We can’t act, however, until we understand why we should, and how. Who should lead in the lifelong mediactivity process of learning and participation? Everyone, really. Anyone lucky enough to have the access we all have to the world’s best ideas and knowledge, plus the education to understand and talk coherently about them, can reach out to others.
The primary guides to critical thinking should be the ones you’d expect—parents, friends, schools and institutions devoted to learning outside of the education system—plus perhaps one group you might not expect. That’s the journalists themselves, who should have been among the leading proponents of these skills and principles but, for the most part, haven’t bothered.
Media literacy’s rise in American education has long roots. Some scholars credit in particular the work of a Jesuit priest, the late John Culkin (1928–1993). Founder of the now-defunct Center for Understanding Media, based in New York, Culkin wanted teachers to think in ways they hadn’t contemplated before. In a biographical essay, Kate Moody, one of the early practitioners of Culkin’s notions, wrote:
He believed that if teachers understood the function of media in culture, they could use that awareness to help young people become better learners. By the late 1960s there was more information outside the classroom than in it, due to the pervasiveness of film and TV. Much of the information was really misinformation, so that “separating the signal from the noise” became a necessary task. It was important for educators to grapple with this disparity between information levels outside and inside the school. That meant dealing with the full spectrum of materials to which pupils were exposed outside and to help them deal with it critically and reflectively, rather than with the passivity that had come to be associated with habitual TV viewing.
Culkin and his allies pushed hard to incorporate media skills and understanding into the curriculum. They had some success over the past half-century; media literacy has become a widely known concept, practiced in some schools and promoted by a variety of people and organizations worried about mass media’s influence.
In recent years their successors have looked at the digital sphere and realized they had to confront new and even more difficult issues—especially the diffusion of sources beyond what once had been a relatively few mass media organizations. Where television was once the major concern, now we have to understand digital media and incorporate them into a much more complex equation.
According to Hobbs, to the extent that media literacy is taught in the K–12 environment, it tends to be integrated into specific subject areas—health, for example—and mostly in middle schools. Statistics are thin on its penetration in America’s classrooms; Hobbs doubts that even 30 percent of U.S. students are exposed to it in any formal way. But she’s certain, based on her own observations and the publishing of more dissertations on the topic, that interest is growing.
There’s no national curriculum or standardized lesson plans in the area of media literacy—and for good reason, Hobbs says. U.S. public education is decentralized, and media are changing so fast that wise teachers need to constantly update what they’re teaching. Further diminishing the possibility of standards, according to Hobbs, is that the best teachers are incorporating media-creation skills, not just tips on smarter consumption, into their offerings.
Can schools ever be the most important place for media literacy education? I have my doubts, in part because this is so much about teaching kids to be critical thinkers. Look around, and consider the political climate. I’ll say it again: In many parts of America, a teacher who tried to do this would be branded as a dangerous radical.
Some media literacy advocates have all but given up on schools. Hobbs definitely hasn’t. She told me:
I have a lot of respect for teachers. Schools can be repressive. They’re designed to be culturally conservative. Yet good teachers, who are everywhere, know that learning happens only when you make a connection between the learner and the competencies.
Sidebar: danah boyd on Teachers and Media Literacy
Social media researcher danah boyd, who served on the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, has been studying young people’s adoption of digital media. Her perspective on media literacy and schools is cogent. As she told me:
I sit down with teachers in this country and my heart breaks for them, because they’ve gotten to a world where they have so many standards that they have to measure up to, where they don’t feel like they’re teachers anymore. They don’t feel like they’re actually teaching kids to think. And many of them want to teach kids to think.
They may or may not have the skills to do so, and that’s a whole separate ball of wax. But a lot of them really want to give young people the skills, which include critical thinking, to move forward as adults. They want to teach them how to think about the world at large…
English education used to be a core place of critical thinking. Read To Kill a Mockingbird and start deconstructing it. Now it’s like, “Can you prove that you remember the following seven things from the book?”
Some of the hardest [teaching] jobs these days are trying to teach the most privileged kids in this country, because a lot of those teachers want to push back at the expectations that the kids bring into the classroom. But that unfortunately means pushing back at the expectations of the parents. And that’s a lot harder. And that’s actually a space where I worry much more for engaging in destructive activities.
I actually think there’s a lot more opportunity though for kids who are traditionally underprivileged to really be given critical thinking skills that will help them in the workforce and as they go forward. So if we just start with the underprivileged kids, I’m okay with that.
Teachers in schools can only go so far. Parents are the first educators of children in any case, and raising children for the world we will live in will surely mean helping them become adaptable in their intellectual habits.
