Media Literacy Is the Answer, Not the Solution
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December 6, 2018

Media Literacy Is the Answer, Not the Solution

Last month I had the honor to deliver a keynote speech at the University of Kaunas in Lithuania, at the invitation of Meno Avilys, a Lithuanian media literacy organization in Vilnius, and their partners, British Council and Education Development Center.

Have a read of my thoughts on why media education should be taught in long term education and not as a short-term easy solution to protect against the online risks and threats.

What do you think? Your comments would be much appreciated.


Media Literacy as part of the National Security Strategy

I have been asked to answer a very particular question: ‘Should media literacy be an integral part of national security strategy?’

I have to tell you, I had a bit of a raised-eyebrow moment as I was surprised to see ‘media literacy’ and ‘national security’ – such a serious issue – mentioned in the same sentence.

Historically, media education has been marginalized in the curriculum; and treated as an easy and unimportant subject. In Romania, the utility of media education is still something to be discussed in the meetings with the policy makers.

Perhaps the question could be rephrased this way: should media education be about national security alone or should it be about media literacy for citizenship and democracy?

Breach of privacy, data mining, disinformation and propaganda are perceived as real threats in this digital age. They are worrisome and considered to target against the people’s well-being and security. This is how they became topics of national security.

And there is this idea that media literacy education can make a difference. And I also believe it can. To some degree, at least.

But there is this danger:

Designing long term media education strategies based just on these worries will ignore relevant dimensions of our complex media interactions and, thus, give limited results in terms of media learning.

Let’s take the National Security Strategy of the Republic of Lithuania for instance. One of its priorities is ‘to strengthen media literacy in order to increase public resilience to information threats’.

So perhaps before I start to define and design any media literacy strategy to respond to these threats, I should look for the answer to these key questions:

  • What does it mean ‘to increase public resilience to information threats’?
  • What kind of media education is appropriate ‘to strengthen media literacy and to increase public resilience to information threats’?

Media education should NOT be taught in the narrow scope of a solution to a problem. The teaching of media education should be relevant to the students’ daily media experiences and – in this case – civic participation.

Please imagine for a little while your own media interaction.

Is it at all linear? When you go on Facebook or any other online platform to get the news, do you set your mind for that goal only? Do you get distracted? How many times have you shared an article on a social media platform without verifying the information? Just because the title fitted your opinion. Or just because you wanted to show to your friends you cared.

Our daily media interaction is about our identity, emotions, convictions, pleasures and availability in time and place, as much as it is about our reasoning, use of critical thinking (to reflect and question) and skepticism.

Our decision making process involves both logic and affect. And the teaching of media education cannot ignore this fact.

As you may know, different approaches and initiatives of media literacy education have developed in time and space. With more or less efficient results.

Because the scarce funding and the policy makers’ low interest in media education, most of them are short-term, intervention-type media education strategies. They focus on analysis and evaluation of media messages, on media production or examination to better understand media habits. Or – at its best – they combine all these.

One Model of Media Education

Media education (or education about media) focuses on the critical understanding of media and on their social, cultural, political and economic implications. For instance, being able to understand how a news story is produced, how it can be spoiled, why certain fake news are spread, for what economic or political reasons, how is this or that information affecting us. And so on.

It also focuses on the creative and responsible use of media – Digital media especially gave us new roles. Those of authors.

Prof. Renee Hobbs made a list of these competencies:

To have Authorship and Creative Competencies means to be able to:

  • Recognize the need for communication and self-expression;
  • Identify your own purpose, target audience, medium & genre;
  • Brainstorm and generate ideas;
  • Compose creatively;
  • Work in collaboration;
  • Edit and revise;
  • Curate, remix;
  • Use appropriate distribution, promotion & marketing channels;
  • Receive audience feedback;
  • Play and interact;
  • Comment

To have Online Social Responsibility and Digital Citizenship means to be able to:

  • Acknowledge the power of communication to maintain the status-quo or change the world;
  • Understand how differences in values and life experience shape people’s media use and message interpretation;
  • Appreciate risks and potential harms of digital media;
  • Understand how concepts of ‘private’ and ‘public’ are reshaped by digital media;
  • Apply ethical judgment and social responsibility to online communication situations;
  • Appreciate and respect legal rights and responsibilities.

