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Media literacy – the most popular solution to regulatory problems


Media literacy is often cited as a solution – but to which problem? In this new blog post for the Media Policy Project, Sonia Livingstone, Professor of Social Psychology at the LSE and Chair of the Truth, Trust and Technology Commission of the LSE, reviews the current debates on media literacy following a recent Westminster Media Forum seminar on fake News she talked about.

Call it what you want – media literacy, digital literacy, critical literacy, news literacy – educational alternatives for regulating the digital environment are proposed by all sides. Oddly enough, however, this rarely translates into specific measures or resources to increase the public’s media literacy. It seems that the mere suggestion is enough to divert attention from the politically undesirable or practically challenging. Media literacy is practically the responsibility of others and these (teachers, pedagogues, ministry of education) are rarely present when it comes to “fake news” or platform regulation or journalistic standards or data exploitation.

At a recent Westminster Media Forum seminar entitled “Next Steps to Tackle Fake News – Impact, Industry Response, and Policy Options,” I heard high hopes for media literacy – for children, for the general public – the consensus being that, as Richard Sambrook put it then and before, this is “incredibly important”. I couldn’t agree more. Indeed, I cannot help but wonder if we would face today’s problems if the media literacy arguments had been heeded earlier.

But what exactly does the call for more media literacy mean?

“Media Literacy… provides a framework for accessing, analyzing, evaluating, creating and participating in messages in a variety of forms – from print to video to the Internet. Media literacy creates an understanding of the role of the media in society as well as skills of research and self-expression that are indispensable for the citizens of a democracy. “(Center for Media Competence)

The more media in society convey everything – work, education, information, civic participation, social relationships and more – the more important it is that people are informed and can critically assess what is useful or misleading, how they are regulated and when they trust the media and what commercial or political interests are at stake. In short, media literacy is required not only to get in touch with the media, but also to get in touch with society through the media.

It will never be a silver ball solution

  • What media literacy entails is a moving goal. As society becomes more and more dependent on the media, the media are becoming more complex, rapidly changing, commercialized and globalized. Hence, any media literacy strategy requires ongoing attention, resources and commitment – to education, curriculum development, teacher training, research and evaluation.
  • We can’t teach everyone everything they need to know. Education has never reached 100% of the population (think of the UK’s struggle to get basic literacy for all). Even if education is not targeted, it tends to widen rather than narrow the knowledge gap between more and less privileged groups.
  • We cannot teach what cannot be learned, and people cannot learn to be illegible. Legal terms and conditions are a typical example. Should we really teach them or make them easier to interpret, as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) promises? In this context, we cannot teach people data literacy without transparency or without authoritative markers of authenticity and expertise that they can trust. So people’s media literacy depends on how their digital environment has been designed and regulated.

Still, let’s make media literacy an integral part of the school curriculum

Media education is expensive because it must be sustained over the years it takes to raise a child. It is also expensive because reaching the adult population certainly requires sustainable and inclusive intervention. However, before you balk at these costs, it may be wise to also calculate the cost – for the individual, for society – if media literacy is not promoted, a population with insufficient critical knowledge to manage their digital security, security , Privacy, citizenship and health is there information needs or consumer rights.

I’ve started asking those who are allegedly in favor of media education where exactly they think it is and should be in the school curriculum. Few can answer. Note that:

  • Media Studies is best positioned to have the most comprehensive display, but it has had unfair bad press for a long time, is not a compulsory subject, and is only attended by a handful of students (8% of GSCE entries in England, 2016).
  • The new computer science curriculum was seen by many as the perfect place to understand the complexities of the emerging digital environment. However, there is considerable skepticism as to whether the English curriculum is working even though things are looking better in Wales.
  • Citizenship is taught and assessed as a foundational subject at key levels 3 and 4, with some interesting resources provided by the professional association. But it has been described as “a second level subject that has been put into a crowded, assessment-oriented curriculum,” so it is unclear what to hope for here.
  • Finally, it is generally said that media literacy is at its core critical thinking (asking for evidence, questioning sources, analyzing claims, considering what is at stake for whom, etc.) and therefore throughout the curriculum from history to science or English; but it is far from clear that this is happening as the political emphasis is on traditional “book learning”.

Media literacy policy – now you can see it, now you don’t see it

As far as I know, media literacy is only mentioned in two places in the regulation:

  1. “OFCOM has the duty to take the measures and reach agreements that it considers calculated” […] to make a difference or encourage others to make a difference [Media literacy]”(Section 11, Media Literacy Duty, Communications Act 2003)
  2. “The Commission shall submit a report on the application of this Directive to the European Parliament, the Council and the European Economic and Social Committee by 19 December 2011 at the latest and every three years thereafter and, if necessary, submit further proposals to adapt them to developments in the field of audiovisual media services , in particular in the light of recent technological developments, the competitiveness of the sector and the level of media literacy in all Member States. “(Article 33, Audiovisual Media Services Directive 2010 – AVMSD)

In practice, both statements have proven to be as strong or as weak as policy makers and regulators would like:

  • Until 2010 Ofcom promoted media literacy vigorously in the UK and internationally, with financial and political support from the then government. But when the coalition government came to power in 2010, both forms of support were unceremoniously discontinued, and there has been little progress since then, except in specific areas of digital access and internet security.
  • The UK’s support for media literacy in the AVMSD has never been very visible, especially when it appears to be a regulatory burden. As far as I know, the UK government did not cry when the recent revision of the AVMSD, frustrating media literacy advocates, suddenly and inexplicably failed to mention media literacy. Nor do I believe that it has welcomed the European Union of Spectators ‘Interests’ fight for its reinstatement, as the European Parliament’s Committee on Education and Culture has now agreed. In addition to updating Article 33 above, an important paragraph has been added:

“In order to enable citizens to access information, make informed decisions, evaluate media contexts, use media content responsibly, evaluate it critically and create it, they need advanced media skills. This would enable them to understand the nature of content and services and to take advantage of the full range of possibilities offered by communication technologies so that they can use the media effectively and safely. Media literacy should not be limited to learning tools and technology, but should aim to equip individuals with the critical thinking skills necessary to make judgments, analyze complex realities, see the difference between opinions and facts, and all Resist forms of hate speech. The development of media literacy of all citizens, regardless of age, should be promoted. “(New (8a))

For some, this will be inspiring in and of itself. For others, media literacy is a good idea only insofar as the more educated the British population, the less likely we are to be inundated with #fakenews or #privacyfails or #onlinerisk stories, leading to calls for more industry regulation. In any case, I urge those who are now demanding media literacy:

  1. Again call on Ofcom to respect both the spirit and the text of the law by not only doing research (valuable as it is) but also promoting media literacy in the UK.
  2. Make sure the revised AVMSD includes the media literacy provisions above and that we will incorporate this into UK law after Brexit.
  3. Work on making media literacy a compulsory subject in the school curriculum.

Will that be enough?

Media education is a long-term solution – it takes thoughtful educational strategies and years of teaching, not a one-off campaign. It takes investment in teacher training, not branding. It should be evaluated in terms of learning outcomes and not in terms of simple reach.

The country has long been a global thought leader in media literacy research and education. It is ironic, then, that such expertise has fallen on deaf ears more recently, especially in the UK than in the rest of the world.

Perhaps the excitement over “fake news”, along with other problems that are finally on the public agenda, are the impetus to really change something now.

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


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