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Should we care about media literacy? An interview with Frank Baker (opinion)

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“In a world dominated by images and video, the ability to see through propaganda and understand the ubiquitous slick marketing messages is vital. It is estimated that we are exposed to an average of 3,000 media messages every day. Everyone, it seems, is out to sell us something. Today’s young people, exposed to thousands of media messages, do not think critically about their media habits or consumption. They tend to believe everything they see, read, and hear. If it is on TV or on the web, it must (they concluded) be true. Illiteracy in the media is widespread. ”Frank Baker

Do we really believe every story on the news? We used to know the two or three magazines we had to stay away from if we wanted “real” news. Are the commercials we see about food all correct? Will these pills really give us six pack abs? I mean they have a real doctor who says it works! When politicians beat each other in political campaigns, do we believe everything one says about the other? Just because we read it online doesn’t mean it’s true, does it?

Media literacy is an extremely important topic that educators need to understand. When turning on the TV or browsing websites on the Internet, it’s easy to forget that not everything we see is true or accurate. Political campaigns contain a lot of misinformation about the adversary, as does much of the opinion-based news we see, and we know that the food labeled “Fat Free” isn’t always as healthy as we’d like to think, despite the buff type with the six pack abs says he eats it all the time. We have an abundance of noise to search through to find the truth … and that means our students do too and they may not understand what is right and what is not.

Interview with Frank Baker
Author Frank Baker knows a lot about the importance of media literacy. His chapter in Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World (ASCD, edited by Heidi Hayes Jacobs), entitled Media Literacy: 21st Century Literacy Skills, focuses on ways we can help students understand the importance of media literacy. His new book is called Media Literacy in the K-12 Classroom and we discussed why it is an important topic for teachers and students.

PD: What is media literacy?
FB: This sentence has many meanings and in the workshops I do with educators (and students) I let each participant come up with their own definition. Surprisingly, many understand media literacy as an analysis of media messages, but most overlook the fact that media literacy also includes creating and producing media messages.

In my latest book, Media Literacy in the K-12 Classroom (ISTE, 2012), I listed a number of factors that make up media literacy:

  • a range of skills, knowledge and abilities
  • an awareness of personal media habits – an understanding of how the media works – an appreciation of the power / influence of the media
  • the ability to distinguish, to question / consider critically
  • an understanding of how meaning arises in media texts
  • a healthy skepticism
  • Access to media
  • the ability to create and produce media

One of my favorite definitions of media literacy comes from Canada, where the Ontario Department of Education wrote:
“Media literacy aims to help students develop an in-depth and critical understanding of the nature of mass media, the techniques they use, and the implications of those techniques. More specifically, it is education that aims to increase students’ understanding and enjoyment of how media work, how they create meaning, how they are organized, and how they construct reality. Media literacy also aims to give students the opportunity to create media products. “

Nowadays media literacy is more than just “the media”. Today we need to take care of new media (e.g. Instagram, Twitter, blogs etc) and how to communicate them, using some of the same techniques as traditional media to get a message across to the intended audience.

PD: Why is media illiteracy so dangerous?

FB: Anyone who is not media literate or who does not question media messages or who are not looking for reliable, trustworthy information is destined to be deceived, misled and deceived by advertising, politics, propaganda and more. Many critics believe that the future of our democracy is at stake today because of overwhelming media illiteracy.

In my new book, too, I pointed out several times in a typical year that media literacy is so important. Right now is one of those times. The people who live in the battlefield states are bombarded, for example, with political advertising by the presidential candidates and the so-called Super PACS. One of the media issues that many voters ignore is: Who other than the candidates will benefit from this avalanche of advertising? And the answer is “the media” itself.

During the holiday season, the television is full of advertisements for toys. Parents who have worked hard to make a living will spend money on toys because their children have been exposed to the fraudulent advertising tricks of toy advertisers. Both parents and young people have the opportunity to learn not only persuasive but also production techniques. Encouraging students to create their own ads using free, easy-to-use software is one way to help them understand ad tricks and techniques.

The annual Super Bowl game brings in millions of dollars in advertising revenue.
Using these ads in a classroom is another way to promote popular culture while also providing promotional skills. But there are hundreds of examples every day, from the news to popular culture to the internet and radio and television.

PD: How can we get our students to care about media literacy?

FB: I think the class teacher has a unique opportunity to introduce media literacy concepts and critical thinking questions to any class with pictures, movies, videos, news, commercials, and the internet.

In fact, a study of government standards of instruction (published in Education Week, October 27, 1999) found elements of media literacy already present in most government standards for English, social studies, health, arts, technology, and more.

Many national organizations already recognize and recommend media literacy education. These include: the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, Horizon Report 2012, Future Work Skills 2020, the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards and others.

Media literacy is not an add-on: it is simply a lens through which we see and understand our world. Every time a teacher uses media, they have an opportunity to involve students in a few simple questions: Who did this, why did they do it? who is the audience; What techniques do they use to make me believe this etc. (end of interview)

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Click here to read Frank Baker’s OpEd commentary that appeared in Education Week.

Frank W. Baker is the author of three books; his most recent is Media Literacy In The K-12 Classroom (ISTE, 2012). He maintains the nationally recognized Media Literacy Clearinghouse website and conducts media literacy workshops in schools and counties across the United States. He is an advisor to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). He can be reached at: fbaker1346@aol.com

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