With the advent of “fake news”, social media and non-stop media bombardment, three leading media literacy educators explain why media literacy is more important now than ever before.
In honor of Media Literacy Week 2018 and this year’s Northeast Regional Media Literacy Conference, I wanted to republish some valuable thoughts on the state of media literacy education from experts in the field. During the month of July I got the chance to correspond with three educators from the northeastern United States about the definition of “fake news”, the challenges of teaching media literacy and what we can expect from the future of media education.
Katherine Fry is the department chair of Brooklyn College’s Department of Television and Radio, Jayne Cubbage is an Assistant Professor of Communications at Bowie State University, and Alan Berry is a Fulbright Scholar who recently completed research on media literacy education in the former Yugoslav nation of Kosovo. Berry will be presenting some for his findings at this year’s NRML Conference.
Below are their thoughts and insights into the current state of media literacy with minor edits for clarity. Enjoy and be sure to take a look at the great program put together for 2018’s Northeast Regional Media Literacy Conference being hosted on November 10th in Providence, Rhode Island.
Media literacy can encompass a large host of topics. For your teaching how do you define media literacy? — do you feel that media literacy should include an understanding of news, narrative media, information systems, media economy and messaging or do you take a more focused approach?
Katherine Fry: The short answer is “yes.” I approach Media Literacy as a very big umbrella. The longer answer is: To be media literate in a comprehensive way is to have an understanding of media in all of the ways/areas you mention here, which means understanding how messages are created, by whom, for what purpose. It includes understanding how audiences/participants interpret and use media. It includes understanding the various controls on media messages and technologies (forms). It also includes understanding how media and communication forms change over time, and thus how we, socially, culturally and individually, change as well. To grapple with all of that, as far as I’m concerned, is to really be media literate. But I understand why others take a more focused approach, by taking on only one area. That becomes a problem, though, when media literacy becomes defined as only one area (i.e, understanding “news”). To do so means you’re taking all kinds of other important components or aspects of media out of the frame. When you do that you wind up with a very limited picture of how media operate in the world.
Jayne Cubbage: Typically when discussing media literacy, I use the standardized definition provided by Hobbs (2010) and NAMLE (National Association of Media Literacy Education) (2017) that states: “media literacy is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, produce and act upon media messages.” This definition has evolved into a constellation of skills and processes, particularly critical thinking and analysis, which allows for a full understanding and engagement with media texts, systems and platforms. It also incorporates the component of involvement, action and empowerment, beyond prosumerism and the typical one-sided notion of audience consumption of media programming and messages.
Media literacy in fact does include news literacy, narrative media, information systems, media economy and messaging. Media literacy scholars are behooved to incorporate each of these elements into their discussion and “treatment” of media literacy lest they provide only a portion of the media landscape necessary to help audiences properly process their experiences and feelings about those experiences. Media audiences have a need to know and understand the full spectrum of media machinations, and how they are impacted by each of these systems. A failure to fully understand media ecology including the technological and economic structures of media along with the implications of those structures renders audiences mute and unable to engage fully in the discussion in which they are a central part of. Additionally audiences are unable to articulate what should be changed about media systems and made more balanced versus what should remain the same and why.
Alan Berry: I define media literacy as the ability to comprehend, create, and challenge all forms of media, so therefore my teaching touches on all the forms of communication my students engage with, including print, audio, video, digital media, social media, advertising, news, photography, and narrative and documentary. Within a single program, however, I typically focus on one or two specific forms, like advertising or news or photography, though any analysis of a medium will also include an exploration of audience, messaging, and media economy, as well as media technology and our relationship with those technologies. I don’t prescribe to the notion that there is only one way to teach media literacy, but I do think media literacy education is strongest when it’s linked to participation and activism, so that students develop more purposeful and responsible agency to shape media landscape, as well as becoming more critical consumers of media.
Is there such a thing as “fake news” and if so how would you define it?