And WHAT does media education do? It mobilizes all competences – understanding, speaking, writing, reading, interaction – and it targets a reflective teaching and learning style. Students reflect on their own activity as ‘readers’ or ‘writers’ of media texts. It is student centered. It starts with what they already know about the media, from their experience with the media.

HOW? Through dialogue, negotiation of meanings, text interpretation and production, through interaction and learning methods that encourage critical thinking (e.g. questioning information, observation, text analysis etc.).

This kind of education should happen on long term.

In different learning situations for different groups of people, starting with the earliest age possible. It needs to question what critical learning is. It needs to try to make the distinction between being critical and being cynical. Which is, perhaps, equally as bad as not being media literate at all.

What I described is a model of media education that does not promise miracles or recipe-type education: show me the problem and I’ll show you how to solve it and protect against it.

Ideally, a media educated person should be able to:

  • Access, use and communicate through different media;
  • Analyze & assess media texts (comments on Facebook to more complex news stories);
  • Reflect on their own experience with the media (for instance, to understand the context in which they use media and information);
  • Create ideas and understand who their audiences are;
  • And then be able to act.

The accent is on skills and knowledge and not on the technology.

Teaching to Protect

So is it appropriate to design media education strategies for national security purposes only?

Media literacy can be a priority in any country’s national security strategy, but media education policy and practice should not be designed with this sole aim in mind – to protect against threats.

To educate to prevent and protect generally turns into this unidirectional form of teaching that focuses on risks and threats. Where the teacher ‘knows better’ and tries to convince the pupil about ‘the truth’. Little dialogue and negotiation of meaning happens in the classroom and the students’ daily media experiences are less integrated.

Speaking of which. Back in 2013, Smita C. Banerjee and Robert Kubey documented various media literacy interventions. One of their conclusions was that

Most of the media literacy interventions are focused almost exclusively on having participants acquire the knowledge/skills needed to resist influence from persuasive media messages, but, generally, fail to form students’ motivation to resist such influences.’

(from the ‘Critical Review of Evidence Documenting Media Literacy Efficacy’)

Generally, we access mediated information in pretty relaxed ways. We do not turn automatically into this all-senses-awake-person, in permanent tension, looking for conspiracies and fake news in every text that we read.

If the teaching focuses solely on how to protect, then that teaching will lose sight of other important aspects that actually engage the students in the learning process; aspects that make the learning relevant to the students’ media experience. Which is far away from being a black-and-white affair.

Another risk is to bore the students, or even worse, to teach them something they will never use because it is not tailored on the media realities in which they access actual information.

Let’s take fake news, for instance. One of the most feared issues in the last two years. The final result of the 2016 US presidential elections and Brexit have been the most quoted examples of dramatic consequences of fake news.

The worries about the rise of fake news on social media are high. And the quest for solutions, as high. Often, the proposed solutions to raise media literacy to fight fake news focus on a cause and effect kind of perception about the issue, that ignores the larger context and what fake news are at a more detailed look.

Teaching methods like illustrating one’s media literacy class with fake news or propaganda examples, showing one’s students how to verify the information are seen as guarantees for a more responsible news media consumer. If only things were that simple!

This does not mean we shouldn’t teach our students how to verify the accuracy of the information.

Context is Key

But while we do that, we should try to dig deeper into the issue of fake news and disinformation.

Try to put it into its social, economic and political context, into our own personal and social circumstances, into the context of our own availability to check information, for instance.

We all agree that creating and sharing disinformation is bad. From a teaching point of view, the assumption is that if we understand this basic fact and learn how to identify news and information meant to deceive, then we will turn into these responsible media users that will condemn fake news and never share.

