We have to promote media literacy among children and adults … Of course, but how?
As governments seek to address misinformation and other digital age problems, media literacy (and / or digital literacy) is often cited as an integral part of any solution. LSE doctoral student Gianfranco Polizzi is investigating various ways of promoting media literacy in children and adults.
Recently I was asked to respond to a presentation 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 any concept of media literacy. Such a skill is a sine qua non for a well-informed citizenry. However, when we ponder 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 navigate the digital environment safely and critically, 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 encourage it equally to reach children and adults?
In line with the White Paper, DCMS is now working to collect evidence through mapping and literature research in order 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 Ministry 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 easy to reach at school, where media skills are best taught to them. 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, it is not just such initiatives that we can count on. It is unclear whether media literacy is conveyed through the current curriculum and whether it should be imparted subject-specific or across the curriculum. It is expected that several subjects will have something to offer, including English, citizenship, and computer science, among others. However, these subjects either do not focus sufficiently on the evaluation of 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 curriculum that can promote media literacy, which is media arts. However, this subject focuses on production skills rather than critical media analysis. Like Media Arts in Australia, we have a subject with similar potential in the UK which is Media Studies. In contrast to media art, media studies focus on critical media analysis. But while media arts are compulsory in Australia, media studies is optional and attended by very few students in the UK, which means that an interdisciplinary approach to media literacy is 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 school curriculum in a way that is relevant to their subjects. Also, teachers are not the only educators we should rely on. School librarians should also play a role. However, your potential as a teacher is not being recognized and supported enough. And it is not mandatory 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 gives users the opportunity to access a wider range of information that is not conveyed by traditional media and public institutions, it does not mean that we live in a time when libraries should be superfluous. But libraries are in decline in the UK. You suffer from declining human and budget resources. And thousands are not used.
Civil society organizations like Internet Matters do an excellent job of raising awareness about the Internet by providing parents with Internet safety resources. Media activism has the potential to reach different population groups 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 designed to help civil servants spot misinformation. However, this initiative is not 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 school 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 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. Image: CM Hoffman, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0