Media Literacy: The Potential of Video Essays

John and Hank Green are influential people within the free-education community. They have founded many YouTube channels, including Crash Course, a channel with over 1,100 videos and 10.6 million subscribers as of April 2020. This channel provides 101-level scholarly information, and its content has branched out to include book clubs, entrepreneurship, video-game history, and even media literacy.

Engaging and accessible video essays make me optimistic for the future of our species. Content like Crash Course videos has the potential to create an educated global populace. This content is cheap and concise, and it reaches more people every day.

Quality educational content on YouTube is getting better, and new channels are added constantly. Video essays are digestible, engaging, and easier to consume for people who spend most of their time on YouTube, Audible, or one of the various podcast platforms. This academic tilt in the world of online video has a huge upside: accessibility.

If someone has internet access, they can effectively take any college 101 class and learn about filmmaking, video-game critique, house building, water purification…effectively, they can access the collective knowledge of our species for free. The content is there, and even more is being produced. But how many people have internet access?

According to the Pew Research Center, the median number of adults who own a smartphone is 76 percent in “advanced economies” and 45 percent in “emerging economies.” People ages 18–34, unsurprisingly, make up a much larger portion of those smartphone owners. Young people are the ones about to enter the workforce and shape the future of our globalizing culture; they are the people who need access to free knowledge the most, and they are the ones seeking it out.

During the summer of 2016, the United Nations declared internet access a human right. While quality content and accessibility are both taking big strides toward an educated global populace, there is one major problem with video essays on sites like YouTube and Vimeo: many videos are opinion pieces, and many are deceptively presented in an academic tone without being based in fact.

Video essays need to be reliable if they are going to continue educating us. Essayists are responsible for the content they produce, but there will always be an excess of content. With excess comes poorly made content and poorly fact-checked content. What needs to become widespread is analysis and evaluation of information. In order to trust the knowledge we are receiving, we need to research and fact-check the source.

Renee Hobbs, a cofounder of the Partnership for Media Education, recommends asking these five questions when choosing to trust a piece of media:

  1. Who created this message, and what is the purpose?
  2. What techniques does it use to attract and hold attention?
  3. What lifestyles, values, and points of view does it depict?
  4. How might different people interpret this message?
  5. What is omitted, or left out?

The least natural step necessary to educate a global populace through free content is to train everyone to be skeptical and skilled at judging the validity of content. But in the face of widespread fear and distrust of news outlets and media in general, we need to become more media literate if we want to have agency over our lives.

Thanks to Crash Course’s media-literacy playlist, anyone with an internet connection can learn how the media landscape is constructed, how it got the way it is, and how to interpret the information so they can trust what they read, listen to, or watch.