Students will evaluate how facts versus opinions are reported in news coverage.

The ability to locate reliable and trustworthy sources is an important aspect of media literacy. University libraries often curate credible sources for students on their websites. University at Buffalo Libraries, for example, provides a listing of social policy resources. Other examples of curated sources include:

A listing of global information resources, including country profiles, international public policy information and NGO Directories can be found here. Online databases such as Global Issues in Context require a library subscription while others are public. Country profiles can be found at the Library of Congress site and United Nations Data.

Exercise: Identify a national or global news story that is of interest to you. Follow different news mediums for a period of several days to a week to locate any subtle or obvious differences in their coverage. For example, how does your hometown newspaper report on the story, versus a national news paper? How does a more liberal news channel cover the story, versus a more conservative channel? Write down your observations, and then write a one-page reflection on any difference in perspective.  

This exercise should demonstrate to students that not all news mediums cover stories in the same way, and that the way a story is told may change based on who is telling it. The way a news story is covered is determined on multiple things: context, narration, opinion, and more.

The Importance of Diverse Perspectives

Estimated Completion Time: 30 Minutes

Learning Objectives:

  • Students will judge how stereotypes are related to cultural and economic power.
  • Students will evaluate and offer critiques on how stereotypes are perpetuated in the news media.

Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminds us that stereotypical representations of people and places in the news results in stories that are incomplete. Authentic stories, conversely, allow for the reader to make broader connections to the topic, to understand the multiplicity of identities of people involved and the range of perspectives at play.   

Exercise: View The Danger of a Single Story Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The danger of a single story. Share two or three takeaways from the talk. Also, share if this talk inspired you to look at your writing differently in any way. Where might you begin the story? How might you broaden people’s understanding? 

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie states, "Show people as one thing over and over again and that is what they become." What do you think she means by this? How are stereotypical representations of people related to issues of economic and cultural power.

Your response to each question should be four to seven sentences long.

This video serves as another great example of how media representations of a person, place, or thing, can greatly vary from news mediums to news mediums. Remember that 'the danger of single story' can apply especially in the case of Haiti, where Haitians may not be given the equal opportunity to tell their own stories.

For more perspectives, watch these videos.

How 'voodoo' became a metaphor for evil

"It Is Offensive" Haitian Activist Says It's Not Up to U.S. to Determine Haiti's PM or Future

Fact Checking and Spotting Misinformation

Estimated Completion Time: 30 Minutes

Learning Objectives:

  • Students will analyze how fake news spreads, and articulate what causes this misinformation to spread in the first place.
  • Students will identify ways to corroborate facts.

The ability to spot information- verifying and clarifying information through a process of fact checking - is an important media literacy strategy.

In an era plagued by fake or false information across various media channels, being able to corroborate facts is absolutely necessary for media analysis.

But how can one learn to properly check facts, and identify if information is true or false? Listed below are a few exercises to get started.

Download and complete the worksheet found on the following website: 

University of Texas at El Paso Evaluating Websites Assignment

Applying a Human Rights Perspective

Estimated Completion Time: 30 Minutes

Learning Objectives:

  • Students will assess how different human rights issues are covered in the news media.
  • Students will observe which humans rights values are most prioritized in the news media.

Media coverage of global issues is too often problematic, with reporting on matters of human rights insufficiently nuanced. Media coverage of Haiti, for example, includes narratives that reproduce racial stereotypes, and that fail to consider social problems in their broader geo-political context (Ulysse, 2010; Potter, 2009; Balaji, 2011).

Exercise (This exercise can be completed independently or in small groups.):

After familiarizing yourself with principles of human rights using the resources below, use the attached Checklist to evaluate a news article or video segment on a global issue. Students can also apply and comment on related discipline-specific values and principles. Social work students, for example, can apply core values of respect, equity, ethical practice / integrity, openness, and reciprocity. Relevant principles of social work practice that align with a human rights perspective include: 1) the inherent worth and dignity of human beings; 2) doing no harm; 3) respect for diversity; and 4) upholding human rights and social justice.  

Students of other disciplines can identify and apply related values and principles associated with their profession. 

Sample readings and resources: 

Intermediate Exercises: Media Literacy Practice

Instructors select a set of readings related local or global issues (or ask students to identify relevant sources), and then assign 1 or more of the following related activities to students. Students should include citations in their responses.

  1. Choose a section from assigned readings that you found to be most interesting, or most troubling, or most challenging for you. Write a brief discussion of why you found this to be a main or key section. Why did you identify it? Explain what about this section caught your attention.
  2. Choose any three quotes that you feel are especially important in the readings and explain why they are significant.
  3. Demonstrate your critical thinking and reflective abilities by evaluating the selected readings. Explain any biases, lapses in logic, faulty assumptions, lack of data, or analytical problems that you may observe. Alternatively, explain how effectively the author(s) utilized, organized, and analyzed their subject matter. If you were to rewrite this selection, how could you improve this work?
  4. Do you feel that the perspective taken or the issue itself is just wrong? Reflect on why you feel this way. Write an alternative perspective which will either suggest alternative ways of approaching this issue or suggest potential solutions for resolving a problem.

Media Advocacy Assignments

Instructors identify or ask students to identify an issue (local or global). Students should be reminded to avoid stereotypes, simplistic or neocolonial portrayals and misrepresentations of other nations and cultures. Students should include citations in their responses. 

