May 22, 2020
Q. You are a Media Literacy Expert and a 2013 Immigration Journalism Fellow of the French-American Foundation. Can you elaborate on the definition of “media literacy” and how it differs from “media education”? What are some of the key concepts?
Broadly speaking Media Literacy is the ability to understand, process, and create a wide variety of information and media. Media education tends to focus more narrowly on creating media, for example how to make a podcast or shoot a video. Media Literacy is more foundational; it helps us understand how we communicate with one another and the different forms that communication takes.
Key to Media Literacy is the idea that not all information is the same. News is very different from opinion, advertising, or entertainment. They have different characteristics and different goals. When we understand that opinion-based information can be useful or interesting, but the ultimate goal is to persuade us and that important facts may be left out of opinion based information, we are better able to process the opinions we encounter and less likely to be confused by them. Media Literacy also helps us understand what the hallmarks of high-quality news are so we can recognize when they are present and be on alert when they are absent.
Q. Today, one of the big challenges is sifting through and evaluating the sheer amount of information based on what an individual needs and synthesizing that information into useful knowledge. What are the skills we need to educate ourselves effectively in today’s world?
Being able to tell the difference between high- and low-quality information is critical. Most of us know what a TV ad looks like and pretty regularly tune them out. No one complains about being “overwhelmed” by the number of commercial breaks even if we are annoyed by them. But a large number of us can’t tell the different between a piece of sponsored content and an actual news item. A dark forest can be very scary if we don’t have a map, or worse, if we have a map but don’t have the skills to read it.
Being media literate, being able to recognize when information is trying to sell you something or worse, trick you into believing or doing something by misinforming you, makes it much easier to sift through the torrent of information we come across. The other important thing we can all do is think critically about where we get our information. If we spend a lot of time of social media, and we don’t follow standards-based news organizations or journalists, then a lot of the information we will come across will be from friends, families, celebrities, and advertisers. Not necessarily from those who are interested in you being well informed. So we need to make sure that we are actively seeking out information and news from high-quality sources rather than being passive in our consumption and simply taking in whatever we scroll past in our social media feeds.
Q. The general public is receiving information about Covid-19 at a rapid pace and from many different news sources. How can we discern which of these sources are accurate?
The first thing we need to do is recognize that not all the information we are receiving is from news sources. If we spend a lot of time on social media, most of the information we may receive is not created by a journalist for the purpose of informing us and checked by an editor. We will come across memes, rants, photos, and charts with no attribution. Or we may see a post or an ad directly from a politician who has their own agenda.
So we have to look at what the standards of quality news are. Does the article or post have an author? Is that person a journalist? What do I find when I look up their other work? In the post or article are there claims made? Are they attributed to a person or organization? Can I verify them? Does the article seem fair? Balanced? Do I perceive an agenda? Do we hear from many, named sources?
These are just a few of the ways we try to understand if something is meeting the standards of quality journalism. And yes, it takes time, energy and engagement. But we have to do this because those who spread misinformation want us to just reject or (hopefully) accept information based on our own preconceptions rather than by engaging with the information and trying to understand if it is true.
Q. Media is a powerful influence in the lives of young people. Music, TV, video games, magazines, and other platforms all have a strong impact on how we see the world, often beginning in infancy. How can parents better navigate media consumption for their children?
From as early as possible it is important for parents to help their kids think critically about the information and the media they consume. First, parents can model good information consumption patterns. Make sure your kids are watching informative programming and reading fact-based information as well as consuming entertainment. Ask them questions about the media they consume. Ask them questions and talk with them about current events. Subscribe, watch, and listen to your local media outlets and talk to your kids about them. When they are old enough to be on social media, make sure they are not just following their friends and celebrities but news organizations and journalists. Finally, insist that your kids’ schools and teachers have a media literacy plan or curriculum. Teaching media literacy is not optional in the 21st century but it is crucial that parents demand it.
Q. What comparisons can you make between media literacy in Europe and the US?
I think national media outlets (BBC, RAI) and legacy print publications are more trusted and more consumed than in America. 24-hour cable TV news is also far less influential. That said, social media and internet usage are very similar, so Europeans are often being exposed to similar amounts of misinformation when they go online.
Another key difference is that education policy in Europe tends to be centralized at the national level in Europe and policy is made at the state or local level in the United States. This presents challenges and opportunities. In America, there is great opportunity for experimentation and the adoptions of new techniques. If enough parents in a school district want something, and are vocal about it, that change can happen quickly. In Europe, I think change in education happens more slowly but when it does it tends to be mandated and funded throughout the country. We are seeing more European nations considering mandating media literacy education for secondary school students, which if properly implemented, will make a huge impact on media literacy levels.