How to promote media literacy
I was recently asked to respond to a talk on media literacy of Australian children at LSE. Shortly thereafter, I took part in a roundtable on news literacy and disinformation organized by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS). These two opportunities made me think more deeply about news literacy as a variant of media literacy that has the potential to enable citizens to participate actively in society. The ability to evaluate media content such as the news is central to the concept of media literacy. Such a skill is essential to a well-informed citizenry. However, when we think about the importance of promoting media literacy in children and adults, different challenges arise that require different solutions.
The UK Government’s White Paper on Online Damage suggests equipping users with the skills and knowledge they need to safely and critically navigate the digital environment and building resilience to the constraints of such an environment, from cyberbullying to cyberbullying to misinformation. When we talk about the skills and knowledge users need, we are often talking about media literacy and, in particular, another variant, digital literacy. However, what these skills and knowledge should be is not always clear. In addition to functional skills and knowledge of how traditional and digital media work, media literacy is arguably about evaluating media content and understanding the broader media ecosystem. But what we mean by promoting media literacy is kind of puzzling. How should we promote it? And should we promote it equally to reach children and adults?
In line with the whitepaper, DCMS is now working to gather evidence through a mapping exercise and literature review to develop a media literacy strategy. But while promoting media literacy means that we need to create formal and informal learning opportunities that can reach both children and adults, it is unclear why the Department of Education (DfE) did not fully participate in the media literacy advisory process without it or few representatives joining the conversation. With this in mind, some of the challenges we face in promoting media literacy in children and adults.
Children are easily accessible in school, where they can best learn media skills. But we still face two major challenges:
The school curriculum
While initiatives like NewsWise have done a great job promoting news literacy in various schools across the UK, we cannot rely on such initiatives alone. It is unclear whether media literacy is conveyed via the current curriculum and whether it should be taught in a subject-specific or cross-curriculum. Several subjects are expected to have something to offer, including English, citizenship, and computer science, among others. But these subjects either do not focus sufficiently on evaluating information or do not teach children about the broader media ecosystem and the dissemination of information in the digital age.
Is it similar in other countries? Interestingly, there is one subject in the Australian national curriculum that has the potential to develop media literacy, which is media arts. However, this topic focuses on production skills, not critical media analysis. Like media art in Australia, we have a subject with similar potential in the UK, media studies. Unlike media art, media studies focus on critical media analysis. But while media art is compulsory in Australia, media studies are optional and very few students in the UK take it, making a multidisciplinary approach to media literacy more likely to work in this country.
Teachers need teaching materials. But the available ones often relate to traditional rather than digital media. And while teachers are undergoing training, they are not taught media literacy, nor are they shown how to impart it across the curriculum in a manner relevant to their subjects. Also, teachers are not the only educators we should rely on. School librarians should also play a role. However, their potential as educators is not being recognized and supported enough. And it is not compulsory for schools in England to have a library.
Most adults are untrained, so informal learning is essential for them to gain media literacy. At the same time, it is difficult to achieve, which leads to two major challenges that we face:
Public libraries are spaces where citizens can access quality information under the guidance of librarians. While the Internet offers users opportunities to access a wider range of information that is not conveyed by traditional media and public institutions, it does not mean that we are living in an age when libraries should be superfluous. But libraries are in decline in the UK. They suffer from falling staff and budgets. And thousands are not used.
Civil society organizations like Internet Matters do an excellent job of raising Internet awareness and providing information to parents about Internet safety. Media activism has the potential to reach different groups of the population through campaigns through the media. Ireland provides an example of how large-scale campaigns can be used to promote adult media literacy. But we cannot rely on the efforts of relatively small organizations in the UK to advocate for the media. The UK government recently launched a toolkit to help civil servants spot misinformation. However, this initiative is not broad enough to reach different population groups. And more should be done to raise public awareness besides introducing a checklist encouraging users to be careful on social media.
Promoting media literacy does not mean that the media industry can become negligent in producing high quality information. Online platforms should also not be redesigned and possibly regulated in order to combat online damage such as misinformation. However, since media literacy is essential for active participation in society, we need to promote it in children and adults, which requires different measures. In summary:
- Media literacy must be firmly anchored in the curriculum.
- Educators should be supported with training and resources.
- Librarians should be recognized and supported as educators.
- Public libraries need money.
- Media activism should be encouraged.
- We need state-funded media literacy campaigns.
- This blog post first appeared in the LSE Media Policy Project.
- The article reflects the views of the author (s), not the position of the LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
- Selected image by tiday, under a Pixabay license
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Gianfranco Polizzi is a doctoral student at the Institute for Media and Communication of the LSE. His academic interests range from media literacy, citizenship and education to political communication and democratic theory. His interest in media literacy includes not only a focus on education and learning to literate in the digital age, but also a focus on the civic, political opportunities that critical digital literacy brings with it for citizens of all ages.