Like so many New England Law | alumni, Tamara Sobel earned her law degree to improve lives. And today she is—just in a way she didn’t expect: as an advocate for media literacy education. This is her story.
“People often don’t realize how much power and influence the media has in our lives,” says Tamara Sobel. From our spending habits to our relationships, from the things we eat to the stereotypes that affect us: “Consciously or unconsciously, what is created and seen in the media can play a role in all these things.”
In an era of “fake” or false news, media literacy has become more important than ever. “When so many people get their information on key issues online,” Sobel says, “we absolutely have to have the skills to determine what's true and what's false.” Among other things, this means teaching people to recognize objectivity as well as bias in the media they consume. “It doesn't matter what your political views are,” she says. “We all need to know the facts and know how facts can be hidden, manipulated, or just missing.”
According to Sobel, media literacy means several things, including:
- Understanding the role and power of the media, particularly in the digital world
- Having the skills needed to recognize accurate information and find trustworthy sources
- Knowing how to use the Internet and social media in safe and responsible ways
The New England Law | Boston alumna has been an advocate for media literacy for most of her adult life. At Media Literacy Now, where she’s the Massachusetts Director of Legislation, Policy & Community Organizing, Sobel promotes media literacy legislation and policy in the state.
“Part of our challenge is helping people just to understand the idea of media literacy, why being able to analyze media content is so crucial,” Sobel says. “It really has the potential to change how people think and act.” Media literacy can lead to better health outcomes, financial decision making, and more. “It couldn't be more important for young people today.”
Law school fueled Sobel’s passions for both improving lives and sussing out the facts, and she became a public interest lawyer after graduating. Some years later she found herself immersed in media literacy education as another cause worth fighting for.
“I was living in New York City, where advertising is just all around you,” Sobel says. One ad from that era was a game changer for her: it showed a man with a liquor bottle straddling a woman lying in the sun with her eyes closed. “A lot of people thought the ad conveyed a really harmful message trivializing and commercializing potential violence against women, especially because in reality intoxicated men account for a large portion of those who are violent toward their romantic partners,” Sobel explains. So she started a feedback campaign against the ad, and with help from the still-nascent Internet (this was pre–social media!), the movement grew.
With questions around the liquor ad and its First Amendment protections swirling, Sobel’s legal background came into play. “I found it was important to educate people about what the First Amendment did or didn't prohibit, so they could feel free to voice their opinions,” Sobel says. And she maintains taking a stand against such ads isn’t contrary to having free speech—it’s part of it. “Challenging how media is used in public spaces is also a right we have,” she says. “Many laypeople didn't understand this idea that we can talk back to the media creators, ask them to change. Now it's very common for people to voice their objections to particular media content, but back fifteen or twenty years ago it wasn't.”
Sobel ultimately found herself in a meeting with the CEO of the liquor company, explaining why people were upset about the ad and providing facts about the correlation between alcohol use and violence against women. Two days later he told her he decided to remove all 10,000 of the offending ads.
“That was quite a moment,” Sobel says. “I realized here was another way I could use my research and persuasive skills to do something related to women’s equality and safety.” It also sparked her interest in exploring the vast impact of the media on public attitudes and behavior.
She then started the Girls, Women & Media Project, an activism network designed to educate and empower people to see the connections between media and equality for girls and women. Her interest in media literacy grew, and she eventually connected with Media Literacy Now, a group that advocates for legislation and policies that promote media literacy across the country and world. She has led the Massachusetts branch since 2017. The organization also celebrated a legislative win in the state recently, with a media literacy requirement passing with a civics education reform bill in the summer of 2018.
“The bill's provision on media literacy is short but very meaningful,” Sobel says. “Civics is about preparing students to participate in our democracy, but you can't effectively participate in a democracy if you don't know how to find real, true information on what's going on in the world.” For the first time in Massachusetts, the bill will codify that contemporary education includes being able to evaluate both print and digital information pertaining to civics and social studies topics—essentially current events and news. “That’s really big,” Sobel says. “I think it will really empower young people to be able to better understand the world, the government, and their options as citizens and voters and leaders.”
Sobel’s work with Media Literacy Now has her doing everything from talking to policymakers to testifying at public hearings to planning campaigns that mobilize voters. And because media literacy education touches on so many different subjects, she gets to delve into health, social studies, and economics, among other things.
Even though she hadn’t done policy advocacy before joining Media Literacy Now, the work feels like a natural extension of her law background. “I especially like when I’m asked to interpret or develop legislative or policy language,” Sobel says. “I’m using my legal drafting skills and trying to make a difference on a large scale.” And she says changing the world for the better is what drove her to law school in the first place.
“New England Law prepared me well, both for my earlier career as a public interest attorney in government and now as a policy advocate.”
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