Fry: Again, short answer is yes. But, the concepts “fake” and “news” are much more complicated than the way the whole issue is presented in — well — the media. Certainly we know for sure that blatant and consciously distributed misinformation is and has been bandied about online, in print, on television and so on. But if you really understand how news is gathered, packaged, distributed, and so on, you quickly begin to understand that terms like “fake” and “real,” “truth” and “lies,” “objective” and “subjective” are meaningless when applied to news or news sources if you end the conversation right there. In other words, news is a construction from the get-go. It always has been. There’s never been such a thing as objectivity. News is constrained by the individuals who decide what will be “news” on any given day, by the institutions that package it, and by the media forms for which it is prepared (TV versus print versus social media and so on), and is at the mercy of the economics of media forms (advertisers, algorithms and such). News is changing so much right now because of the web and social media in particular. When you look at all of these complicating factors you see that the concept of “fake news,” and how it is discussed, is really quite shallow. The conversation leaves out so much about what journalism is, and doesn’t take into consideration the continuously changing definition of journalism. I don’t have an easy definition for “fake news” to give you. The best I can say is that the “fake news” conversation is the current response to this critical moment in the next evolution of journalism. Journalism is much more participatory now, the old journalistic gatekeepers have lost much of their power, and all of this is happening quickly, therefore causing much confusion for everyone, journalists and citizens alike.
Cubbage: “Fake news” is in fact a real phenomenon. We have recently experienced an increase in instances of fake news in the wake of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Elections with the involvement of non-journalistic sources and their use of social media platforms and false stories written and widely distributed in order to influence voters. While fake news can be defined as any news story, which is “untrue” or that is not actual news, yet is presented to an unsuspecting audience as such, it is not a new or recent phenomenon. In fact, since the inception of news and mass distribution of news there has been an infusion of false or questionable journalism, such as the penny press, yellow journalism, tabloid news, video news releases and “infotainment” to name a few genres, that have employed clandestine practices and sensationalism (i.e., amplification) including outright deception, “partial truths”, and framing tactics designed to deceive and influence audiences and profit wildly in the process. The concept of fake news and any of its derivatives highlights the importance of incorporating news literacy into the constellation of media literacy principles and critical skill sets.
Berry: I don’t like the term “fake news” as it has become a political weapon too easily used to undermine legitimate news reporting and the critical responsibilities of media consumers. There has always been misinformation and disinformation in the public discourse, and news media have always played a role in blurring the line between fact and fiction and digital technology has created an even greater challenge in this regard. But news media also serve an important and vital role in our society, so it’s important not to allow our politics to completely erode our trust in news media.
News media is and has always been more or less flawed. Media literacy should always start from this point, not from the perspective that some news media, especially legacy media, are “better” or “more accurate” than other news media. This type of “news literacy” feels too much like industry propaganda to me. I think the most important thing from a media literacy standpoint is for consumers of news media to understand how news is constructed, how news professionals make choices about which stories are told and how they are told, and how news media are affected by economics, politics, culture, technology, as well as the limitations and biases of individual news makers. We as media consumers need to also learn to differentiate news from opinion, news analysis, and pure entertainment. And we need to understand that different people interpret news stories differently, based on their experiences and their own personal and political biases.
Do you feel that “fake news” or misleading/untruthful/deceptive reporting has dominated discussions around media literacy?
Fry: I think that depends upon who you ask. Amongst many media literacy educators/scholars “fake news” has not nearly dominated the discussion. But in the mainstream media world, and among those who know very little about what media literacy is, then I would say yes, it seems like the two are closely aligned. The idea that media literacy is the way to get people (and its usually young people who become the sole targets for media literacy) to be able to distinguish fake news from real news is just so very limited. As I’ve said in both my answers above, there is so much more to media literacy, and so much more to understanding news.
Cubbage: Fake news has certainly garnered a larger portion of the media literacy discussion in recent months and years, given the ability of the genre to have played a role in the outcome of an election in the United States. On one hand increased discussion of media literacy or news literacy is a good thing, as it has jump-started the conversation and actually has more people critically engaging with media texts. On the other hand, while the discussion has centered around fake news and avoiding its pitfalls, there has been little discussion on the overall media landscape and power structures that have allowed this phenomenon to occur in the first place so that it can be prevented in future instances. The discussion of fake news while important, feels reactive and woefully inadequate to fully illustrate the impact of media in our lives today. Yet, any media literacy discussion is an important start.
