The Urgent Need for Media Literacy in the Age of Annihilation
From fictional organizations posting polarizing news on Facebook to solidly researched news labeled “fake,” the pervasive power and importance of the media is clear.
Most worrying, however, is not that fictional stories are labeled “real” and well-researched stories are labeled “fake”. Rather, the biggest problem is the lack of stories about how to approach the situation thoughtfully not only through media regulation but also through education.
By focusing on the respective challenges facing the media, an opportunity is being missed to systemically address the messages and power of the media. Instead, social media issues are treated in a whack-a-mole type of game as isolated issues that keep popping up. Is Facebook becoming a point of contact for those who want to influence an election? Tell stories that blame Mark Zuckerberg. Twitter is becoming a platform for lies? Tell stories that call Donald Trump.
But what the media don’t show us or tell about the world – and with whom we share it – is just as important as what the media show and tell. In my article, “Creating iPhone Dreams, Annihilating E-Waste Nightmares,” I find that cellphone coverage is robust, but e-waste coverage is next to nonexistent. Communication theorists have a name for what happens to stories that are not told: symbolic annihilation. This means that it is impossible to imagine non-existent narratives as realities. But how could our society collectively think differently, not just about the challenges of social media, but about all media messages? Media literacy is the solution.
Frame the world
In the 21st century, a story can come in myriad forms – a news article can appear in a print newspaper, on a laptop, or on a phone – but stories are always a product of what cultural theorists call framing.
The communication scientist Todd Gitlin relies in his book The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left on the sociologist Erving Goffman, the founder of the framing theory:
“Media frames are constant patterns of perception, interpretation and presentation, selection, emphasis and exclusion.”
Goffman says that all media content is the result of decisions about which stories to tell, how and with what detail – and which stories to ignore.
Stories can be formulated to involve rigorous research and a nuanced approach to sharing thoughtful and diverse viewpoints. Stories can also be framed without research and offer a narrow, limited perspective. But all stories imply realities about the authority behind the story and about the listener, reader and viewer.
Role of the media
For decades there have been concerns about how the media shapes the world for us. One of the most compelling articulations of this concern is found in Neil Postman’s 1985 book Amusing Ourselves To Death.
Postman’s thesis was that the media framed all content as entertainment and “when a population is distracted by trivialities, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainment, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby talk, when , in short, if a people becomes an audience and its public business becomes a vaudeville, then a nation is in danger … ”
His recommendation? Media literacy – the ability to think critically about the origin, sources, content and consequences of all media messages.
While it is common these days to see stories of data breaches, allegations of counterfeiting, or hateful trolls, there are few stories of media literacy.
Seldom discussed: media literacy
According to the Canadian Newsstand database, which crawls more than 20 of Canada’s largest newspapers, the newspapers shared just over 21,000 articles on Twitter, 4,200 newspaper articles on Facebook, and 355 articles on Twitter in the first five months of 2019 “. discussed about “fake news”. The number of Canadian newspaper articles in the last five months that contained “media literacy”? Fifteen.
The international situation is similar. According to the Lexis Nexis Major World Newspapers database, which searches the world’s largest newspapers, there were more than 8,600 headlines in the first five months of 2019, including “Twitter,” nearly 4,000 headlines with “Facebook” and 500 headlines that included ” Fake News ”. The number of newspaper headlines that said “media literacy”? Three.
The linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff points out that without a framework we cannot form thoughts. He uses the term “hypocognition” to explain the implications of a lack of framework for a concept.
Regulation increasingly ineffective
Media content monitoring policies and laws have become increasingly ineffective. A February Telegraph article said: “Two key partners in Facebook’s flagship anti-fake news project have pulled back, with staff one saying it has become ‘impossible’ to handle the workload.”
Monitoring Facebook and arguably all digital content can be a losing battle. But discussing and prioritizing the urgency of creating media literate citizenship – and implementing basic education – could stand a chance.
As Postman points out, schools need to help young people learn what he calls symbols of their culture. Media literacy should be a fundamental part of education at all school levels. Reading. Write. Arithmetic.
Students, yes we all have to learn to ask questions about what stories are told. We need to learn to ask questions about whose interests are served by the way stories are framed. And we need to learn to ask questions about the implications of not telling stories.
It is imperative to ask these questions not only consistently but also reflexively.