Assignment: Educate about a social justice issue (e.g., poverty, racial inequity, lack of access to education, homelessness, etc.) by creating a vlog (or short video) using Adobe Express, combining voiceover narration with images. The goal is to synthesize information on your topic and communicate the important points in an aesthetically pleasing and compelling way to viewers that may be unfamiliar with the chosen topic. Students are encouraged to use their creativity and make their presentation engaging, including photos, brief YouTube clips, campaign slogans, or other illustrative materials as part of their video. Students begin by developing a script of approximately 400-500 words. Optional: Add music (either your own, or from Express' included music tracks) to your video. Approximate Length– 4 to 5 minutes. It should take students approximately 2 hours to edit a video once all materials are gathered. Include the following:  

  • (3-4 Slides) Introduction– Using at least 3 credible sources, provide an overview of why this problem/issue merits attention (e.g., Describe the scope of the issue or problem. Who has been affected? How many people have been affected? How widespread is this problem?). APA citations are required.   
  • (1-2 Slides) Human Rights Perspectives- Identify relevant human rights considerations, and any elements of bias, privilege, and oppression that are important to the topic. Point out a few keywords or issues in your topic of choice- this can be done via bullet points or use of buzzwords. Focus on 2 to 4 key problems.
  • (1‐2 Slides) Localize Story- How many people in a certain neighborhood or community are affected by the problem? Make any statistics human and local by consulting local news sources. Not all of your classmates will have the same information as you do on your topic, so keep that in mind.
  • (1 Slide) Diverse Perspectives– Obtain perspectives of those close to the chosen issue. Students might reach out to a community member, journalist, social work practitioner or researcher/faculty member that works in the identified area. Ask your person to answer one or two prepared questions about your topic in order to obtain detailed answers. Quotes from a newspaper or other article are also acceptable - be sure to include citations. Obtain a signed video release form if your presentation will be posted to a website – sample located below under the Other Helpful Resources section. 
  • (1-2 Slides) Conclusion– Choose one or more of the following to guide your conclusion: Argue for specific changes in public policy to adequately address the issue; Suggest what could be done to alleviate broader societal conditions that lead to the issue or problem; Suggest actions someone in your profession could take to address the problem. For example, social workers might suggest responses at the micro, mezzo and/or macro levels of social work practice. 
  • (1-2 Slides) References
  • (1 Slide) Contact Information (optional)

Example- Anti-Asian Discrimination and the COVID Pandemic by Jesse Orrange

Alternatives to the above assignment:

  1. Select a newspaper article on a global issue you care about, and then write a letter to the editor taking a position that you feel to be significant. You might: a) agree with the article and say something else about the topic; b) disagree with the article and explain why; or, c) provide some additional information about the subject. Alternately, write about an issue that has not been covered in the paper, but is important. Cite at least one fact you uncovered from your own research. Note whether you support or reject the value premises, intellectual orientation, or position taken in the popular press on the subject. Be sure to cite your sources. 
  2. Write a blog post about a global concern as if you were writing a letter to the President, or other decision maker. Argue for specific changes in public policy to adequately address the issue or suggest what could be done to alleviate broader societal conditions that lead to the issue or problem. Include facts you have uncovered from your own research. Be sure to cite your sources. 

Virtual International Classroom Collaboration and Media Advocacy

Collaborative projects help to enhance student learning by exposing them to a broader cross-national and/or cross-disciplinary perspective. Instructors agree collectively on a shared assignment, technology that will be utilized and timeline. Preliminary exercises focused on the countries involved in the collaboration help prepare students for the exchange. Instructors individually prepare students using by providing helpful resources, i.e., country data, specific disciplinary information, etc.   

Components include:

Synchronous (Live) Session Introductions and Icebreaker– Students introduce themselves and share a social issue that they care about and why. Instructors provide information about assignment.

Asynchronous (Offline) Students work individually or in groups on common assignment. These are posted to shared folder or online forum such as Padlet for student viewing by agreed upon deadline.

Synchronous (Live) Session Presentations and Discussion– Students are encouraged to share their experiences. Instructors help to identify key learning, such as how issues are similar or different across countries, processes that could be employed to effect change, misconceptions that were uncovered, etc.  

Asynchronous (Offline) Reflection– Students write a Personal Reflection Paper (1-2 pages) responding to the prompts below or others identified, submitting to individual instructors by agreed upon deadline.  

  • What I learned
  • What I would do differently
  • My thoughts going forward

Other Helpful Resources

Purdue Online Writing Lab- Information on APA Citation  

Citing Audiovisual Content- Information on citing film, video and images

Annotated Bibliography- to be posted at a later date

Sample Video Release Form


Balaji, M. (2011) Racializing Pity: The Haiti Earthquake and the Plight of “Others”, Critical Studies in Media Communication, 28(1), 50-67, DOI:10.1080/15295036.2010.545703.

Chitat, C. & Sage, M. (2019): A narrative review of digital storytelling for social work practice, Journal of Social Work Practice, DOI: 10.1080/02650533.2019.1692804.

International Federation of Social Workers. (n.d.). Global statement of ethical principles. https://www.ifsw.org/global-social-work-statement-of-ethical-principles/

Lens, V. (2002) Sound Bites, Spin and Social Change, Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 22(3-4), 39-53, DOI: 10.1300/J067v22n03_04.

National Association of Social Workers. (n.d.). Code of ethics. https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/Code-of-Ethics-English  

Potter, A. E. (2009). Voodoo, zombies, and mermaids: U.S. newspaper coverage of Haiti. Geographical Review, 2, 208-230.

Ulysse, G. A. (2010).  Why representations of Haiti matter now more than ever. NACLA Report on the Americas, 43(4), 37-41. 

United Nations Office of the High Commissioner. (n.d.). What are human rightshttps://www.ohchr.org/en/what-are-human-rights

United Nations Office of the High Commissioner. (n.d.).  Human rights resources and library. https://www.ohchr.org/en/library

United Nations Research Guide and Library. (n.d.).  https://research.un.org/en/un-resources/topic/humanrights