Berry: The concept of “fake news” is definitely directing the media literacy conversation right now, unfortunately, just as President Trump’s Tweets and his constant attacks on ‘fake news’ are dominating our media landscape — I think both of these trends are dangerous. While media literacy is being publicly discussed more than ever now, I’m worried the conversations being had are creating a greater misunderstanding of media literacy and media literacy education. Through my research into media literacy education in Kosovo, for instance, many of the key stakeholders I’ve spoken with think about media as news, as opposed to news as media, and therefore see the main responsibility of media literacy education as a way to combat “fake news”, though there is absolutely no consensus on what ‘fake news’ and ‘real news’ is — most likely it depends on one’s political affiliations.
Why do you feel it is so important for educators to focus time on media literacy curriculum, especially in this moment inside (or outside) the US?
Fry: The single greatest challenge, I think, is getting students to step out of their media use and become critical, thoughtful, participants in the media world. Depending upon their age, young people (and even some adults) can see the world in black and white terms, or can become very impassioned around certain media types and topics. They sometimes have a hard time opening themselves up to other points of view or other ways of doing and being.
Cubbage: It is vastly important for educators to incorporate media literacy into their curriculum because we live in such a media saturated society. We are media connected 24/7 and there is no real escape beyond moving off the grid. Given the impracticality of that choice for many, we must learn to engage with media in an informed and critical manner. An educational setting is an ideal place to analyze and evaluate media texts on a deeper level. Students of all ages and across all curriculum levels have media experiences that they can share and in a classroom setting this makes all parties readily able to learn from the experiences of their peers and educators. No matter the subject, there is a media text, (including textbooks), that has an interpretation and treatment of the topic and its application in daily life. Popular culture also provides a vast tapestry of information sets and potential learning experiences and treatment of many formal subjects. Students tend to be eager to share their own media engagement experiences. Further training for educators at all levels on the principles of media literacy and how they can be incorporated into any curriculum, is essential.
Berry: American teenagers spend over seven hours per day consuming media, which is more time than many of them spend in school or spend sleeping. Media messages have great influence over the choices we make and the ways we engage with our communities and the world, and media technologies alter the ways we interact and think and learn. I think our education system is failing not only individual students but our society as a whole if it’s not addressing the out-sized role media play in shaping us. The Internet and social media have turned us all into media producers, as well, so we have an even greater responsibility to give our students the tools to be more purposeful, responsible, and empathetic digital citizens. Media literacy also presents educators with the tools to meet students where they are through the integration of more relevant learning material and student-centered learning models that increase student engagement and participation in the learning process. One can also argue that more media literate students will be better prepared to survive in a 21st century society, as well as in higher education and the workforce.
In a country like Kosovo, where over 50% of its population is under the age of 25, and nearly every teenager has a smart phone and constant access to media, the need for media literacy education is self-evident. Teenagers in Kosovo spend nearly as much time consuming media as American teenagers, and experience even greater levels of misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda, as inside and outside influences try to control the country’s narrative.
What do you feel is the greatest challenge for students (even adult learners) when learning media literacy?
Fry: Well, there are so many challenges, actually. It’s hard to pick a “greatest.” As it see it, one major challenge is getting people to step way back and notice the enormity of the topic — the enormity of “media.” It’s like getting fish to jump out of the ocean just to take a look at the whole expansive thing. It’s akin to being an astronaut and flying so far out into space that you actually see the whole big planet that you live on. People live in their media. They get their information about the world, are entertained, connect with friends and family, and understand who they are as individuals in communities. When you are so deeply entrenched in your media use, when your vision of the world is shaped by media (which I believe is the case despite those who would argue otherwise) you tend to only be able to take a look at “media” in little pieces at a time. The challenge is to get people to put many pieces together, to create a larger context for media by asking them to scrutinize and critically analyze their media and their media practices. This is a very big challenge because there’s resistance, especially among adults.