The Internet has been a boon for parents looking for help. You can find any number of excellent online resources for helping your children understand media. The PBS Parents website, for example, has a thorough archive of articles, videos and more on the topic. (And, as usual, we’ll point to a bunch of others on the Mediactive website, mediactive.com.)
But I also want to make a different kind of pitch to parents. As I’ve said again and again, tactics mean nothing without principles. Teach your kids skepticism, honesty, zeal to find the truth and the other principles in this book, and they’ll find the rest of what they need naturally.
Friends and Colleagues
Remember the email I quoted in Chapter 1? It was an email forwarded from a colleague of mine, one of many such missives his father regularly sends him, informing the reader of several fairly amazing “facts” regarding America, Osama bin Laden and the September 11 attacks. My colleague wrote that he didn’t have time to check further, though he was appropriately skeptical. I did visit Snopes.com to check it out, and learned that the email was a twisted series of lies, cloaked in some actual events that gave the lies a patina of reality. It was plainly designed to inflame, not inform.
The charges, which I won’t detail again, have been making their way around the Net for some time. There’s no doubt that lots of its intended readers believe every word, because they want to.
How should we respond when friends and colleagues forward such things? I believe we all have a duty to do more than simply shrug and delete them. At the very least I’d urge a friend who forwarded me a note like this to be skeptical and check it out, and I’d also encourage him to tell whoever sent it to him to do the same. In this case I let my colleague know what I’d found, and I hope he let his father know. Whether it went back beyond that, I’ll never know—but it should have.
We have a special duty to tell people we’ve been wrong when we give them information that turns out to be false. They’ll appreciate the correction, and trust us more in the end.
In June 2009, the New Yorker ran a story about America’s health-care crisis. The reporter, Atul Gawande, did something remarkable. He’d discovered dramatic differences between health-care costs in two U.S. communities, and he sought to explain why one place spent vastly more per capita than the other, yet had a significantly poorer overall health record. His article was, in part, an explanation of how he had done the journalistic detective work to figure out the reasons.
A little over a year earlier, National Public Radio had run a lengthy story called “Giant Pool of Money”—a program that asked the question too few journalists had been asking in previous years: namely, how it was that so many people who couldn’t afford to make home-mortgage payments were getting the loans anyway. It was a masterpiece of investigative and explanatory journalism, and an essential part of the report was the explanation of how the journalists had discovered the information. Early in the show, co-reporter Alex Blumberg told listeners part of his thought process as he gathered information for the story:
The thing that got me interested in all this was something called a NINA loan. Back when the housing crisis was still a housing bubble. A guy on the phone told me that a NINA loan stands for No Income, No Asset, as in, someone will lend you a bunch of money without first checking if you have any income or any assets. And it was an official, loan product. Like, you could walk into a mortgage broker’s office and they would say, well, we can give you a 30-year fixed rate, or we could put you in a NINA. He said there were lots of loans like this, where the bank didn’t actually check your income, which I found confusing. It turns out even the people who got them found them confusing.
Both the NPR and the New Yorker pieces were examples of something that’s been largely absent from the journalism craft, to its detriment: a recognition that media has a role in helping people develop critical thinking skills, and that journalists—explaining what they do and why—can be among the best teachers.
Traditional media have done a generally lousy job of this. They’ve been content to produce their products and (at least until recently) rake in the money, without much concern for helping audiences understand what journalists actually do when they do their jobs well.
I’m not talking here about gratuitous bragging, especially when there’s little to brag about (which is all too often the case). But the better a news organization does its job in solid or superlative ways, the more important it may be to let the audience in on the hows and whys. The result might include more support and funds from the community for professional journalists. But for the future of journalism, the more important outcome would be a greater appreciation of why everybody needs to do this work.
Brent Cunningham, in an article that originally appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, offered sound advice:
[J]ournalism would need to begin to change the narrative about itself. It is a narrative that has been created by the press’s own failures, its arrogance and shortsightedness, but also by a forty-year campaign by segments of the political right to vilify the press as a “liberal” cabal, and a more recent and less coordinated effort by elements on the left to portray it as a corporate stooge. Changing this narrative will not be easy. There is considerable hostility and distrust toward the mainstream news media, but some of it is the result of ignorance about what the press does and why. The partisan press-haters will always be with us, but the nascent News Literacy movement is attempting to rectify the pervasive ignorance about the values and methods of journalism—to instill in young citizens the importance of the best kinds of journalism, and how to distinguish it from the less-reliable, less-intellectually honest stuff that floods our information environment each day.
The “news literacy” genre, as noted by Cunningham, is indeed nascent, but it’s growing in smart ways. One good example is the News Literacy Project, founded by Alan Miller, a former Los Angeles Times journalist. It brings working reporters and editors into schools to help students understand the (best) values of journalism, and put those values into practice.
This kind of thing should be routine, not a brave new experiment.