But the reality is that for people, fake news can also be fun to believe and share on social media.

(Photo 1)

Fake news can confirm people’s own biases or feed into their frustrations. Fake news appeal to something.

Anti-vaccination promoters may believe this piece of information without the need to verify it.

(Photo 2)

Technology and, especially, social media may have boosted the presence of fake news in our midst. And it happens so, because people with feelings, interests and personal beliefs use that technology.

Also, the reality is that the same propaganda message can be interpreted differently by different people in different social and cultural situations.

The emotional impact may vary from very strong to no feeling or interest at all. The following two photos were analyzed and evaluated by the participants at the Mediawise workshop about propaganda.

The emotional responses differed highly as the messages meant something only in different cultural contexts.

Photo 3 – a strong nationalistic message against the Hungarian minority in Romania – generated strong emotional responses in different interpretations.


Photo 4 had no impact, no emotional reaction among the Romanian teachers and librarians that took part in our workshops. Not even after they were given the context of the “furries” community. Maybe some amusement. In Romania this ‘movement’ is unknown.

Often propaganda is so ordinary that it becomes enmeshed with ‘common sense’, is written on the online platform, a digital learning tool about propaganda, whose Romanian version was developed by Mediawise Society. Critical thinking about propaganda and understanding propaganda’s intent are crucial responsibilities of citizenship in the 21st century.

By initiating a discussion about contemporary propaganda, we are invited to think about the power of communication and our responsibilities as both authors and audiences.

What Kind of Media Education Policy

What we should remember is that media education is a form of preparation, not of protection! It should enable students to make informed decisions for their own good and with respect to the other users.

The media education policy should consider the students’ cognitive abilities, their learning needs and the context of their media use from early school till high school. Which implicitly will cover issues related to information/disinformation, propaganda techniques, privacy issues, all those topics concerned with the national security.

Media education policy should be designed for a broader scope and learning outcomes that consider the social, cultural, economic and political contexts in which we consume and use media. And – very important – media educators should be invited in those policy discussions.

The discourse used by those who advocate for media education usually takes an activist stance and promotes measures to solve key media issues – mainly, related to negative aspects and effects of media.

And this is because this kind of discourse gets attention. From the fundraisers, from the policy makers and from the parents’ part, those who get to decide for their children.

Once we start talking about learning outcomes, contexts, and pedagogy – like I did today here – then it becomes boring. The interest decreases.

Incidentally, while preparing this presentation I came across one of professor Sonia Livingstone’s recent blog post on media education and policy. This quote is very relevant to our discussion today and a perfect ending for my presentation also:

Media Literacy it’s never going to be a silver-bullet solution. What media literacy includes is a moving target. As society becomes more dependent on the media, the media are becoming more complex, fast-changing, commercial and globalized. So any media literacy strategy requires sustained attention, resources and commitment – to education, to curriculum development, to teacher training, to research and evaluation”.

Media education is a long term solution – it takes thought-through pedagogical strategies and years of teaching, not a one-shot campaign. It needs investment in teacher training not branded messaging. It should be evaluated in terms of learning outcomes not simple measures of reach.”

Nicoleta Fotiade
Nicoleta Fotiade
Nicoleta Fotiade is President and Co-founder of Mediawise Society. She is a media literacy educator, researcher and advocate in the media and communication field for more than 15 years. She has a keen interest in empowering educators and students to have a deep critical understanding of how media work and their impact on everyday life. Nicoleta also teaches media education to final year BA students at the Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences at the University of Bucharest. She is an active member and contributor to international and regional associations (co-founder of IAME – International Association for Media Education). She is the author and co-author of two media literacy textbooks, more than 20 media research studies and several other education materials for teachers and students. Nicoleta holds a Master's degree in Communication from the University of Westminster in London, UK and she earned her Bachelor's degree in Journalism at the Superior School of Journalism in Bucharest.

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