Cubbage: The biggest challenge for all learners, including adult learners, is learning about how little they know actually know about how the media works. In some instances, much of what is taught about media literacy can feel “intuitive”, such as producers have influence over media messages, or advertising pays for many media messages. However, when learners begin to understand the power implications of media and media literacy along with the concept that media messages are designed to influence behavior, thought and actions and that much of that process is known to producers who are intent on achieving a desired outcome, which is typically tied to economics as audiences are influenced or goaded on a subconscious level and may not have clear understanding of how this is happening or being “allowed” to happen. In some cases, this causes consternation and defensiveness among students. Some learners also have difficulty with the concept of displacement, and the sheer amount of time spent with media texts on a daily basis that are largely the idea and creation of corporate entities and how this process can limit personal creativity and free thought. I often state during such discussions that “you can get more money, but you cannot get more time.” Students have also shown surprise, concern and befuddlement when introduced to the concept of prosumerism and the profit making strategies of social networking sites. The “behind the wall” discussions don’t always end well, upon the realization that “every click, every like, or every share — is making someone other than yourself richer,” some are not exactly sure what to think, or how to think about it at all. This is where the action or empowerment component of media literacy plays a bigger role in discussion of the importance of critical thinking and analysis when engaging with media texts, and where I challenge my students to dig deeper and imagine potential solutions to this quandary.
Berry: I think understanding and accepting the influence that media have over our lives is sometimes very difficult for young people (and adults). Students are aware of how much time they spend with media and they usually understand that media are manipulative, but I think it’s difficult for an individual to see just how many of their choices and how much of their identity and worldview are dictated by the media messages that inundate their lives.
What do you feel is the greatest challenge you face in teaching media literacy?
Cubbage: As an educator, my biggest challenge in teaching media literacy is determining, which audience can take or process, what information about media structures. And once that is determined, creating a way to “bring students back from the brink of despair,” when they learn of disconcerting practices and media structures. Students can become emotional when learning that their favorite program or social network platform is not only a business, but that there are implications when a business that has targeted you is created and established by persons who are profiting from your personal engagement with the platform. I also suggest that students create their own platforms, and that requires discussion on entrepreneurial pursuits —which is an entirely different discussion [and/or] class session. Some students are receptive to such ideas, however.
Berry: There are so many challenges I face in teaching media literacy, from just having the physical space and resources to teach, to having enough time with students to complete projects. My greatest challenge as an educator will probably always be finding the right balance between my own personal agenda and perspectives and allowing the students to express and explore their own. There is always the danger of equating my own views with those of my students and to feel like I’m telling them what they should think about media without allowing them the freedom to discover their own thoughts. This challenge is often a result of the limited time and space I have with the students and the necessity of having to get from Point A to Point Z within a program, but I think it’s important to allow the students to take a central role in the learning process and to possibly lead a program to unexpected points in between.
Besides the initiatives or programs that you helped create are there any media literacy initiatives or programs that you feel are particularly promising or interesting?
Fry: I think the News Literacy Project does a great job in offering very pragmatic tools for understanding and evaluating news. I like Media Literacy Now and The Media Literacy Association. Those organizations, and NAMLE (the National Association for Media Literacy Education), see media literacy in big picture terms. They advocate for a very comprehensive view of media literacy for all ages.
Cubbage: I don’t have a specific example or a set of exemplary initiatives, which I can point to. There are scores of programs out there that are introducing necessary components of media literacy to the citizenry, which is necessary today. I particularly applaud programs that introduce media literacy to urban youth, into K-12 classrooms and on the college and university level. These areas have some of the greatest opportunities for growth and anyone can create their own program or initiative. I encourage those who are inclined, to examine the need in your own community and begin the work.
Berry: UNICEF and OSCE have been supporting a series of media literacy workshops in Kosovo for the past few years, which UNICEF is looking to spread through its Innovations Labs in other countries. The Media Education Lab in the US has been working with European partners to adapt and spread its Mind Over Media methodology and platform across Europe. PBS and KQED partnered recently to create an online media literacy educator certification module, which is exciting, and Paul Mihailadis and the Engagement Lab at Emerson College recently released their Civic IDEA toolkit, which is a collection of learning modules and online tools that links media literacy education with civic engagement. And I’m also excited about the 22x20 campaign developed by The LAMP and CIRCLE.