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Media literacy: what are the challenges and how can we find a solution?


As governments seek to address a wide variety of digital age problems, media literacy (or digital literacy) is often cited as a solution, in part because it is far less controversial than trying to regulate the internet. LSE Professor Sonia Livingstone, Chair of the LSE Truth, Trust and Technology Commission, emphasizes the complexities of media literacy challenges and the first steps policymakers should take. This post is based on her talk at a UNESCO event for Global Media and Information Literacy Week 2018.

The last time I wrote about media literacy, I was delighted to find that as the media increasingly communicates everything in society, it becomes increasingly important to ensure that people have the media literacy not just to interact with the media, but also interact with them through society through the media. But I was also frustrated with some of the superficial gestures of policymakers towards media literacy and media education, seemingly without understanding what it is about or what the challenges are.

Silver ball solution?

In our increasingly complex media and information environment, media literacy is celebrated as a panacea – hopefully through one-off awareness campaigns by brand-promoting CSR departments or through vaguely worded highs – temporary injunctions handed over to the (apparently unheard and otherwise busy) Ministry of Education. The motivation is rarely pedagogical, but rather the politics of the “last resort”.

Given the numerous problems with hate speech, cyberbullying, hacked YouTube content or fake news, etc., we are therefore seeing urgent calls to better manage the media environment – especially to regulate the internet. But in the face of the clash of positive and negative rights, regulatory difficulties, powerful global corporations, and short-term political expediency, this call quickly turns into a call for the supposedly “softer” solution to educating the Internet-using public.

Let me be clear I am 100% in favor of educating the public. I’ve spent years advocating more and better media literacy. In this digital age, I believe the time for media literacy has come and its proponents should seize the opportunity with both hands and use all their energy to move forward.

But energy and enthusiasm are most effectively spent when the challenges to be mastered are properly identified. Let me present these as I see them so that our energy is not wasted and the window of opportunity is lost.

First, three educational challenges

  1. investment. Make no mistake: Education is an expensive solution in terms of time, effort, and infrastructure. It needs pedagogy, teacher training, curriculum resources, audit and evaluation mechanisms. Governments devote an entire ministry to administering the schools – at the same time they are severely criticized for their failures and at the same time they are constantly besieged to solve other pressing problems facing society.
  2. Reach adults not in education or training is an even greater challenge that is not met in any area of ​​demand. So who is responsible and who are or should be the actors of change? The answers vary depending on the country, culture, and purpose. However, they should be identified so that the actions of civil society, public services such as libraries, industry and other private actors can be coordinated.
  3. Worsening inequalities. We like to see education as a democratization mechanism, because everyone has the right to school and training. However, research shows time and again that education affects life outcomes differently, benefiting those already beneficiaries and not sufficiently benefiting the less-beneficiaries, especially the so-called “hard-to-reach” ones. What proportion of media literacy resources will be made equal to all (thereby exacerbating inequality) and what proportion will be given to those who need it most? (I don’t know the answer, but someone should know).

Then there are the challenges of the digital

  • Mission Creep. As more and more of our lives are conveyed – work, education, information, citizen participation, social relationships and more – the scope of media literacy grows accordingly. Just today I was reading admonitions on my Twitter feed to make sure people were:

– Understand how automated black box systems make potentially discriminatory decisions

– Distinguish the intention and the credibility signals behind misinformation and disinformation in order to combat “fake news”

– Identify when a potential abuser is using their smart home technology to spy on them

– Weighing the privacy impact of using public services in smart cities

So it is important to set some priorities.

  • Readability. As I noted earlier, we cannot teach the unlearnable, and people cannot learn to read the illegible. We cannot teach people data literacy without transparency or what they can trust without authoritative markers of authenticity and expertise. So people’s media literacy depends on how their digital environment has been designed and regulated.
  • Shifting the positive. The rapid pace of socio-technological innovation means everyone is struggling to keep up, and just fighting the new damage that unexpectedly emerges is extremely demanding. The result is that attention to “hygiene factors” in the digital environment dominates efforts – so media literacy is limited to security and protection. Our greater ambitions for mediated learning, creativity, collaboration and participation are postponed endlessly, especially for children and young people.

