Media literacy is critical to maintaining quality journalism – Quartz
More than ever, we need good journalism to support fact-based debates. But the publishing business is in crisis. The recent downsizing – roughly 2,000 employees at BuzzFeed, Vice, and HuffPost – is rounding off a brutal decade for the news industry. In the UK alone, the number of full-time journalists fell by 6,000 between 2007 and 2017 (pdf).
In March 2018, the UK government hired veteran journalist Frances Cairncross to explore ways to maintain high quality journalism in a rapidly changing media landscape. The Cairncross Review published its recommendations this week. (Disclosure: I contributed to the report as part of an 11-person advisory body.) These range from helping news publishers to tax breaks and correcting distortions in the digital advertising market by curbing the major technology platforms.
If fully adopted, the recommendations should be a means to prop up revenues and stop the bleeding of the news industry, especially the local press and investigative journalism. But it may not be enough to ensure the industry’s long-term survival. For this, the industry needs a media-competent population that values and promotes good journalism.
The lack of media literacy was shown last year when lawmakers in the USA and Europe asked executives from Google and Facebook about political advertising on their platforms and the political bias of their own employees. The poorly worded questions showed the legislature’s ignorance of the basics of how a search engine or social media site worked.
And media literacy is no better with children. A June 2018 report by the National Literacy Trust found that “only 2% of school children in the UK have the critical reading and writing skills they need to tell whether a message is real or fake”. Even though the UK is widely recognized as the world leader in media literacy education. Media Studies is part of the school curriculum but is not compulsory and is only chosen by 8% of UK high school students.
“Media literacy provides a framework for accessing, analyzing, evaluating, creating and participating in news in a variety of forms,” according to the US Center for Media Literacy. In this sense, “media literacy is required not only to get in touch with the media, but also to get in touch with society through the media,” writes Sonia Livingstone, Professor of Social Psychology at the London School of Economics University blog (emphasis added by Livingstone). .
The basics are simple. Citizens need the basic building blocks of critical thinking: how to judge where information is coming from, its purpose, and what the context of the message tells about its meaning. These are increasingly important life skills in an ever-active media world and could help keep readers from being swayed by Russian disinformation campaigns, thinly sourced clickbaits, or sponsored content masquerading as real news.
Introducing media literacy courses to the entire population of a country, including adults, will not be cheap. For this reason, government awareness initiatives have come and gone quickly in the past. However, any costs associated with improving media literacy are likely to be lower than those of a society with a pervasive lack of this knowledge.
The good news is that even minor procedures can produce positive results. A 2012 review of 51 studies of media literacy initiatives conducted over the past 30 years found that most participants improved their media understanding through a long list of measures.
The thing is, our attention only turns to media literacy when there is some kind of crisis. But the ability to interpret messages takes sustained effort and a long-term perspective. “Investing in media literacy is poor and often wasted if it is not part of a shared, strategic and long-term approach,” concluded the London School of Economics’ November 2018 report “Tackling the Information Crisis”.
Two concrete measures could give a boost to Britain’s media literacy efforts. One comes from the Cairncross Review: Ofcom, the country’s communications oversight, should not only measure the level of media literacy among the UK public, but also work with platforms and publishers to fund initiatives to improve these skills in adults. Another, which was not considered in the review, is to ask the Ministry of Education to make some form of media studies a compulsory part of the school curriculum. And the government should be guaranteed to financially support these two interventions for decades. (While these are specific UK recommendations, most rich countries have similar bodies that can be trusted to do the important job.)
Media literacy will certainly not solve all of society’s problems. But it is clear that a media literate population can handle it better. And so high-quality journalism could find a sustainable business model again.