Saturday, April 10, 2010

Media must teach Media Literacy

For several years I’ve worked to spread the “Media Literacy” gospel. But starting a couple of years ago, my interest began to wane.

Media literacy sets out to get the citizenry thinking “critically” about media and its impact on us, as individuals, as a community, as a society and as pebble in space.

It also encourages us to act on our findings.

Laudable objectives all. So why have I drifted away from the movement?

I haven’t given myself the opportunity to explore the answer to that question. The short answer, I suppose, is that other things came up. Another more compelling answer is that media literacy, despite its importance, has never seemed to gained much traction.

But why?

A List of Questions and Answers

This week I was confronted with these questions in another form by a colleague in the media literacy movement. Erik Vidstrand first pulled me into the media literacy orbit when he founded the Northwest Media Literacy Center, now called Media Think.

This week Erik invited me to join him for two You Tube discussions about Media Literacy. I declined but promised to address a list of questions he sent.

In trying to answer them, I found myself exploring my flagging relationship to the media literacy movement.

So here are my answers to the the most challenging questions on Erik’s list.

What does media literacy mean in 2010?
It continues to mean questioning content and assessing media’s motives and impact. Literacy results from an awareness of several principles, the most telling being “All media messages are constructed.” Who is constructing this message? Why? For whom? etc.
But media literacy is about more than the messages. It’s about media themselves, as separate from content. How does each new medium (Twitter, texting, Facebook, iPad etc.) change us as human beings? How does it change what we do with our time, with how we relate to each other? Media shape and define us. We need to be aware of how and what should and can be done about it.

Has the ability to access on-demand multimedia changed the conversation over media literacy?
I’m not sure there was a “conversation” to begin with. And if there was, I don’t know what it was. If anything has changed conversations in the past decade it’s not the on-demand nature multi-media. It’s the interactive aspect of the internet. We now can talk back to media. Indeed, all that talk becomes powerful content. It’s a sprawling, messy “conversation” writ very, very large.

What is the responsibility of the public when it comes to checking the "credentials" of a media source, including blogs, legacy media and podcasts?
The question implies a public responsibility. The first responsibility rests with the communicator, not the audience. Today that first responsibility is crumbling. Money has always motivated communicators, communication and messages. It only gets worse as media expand.
And credibility, fairness and civility are less and less valued largely because they are money losers.
Today media are largely about entertainment — often masquerading as “information.” The public has given up on making distinctions between journalism and entertainment. Along the way, the susceptible have bought into preposterous, anger-inducing claims.
What’s the need to be responsible when the media assumptions have nothing to do with responsibility. Does entertainment, as opposed to journalism, need to be responsible?

What are the impacts of citizen journalism on society?
We need to teach journalism as a fundamental skill — like arithmetic and reading — so that future citizens can create it and assess it responsibly. In general, citizen, watch-dog journalism has made “professional” journalism better.

With the rise of hyper-local journalism due to the continuing decay of international and even national news coverage, whose responsibility is it to inform the public?
The rise of hyper-local journalism is possible because of technology, not the decay of international and nation coverage. The decline of the latter has more to do with economics of journalism and drive for ever higher profits in the industry.
We all have a responsibility to inform the public of matters that have serious consequences to us. Those matters may be happening as far away as Afghanistan or as close to home as our neighborhood’s preparedness for disaster.

As media have become largely a series of sound bites, what is the modern value of extensive and detailed coverage on important new and cultural issues?
I don’t agree with the premise that “media have become largely a series of sound bites.” The internet allows us to probe for information at great depth. The problem is that we don’t use that capacity. Instead, we stop with the superficial. Media now presents “bursts” of information and has conditioned us to having flea-like attention spans. And that means we have trouble connecting information, or following an argument. As noted, media have changed us and how we receive and process information.

What are three guiding principles for the public to apply when assessing the media?
I don’t know about principles, but here are a few questions: Ask whether what you are seeing or reading is true. Is it creating a “false reality”? Is it “enemy-making”? Is it making you unduly afraid? Complacent? Dangerously angry? Is it appealing to your intellect? To your emotions? Is it harmful to your physical and mental health? Is it beneficial? Is it a waste of your time and energy?
Consume media with a constructive purpose. Never consume it because you “have nothing else to do.” You always have something else to do. Do it!

Answering my own question

In answering Erik’s questions, I see that I haven’t answered my own. Why have I drifted away from the media literacy movement?

I think it is largely because media control the agenda and the public consciousness, and the one thing media don’t want is to have media literacy on that agenda.

The great media critic Neil Postman wrote at the end of his classic “Amusing Ourselves to Death” that the only hope for a change in awareness about media is for media literacy to be part of the educational curricula.

But as I write this, schools and education are losing in competition to personalized, fragmented, pervasive media.

I predict that in 10 years virtually all classes will be on-line. Students won’t be taught by flesh-and-blood teachers but, at best, by images of teachers — and images of the world. And an image world, as we have seen, is quite different from the real one. Likewise “image teachers.” Students must be able to make the distinction between the two worlds, but will they be taught to? I doubt it.

McLuhan famously noted that the medium is the message. It may be worse than that: In a media-saturated world, the medium is reality.

To change reality, change the medium. Or better yet, experience reality directly, media free. On those occasions when you do expose yourself to media and their messages, compare them to what you know to be true from your direct experience of the world.

Media managers, of course, have no reason to spread the profit-threatening media literacy message.

Until there is one, or until it is required (like warnings on cigarette packs), media literacy will be adrift.

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