For the media literacy community itself, there are some very real challenges in terms of expertise and sustainability. These can be boring or even invisible to those calling for the silver bullet. But they are important.

  • Capacity and sustainability. The world of media literacy encompasses many small, enthusiastic, even idealistic initiatives, often based on a few people who have remarkably little sustainable funding or infrastructure. The world of media literacy is a bit like a start-up culture with no venture capitalists. We can tell a good story, but there is always the risk of losing what we have achieved and having to start over.
  • Evidence and assessment. If you look closely at the evidence cited in this area, it is not as robust or precise as one would like it to be. Even if the now tiresome debate about definitions of media literacy is put aside, the difficulties of measuring remain. Perhaps, due to the lack of agreed action, there is more evidence of results than results, of short-term reach rather than long-term improvement. There are remarkably few independent assessments of what works. Compare media literacy interventions with other types of educational interventions – where are the randomized controlled trials, the systematic evidence reviews, the targeted attention to specific subsets of the population, the calculated assessments of benefit versus investment?

Lastly, there is the politics of media literacy

  • “Responsibility” of the individual. In politics in particular, the call for media literacy and education to solve the problems of digital platforms leads individuals, albeit unintentionally, to deal with the explosion of complexities, problems and possibilities of our digital society. In a political field in which governments fear that they lack the power to take on the big platforms, the individual must become wise, knowledgeable about the media and rise to the challenge. Since, of course, the individual can hardly be successful where the governments cannot, the politics of media literacy risks not only incriminating the individual for the problems of the digital environment, but also blaming them.

As Ioanna Noula recently put it, “by emphasizing friendliness and ethics, these approaches also undermine the value of conflict and dissent in promoting democracy” and they “decontextualize” citizenship so that “the attention of concerned adults and youth alike is diverted “. of the social conditions that make young people vulnerable. ”Instead of empowered media-competent citizens who exercise their communicative claims, the focus is therefore on conscientious citizens as part of a moralizing discourse.

How can we turn things around?

I make three suggestions to end on a positive note:

Before advocating media literacy as part of a solution to the latest socio-technological diseases, we should take a holistic approach. That said, let’s get the problem really clear and see what role media or digital technologies play in this problem – if any! We could even ask for a “theory of change” to clarify how the various components of a possible solution should work together. And if you get ambitious now, how about a responsible organization – whether local, national or international – tasked with coordinating all of these measures and evaluating the results?

Then let’s find out all the other actors so we can articulate what part of the solution media literacy can provide and what others will contribute – regulators, policymakers, civil society organizations, the media itself – thus avoiding the insidious tendency towards the whole problem, Throwing media educators at the feet. We could also expect – demand – that the other actors embed media literacy expectations in their DNA so that all organizations creating the digital environment share the task of explaining the way they work to the public and providing user-friendly accountability mechanisms.

Finally, let’s take the questions of value, empowerment, and politics seriously. How does it look good? Are they dutiful citizens who are nice to each other on the Internet and behave properly? Or are they weighing, debating, even contradicting citizens? Citizens speaking out through digital media, organizing through digital media, protesting to the authorities and insisting to be heard? I think it should be the latter, not least because our societies are increasingly divided, angry and disempowered. It is time for people to be heard, and it is time for the digital environment to deliver on its democratizing promise. However, this requires a change from policy makers. We shouldn’t just ask whether people trust the media or trust the government. We should also ask ourselves whether the media trust people and treat them with respect. And whether governments and related authorities and civil organizations trust people, treat them with respect and hear what they say.

This article represents the views of the author and not the position of the LSE Media Policy Project or the London School of Economics and Political Science.


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