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Media Literacy

Why Canadians must embrace media literacy


For the past few years, barely a day has gone by without disinformation making the headlines. Whether it’s doctored videos of politicians or conspiracy theories about vaccines, it affects our health, our democracy and even our ability to tell what’s real and what isn’t. While governments and industry are taking steps to address the issue, without a national commitment to digital media literacy they will have limited effect.

Canada has long been known as a pioneer in digital media literacy. Ontario was the first jurisdiction in the world to integrate it into curriculum and Media Literacy Week, an event now held in dozens of countries, which is aimed at raising awareness of media literacy, originated in Canada in 2006.

Today, however, we have fallen behind. In Canadian schools digital media literacy is often introduced late, relegated to optional subjects, or taught as separate topics — online safety, misinformation, film studies — rather than as an integrated discipline. Adult learners might have access to only a patchwork of mostly local programs, mostly aimed at teaching basic digital skills. A recent report from the Open Society Institute underlined this decline, finding that Canada ranks seventh in their media literacy index.

Finland, the top-ranked country in the study, provides the kind of model that Canada once did. Faced with an onslaught of Russian disinformation, digital media literacy is an urgent issue in Finland in a way that is in few other countries. (Canada also feels the effect of misinformation coming from a much larger neighbour — though in our case it mostly splashes over our border via American media, both social and traditional.)

What can Canada learn from Finland about fostering a media-literate populace? First, the importance of integrating digital media literacy across the curriculum, both as its own subject and in existing subjects. Rather than isolating it in a single subject or focusing on a single issue such as “fake news,” the Finnish curriculum takes a comprehensive approach, from teaching how to recognize misleading statistics in math class to analyzing the visual appeal of ads or memes in art.

While curriculum in Canada is a provincial and territorial responsibility, there is room for the federal government to establish national standards for digital media literacy. On a broader scale, we must adopt a national digital media literacy strategy. All sectors and levels of government can collaborate to support equitable access; promote engaged citizenship and close the digital divide; prioritize safety, digital well-being and critical thinking; provide adequate funding to develop, deliver and evaluate digital media literacy programs and adapt those programs to meet the particular needs of everyone in Canada. As well, digital media literacy isn’t confined to the classroom: the Finnish government has worked with the tech and media industries to reach adults, along with NGOs such as fact-checking organizations, to reach adult learners.

Disinformation, and the broader challenges of our media environment, aren’t going anywhere. Canada must make a national commitment to media literacy to create a nation of critical, responsible and engaged digital citizens.


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