10.1 Media Literacy

I’ve avoided the expression “media literacy” in this book for one major reason: It feels like terminology from an older era, and what media literacy has meant in the past doesn’t map so well to the future. Yet the fundamental concept remains valuable, even if it needs updating.

When I said this in a blog posting in late 2008, I got some pushback from one of the leaders in the field, Renee Hobbs, a professor at Temple University and head of the school’s exemplary Media Education Lab. When I referred to media literacy—as an expression, as opposed to a concept—as “quaint to the point of irrelevance,” she chided me (fairly) for dissing my allies, adding:

We’ve been debating terms for this concept for 15 years. Everybody and his brother has a different name for it: “digital literacy,” “information literacy” and “cyberliteracy” just to name a few. Thanks for at least using the right term: media literacy.

Participation is by definition and tradition a vital part of any literacy; yet for me the term “media literacy” has taken on connotations mostly of smarter consumption. So the reason I look for new language is to emphasize the participation that’s now so integral to media in a grassroots-enabled world.

Technology—the Internet, blogs and microblogging, digital photography and video, high-speed networks and more—has changed the media landscape radically in recent years. And we’ve adopted technology at an amazing pace. From all over the landscape, people once relegated to observing from their couches have flocked to the new media, and these days the asides and comments of friends, followers and the followed often turn out to be just as important as the reports from professional journalists.

Whatever we call it, we agree that an active approach to reading the news is essential.

Media literacy has had several major threads over the past century. One is academic: the creation of an almost institutional system based on research and school-based instruction. Another has roots in political activism. Both of these threads—and a host of related ideas, such as “digital citizenship” and “critical literacy,” to mention just two of the many competing expressions in the field—are a good starting point for more contemporary efforts.

Until recently, many activists in the media literacy movement, notably the left-of-center folks, were somewhat preoccupied with the still-real dangers of corporate media consolidation. Media critics and reformers on the political left and right have found too little common ground. One of the few places they have started to collaborate is network neutrality, which activists on many sides have finally realized is key to their own futures—though here we find a tendency of people on the right to favor corporate interests ahead of the public interest.

Media literacy advocates of all stripes, inside and outside academia, have moved toward participation. We all need to push this much further. Mediactivism is, above all, about doing things: action and participation.

That won’t end what Hobbs and Amy Jensen of Brigham Young University described, in the Journal of Media Literacy Education, as “tensions between educators, activists, artists, civic, political, governmental, media, and business leaders regarding the differing roles and functions” of media literacy education. But I especially like the way the researchers I’ve cited celebrate the complexity—created by the various social and political perspectives they see—of what they call our “journey to empowerment.”

Empowerment takes more than mere knowledge; we need to translate what we know into action. Whether we call it media literacy, news literacy, mediactivism or anything else, above all, we need to push participation, not as a chore but as something satisfying and vital.

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