Newswise — KINGSTON, R.I. – Jan. 31, 2023 – The horrific death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of Memphis, Tennessee, police officers has again spurred calls for reform in police training. One tool in that training should be media literacy, says Renee Hobbs, professor of communication studies in the University of Rhode Island’s Harrington School of Communication and Media and an internationally-recognized authority on media literacy education.

Media literacy instruction helps cadets and current officers use video and digital media to strengthen critical thinking and communication skills, says Hobbs, founder and director of URI’s Media Education Lab. In 2022, the Media Education Lab collaborated with the Austin, Texas, Police Academy to create the first-ever professional development program for police instructors on media education.

“Video is a major tool in police training,” she said. “But videos can reinforce racism and decrease empathy for people with mental health problems or other disabilities. When police instructors get training in media literacy, their empathy for citizens increases and police instructors shift their interpretations of excessive use of force.”

Media literacy lessons that activate empathy, critical thinking and communication skills helped police instructors in Austin gain an understanding of how media messages about law enforcement shape perceptions of both police and citizens, Hobbs says. The program helped them recognize how videos used in police training can normalize or disrupt patterns of racial bias, stereotypes, and inappropriate use of force. 

Through the collaboration, the Media Education Lab helped Austin police instructors learn to make more informed choices of videos and critically analyze the videos that are used in police training. 

“Long before an individual decides to apply to the police academy, he or she has formed opinions about law enforcement and violence from a variety of media sources,” said Hobbs. “But police instructors are largely unaware of the many ways that media depictions of crime affect people’s attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Through a professional development learning experience, police officers can reflect on their own biases in the interpretation of the use of force and notice how those perceptions are influenced by different types of media.”

Hobbs’ research focuses on the intersections of the fields of media studies and education, including in the areas of media literacy, digital literacy, and contemporary propaganda. Her Media Education Lab recently partnered with the national nonprofit Media Literacy Now to provide free access to the Media Literacy Implementation Index, allowing schools and communities across the country to measure how prepared their students are at spotting false and misleading information. 

Hobbs is available to speak on the power of video as a training tool and the importance of media literacy in the training of police officers. The online curriculum, which includes lesson plans and videos, is also available, along with program evaluation data, on the Media Education Lab website: