Media Literacy and Media Advocacy for Social Work: A Toolkit for Faculty and Students

Profile of person holding a globe.

Social workers can use media literacy and media advocacy skills to share information about their fields of expertise, influence policy and advocate for social change.    

This resource is designed to prepare students to inform about issues, teaching them to access, critically evaluate and create media that counter misconceptions and more effectively inform and influence policy. The exercises can be used to help students join the public conversation about the issues they care about, and advocate for social change efforts via social media and popular news outlets.   

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Published November 30, 2021

How To Use This Resource

View Social Work and Media Advocacy Overview (2:45 min)

Select desired learning objectives and related resources using the Lesson Plan Checklist below.

Social Work and Media Advocacy: Overview

Media literacy and advocacy skills help social workers share their knowledge and advocate for the people they serve. This is especially important in the practice of international social work. Yet, according to Lens (2002), social work curricula pays little attention to media literacy and the importance of developing the skills to publish about issues in the popular media.

The course materials on this page are designed to: a) help students cultivate media literacy; and, b) practice skills to engage in media advocacy, so that as new practitioners they can join the public conversation about their fields of expertise, and advocate for social change efforts. Each of these aims is relevant for interrelated reasons.

First, media literacy is crucial for social work, particularly international social work practice. Students must learn how to recognize superficial representations of local and global issues in other regions of the world.  They must understand how misrepresentations can negatively shape public perception and affect foreign aid and other policy decisions.

Second, research by Chitat, Chang and Sage (2020), shows that social work students who publish and share knowledge in the media can better inform and educate communities, and have the potential to advocate and influence public policy and social action. 

The materials provided here address both aims.  They are designed to equip students to critically take in media and news stories and understand issues relevant for social work, particularly on the international stage. Students will practice applying the more sophisticated lens of trained and experienced professionals, like seasoned journalists and social workers, to the media they consume. Exercises here will help them hone skills needed to be informed. With these tools, they will also begin to produce and publish written work or video clips that, like good journalism, have the power to educate and influence decision-makers.

While the focus of these exercises is on global issues, materials can be adapted to focus on any topic, from local to global.

The steps:

  1. Preliminary “building block” media literacy exercises. These exercises are designed to help students analyze, evaluate media and eventually produce their own media messages about their work and areas of expertise with global and local communities. 
  2. Media creation exercises. These assignments are designed to help students prepare for writing and publication. 
  3. Media advocacy exercises.  These exercises have students producing social media posts, a vlog, video or editorial.
  4. Extra, optional course resource: Creating media for publication as part of a virtual international classroom collaboration and exchange.


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: Introducing Media and a Critical Approach to Reading and Viewing News Items On and Offline

These exercises are designed to help students analyze, evaluate and ultimately produce media messages about the topics social workers are concerned with both in their local communities and in broader global contexts. 

The aim is to assist students in becoming discerning media consumers, and ultimately create their own written and video communications that are sufficiently nuanced, demonstrate interconnection among local and global issues, and that keep sight of local perspectives.  They address common challenges faced when reading, viewing and creating media 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 and contrast how different news mediums differ in their news coverage.
  • Students will evaluate how facts versus opinions are reported in news coverage.

The ability to discern reliable and trustworthy sources is an important aspect of media literacy. While universities offer curated lists of credible sources and website, social workers with media literacy skills can curate reliable media sources of their own. Examples of curated sources are provide below.

Exercise: Identify a national or global news story that is of interest to you, such as Haiti's battle against cholera or the World Cup changes in Qatar. Choose three different news mediums to follow the topic- MSNBC, Fox News, the New York Time, the Washington Times, the New York Post, USA Today, local newspaper- for several days to a week. 

Keep a log of what you notice. Are there subtle or obvious differences in their coverage? 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 you discovered.

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 depends on multiple things: context, narration, opinion, and more.

The ways writers and news outlets, like TV stations and newspapers, cover a topic or event depends on the outlet, the editors guidance and editing, and the writer's personal view or background. A political commentator takes an opinionated stance because that is the job description. A crime writer on the police beat will focus on the basic facts. There is more variation depending on the type of publication. A newspaper like the New York Post may highlight a sensational story like this "NYC Principal's Wife Rakes in Cash from Dominican Teachers Paying Steep Rent." A story on the same subject may be difficult to find in the New York Times. The latter may not have covered it at all.

In the example for this assignment, consider three stories related to the May 2022 shooting in a grocery store in a Black neighborhood in Buffalo. 

The first is by Ja'han Jones, a blog writer for the liberal MSNBC evening show hosted by Joy Reid. He wrote commentary about the Buffalo shooting and focused on the shooter's white supremacist ideology. Jones believes that white parents need to learn about and teach antiracism to their children. He was concerned about the push-back on the teaching of critical race theory in schools. Jones worries that if white parents do not teach their children about antiracism, more attacks like the Buffalo shooting will occur. He is also concerned about those who want to censor the history of racism in the United States.  

Contrast Jones' approach with the reporting of Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck, both Buffalo News reporters. They covered the shooting in a more face-based manner. Their article details the investigation into a group chat that the Buffalo shooter created 30 minutes before the attack started. In the online chat, members frequently discussed white supremacy and other racist ideologies.

