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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Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Doubting in the search for common ground

Sunday promises to be an interesting day. Some of us from our Quaker meeting are going to visit a Quaker church to experience how it conducts its services.

At our “unprogramed” meeting, we worship in silence. Our lack of doctrine and dogma makes us pretty much a theological blank slate.

The stirrings of spirit begin in inner stillness.

At “programed” or “pastoral” Friends churches, congregations have pastors and they worship, well,...we’ll see.

For decades, the divided Quakers have been trying to find common ground, or at least reach a better understanding of each other.

The Sunday visit, and a companion exchange visit to our meeting house in May, can be seen as part of that effort.

Those of us planning to make the trip Sunday, got a hint of what awaits us when we received a welcoming e-mail from the Church’s pastor.

He called the up-coming visit “exciting.”

To prepare us for pastoral, programed worship, he e-mailed the biblical text to be discussed Sunday.

As you might imagine, we “unprogramed” Friends are not prone to Biblical quotations or close reading of Biblical text. Our “text,” such as it is, is spoken out of the silence by those who are moved by the spirit to speak.

In silent worship, anyone has the potential of being a “minister.”

So what is the text the pastor forwarded?

It is John 20:19-29 and recounts how “Doubting Thomas,” on the day after the resurrection, came to believe that Christ was risen from the dead.

The passage begins with a stunner:

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

Whoa! Hold it right there!

Wasn’t Jesus a Jew? Weren’t the disciples Jews?

Are we Quakers on the same page about that?

What’s with this “for fear of the Jews” business?

That’s a little like saying you lock your doors for fear of Americans, or Christians, or human beings.

No, Jews were on both sides of that locked door.

John is starting with a big credibility problem.

Talk about doubting!

This guy and/or his numerous translators and transcribers clearly have their own agenda. It’s called “enemy making.” Christ had some things to say about that.

Okay, with raised brow, let’s pick up on the passage:

“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Perhaps Jesus (or John) is saying that we should forgive the kind of prejudice we see in the first part of the passage. I’d like to think so. Could this be a candidate for common ground?

Most of what happens next in the passage focuses on Thomas, the infamous doubter. At this point, I’m with Thomas. I doubt too — not Jesus, but John.

As for the resurrection, my belief — and this could cast me into some kind of eternal damnation — is that the resurrection is no more and no less than one of history’s greatest metaphor.

In preparation for the excitement of our Sunday get together, the pastor has added “queries” for us to consider for discussion about John’s scripture:

One of them is: "What captures your attention from this passage?"

If the answers are anything like mine, they should clearly expose diversity and differences among Quakers.

Finding common ground will be exciting indeed. Not to prejudice the proceedings, but my guess is it resides beyond words, written or spoken.

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