The third example by Fox News was also factual. While the news outlet has a reputation for conservative, right wing politics, its stories about the shooting were straightforward.

As you review the stories, what differences do you notice in the approaches?

Is the story by Michel and Herbeck mostly factual? Does the reporters' opinion come through? 

How does the Fox News approach to the topic differ? Is there any evidence of the outlet's reputation for conservatism and right wing politics? Is there anything telling about the sub headline that called the shooting "alleged"? What about the quotes, which may be questioning the veracity, around the FBI's description of the attach as "racially motivated violent extremism."

What else do you notice? Try to come up with five observations. Write a summary conclusion with at least one or two insights. 

Curated resources on social policy and international social work include:

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:

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? The exercises included in the website below will help you 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 human 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 (to be completed independently or in small groups):

After familiarizing yourself with the 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: 

Additional Exercises

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. Inform students whether citations should be included in their responses.

  1. 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?
  2. 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 Creation: Assignments to Prepare and Practice for Publication

Publish! Create empathy, insight and real-world impact! This assignment will help students get ready to publish on social media, on an online platform or via the popular press. 

As social workers in training, you are beginning to practice and learn about communities that may be poorly represented and dimly understood by the general public. This lack of understanding keeps people from responding with empathy, creating fair laws, allocating appropriate levels of funding and implementing just policies. By using your social work lens to publish, you can share your point of view to effect people's understanding and perhaps even influence policy and positively impact communities. 

Research shows that advocacy pieces published in newspaper editorial pages can influence policy decisions. 

The four publishing exercises below are designed as a starter kit to help you practice the ingredients to publish persuasively and coherently about a topic, as a practicing social worker or social worker in training, that could benefit from greater public awareness: from conditions in Haiti to funding disparities in education.

  1. Find an essay you like at These 500- to 600-word essays have their roots in the 1950s when radio pioneer Edward R. Murrow asked people from all walks of life to share a core belief (example). NPR revived the series in 2006 and that led to a book of collected essays. Now continues to collect good essays about core beliefs—rice for Thanksgiving, the power of hello and there's no such thing as too much barbecue. Find one that resonates — extra points if it connects to social work, its related values and principles — analyze its structure and set up and then write about one of your own core beliefs. See the attached assignment sheet for details that include information on developing a headline as a thesis before you start writing and considering essay principles of ethos, pathos and logos as you analyze and do your own work. 
  2. Interview someone and share their story. In this exercise, practice listening and writing about someone else's experience when they felt understood or misunderstood and the impact of that human connection or disconnection. The assignment sheet details will coach you through working with another person, making sure they are sharing a story that is okay to publish and talking through the setup. Before you start, find a story you like on NPR's StoryCorps. The directions in this assignment sheet will involve recording a 20-minute interview on and writing a 200-200 story from these notes, learning how to apply the journalistic 5@s to add essential context.
  3. Connect with a student from another country, exchange experiences and use the tools from the two previous assignments to write a 500- to 600-word story about what you learned from the other person. In the end, you will share the story with your partner, make adjustments and, with their permission, publish it on a forum you agree to.
  4. Write about your experience with the three previous assignments and the work impacted your understanding of social work and the available opportunities to publish in popular media forums. As you develop this final essay, you should write with the intention to publish. 

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 or other video or presentation software, 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:  

  • Introduction (3-4 slides) – 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.   
  • Human Rights Perspectives (1-2 slides) – 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.
  • Localize Story (1‐2 slides) – 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.
  • Diverse Perspectives (1 slide) – 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. 
  • Conclusion (1-2 slides) – 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. 
  • References (1-2 slides) 
  • Contact Information (optional slide)

Examples: Local to Global Issues Padlet

Alternatives assignments:

  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 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 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

Associated Press Writing Style

Associated Press Style, the writing style used throughout this website, is also adapted with some variation in the popular press and by university communication departments, including the University at Buffalo. It can be distinctly different from the academic writing style.

While it appears to be less formal, AP Style has the same goals: transparency, attribution and clarity. If the way language is used here seems different than what you’re used to, it is because we are introducing AP Style as a concept in preparation for the social-media publishing assignment. Purdue University’s Owl Guide offers a great orientation.


This module was created by Laura Lewis, PhD, assistant dean for global partnerships and co-director of the UB School of Social Work's Institute on Sustainable Global Engagement (ISGE) with contributions from Filomena Critelli, PhD, associate professor and co-director of ISGE; Michelle Kearns, educator and journalist; and Jesse Orrange, graduate assistant. We hope these materials enable students to better write and publish about issues they care about — and, more importantly, to effect change.

Contact Us

Laura Lewis, PhD, LCSW 

Filomena Critelli, PhD

Institute for Sustainable Global Engagement

Thank You

Thank you to the Katherine Kendall Institute for International Social Work for their generous funding in support of this project.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

How to Cite

Lewis, L., Critelli, F. (2023) Media Literacy and Media Advocacy for Social Work: Turning the Lens on Social Justice. Retrieved from