Friday, 8 March 2013

Media literacy should be taught in secondary schools

The blogging fad that started to grow momentum in 1999 when Blogger was established has now reached massive proportions. Newspapers that were once delivered once or twice a day to doorsteps across the country are now pushing out thousands of pages a week, or every day. Search engines such as Google try to give you relevant content each time you type in a search term but the results of your search will usually contain unreliable, uselessly commercial, or inaccurate data. And we can now easily read stories published in dozens of countries around the world, or more depending on how many languages we are proficient in.
The public Internet now houses over 630 million sites, a number that is growing each month. And each of those sites can have thousands or millions of individual pages (, for example, has over 47 million pages indexed on Google, and adds thousands each day).
In the vast haze of information that exists out there in the digital landscape we stumble on often on exhausted feet looking for what we need or want (does anyone ever bother to go to the second page of results?). And it's not always easy to find, say teachers in the US surveyed recently. The story these quotes come from is on Mashable, a US website that focuses on the digital world.
According to a recent Pew study, 83% of teachers feel that the amount of available information is overwhelming to students, and 60% think that finding credible sources among that flood is difficult. That's why it isn't surprising that over 90% of teachers surveyed agreed that some form of media literacy education should be included in every school's curriculum.
I agree, and there's room for more subjects in that teaching curriculum as well. Because it's not just as consumers that we use the internet nowadays, by any means. We are all publishers now whether we like it or not (we obviously like it; there are 2 million Twitter users in Australia alone).

On the production side (since each tweet is a publication, for instance) there are laws that everyone should be more knowledgeable about in order to avoid difficulties down the track. Political speech is free in Australia (under a clever bit of High Court reasoning) but there are laws against things like defamation that are easy to break in the heat of the moment. Then there's libel, too. You get taught these things at university if you do a media degree there but the number of people who do so is tiny compared to the number of people publishing things every minute of every day.

And what about the ethics of the media these days? How would people feel if they knew, for example, that the Huffington Post - a popular website that operates on two continents today - does not pay contributors for the stories they publish? How does a big media company such as News Ltd really work? What kind of influence does a proprietor have on the content of the stories published by the company he or she owns? Does it matter? What about the different ways that large entities like government departments filter the information that journalists are given access to? How does that fit in with the public's right to know?

And, further, what does the process of news-making really look like? What is a deadline and how does that affect the quality of stories published each day? Who works in a normal newsroom? How do journalists develop story ideas? What is a freelance journalist and - a big question, I think - are they necessary? How does a journalist conduct a telephone interview? Are there laws for that? How can it affect a story if a journalist lets an interview subject vet quotes before the story is published? What are the laws regarding freedom of information and do they work? What kinds of information is the government allowed under statute to stop the public seeing? What does "on the record" mean? What is an unattributed quote?

The media is something that we are in daily contact with. We make comments on websites. We tweet our indignation at stories we consumed a few seconds previously. It would make the whole business more meaningful if both journalists and editors and consumers were reading from the same scoresheet, or if they had a common set of cognates to deploy in their numerous online communications. At the moment the production of news media is a bit like the production of sausages: invisible (and, according to many, no doubt, better left that way).

It's all so confusing but also liberating at the same time. The media revolution that began in 1969 with the launch of the internet is fiercely underway. But we can see how it can be a problem for people in the community under special circumstances, for example the case of the young man who was arrested in a violent manner by police at last Saturday's Mardi Gras parade in Sydney. We see the policeman in the YouTube video the ambling cameraman was shooting tell him to stop filming, and the cameraman - a man trained in how the media operates - refusing. A few days later we hear a senior police officer tell assembled reporters that it is not NSW Police policy to stop people taking vision in public places. (In fact it is lawful to do so in Australia.) The officer in this case was "naive". 

Well, maybe. But the bigger point is that, as the senior cop said on Wednesday morning, everyone these days has a mobile phone that can take vision. "And they will." The next day a special video put together by Fairfax journalists about the public's rights in this regard made it to the top of the most-viewed list on the Sydney Morning Herald website. So we do want to know. And we need to be informed about how the media operates. Best to start early.


Andrew Elder said...

Why would you teach kids about journalism, Matthew, given your adherence to the journosphere notion that they are not allowed to express any opinion on the matter unless they have been a journalist?

What would you say to culture warriors who think that a moment critiquing journalism is a moment stolen from teaching spelling/grammar, maths, Asian languages, driving skills?

Why not just show them how most journalism works: produce a press release, then rewrite it, and bingo there's half the paper filled?

No point telling me I'm 'cynical' when what you really mean is 'accurate'.

Matthew da Silva said...

Goodness gracious! Far be it from me to criticise anyone from expressing an opinion about what appears in the newspapers. The public sphere should be open and inclusive, Andrew, and I applaud that. Transparency is always to be encouraged. What I wanted to emphasise is that the QUALITY of public debate (in my opinion) would get a lift if all people were more informed about how things work. And that would lead to better conversations, and better outcomes in the long term.

You know I really enjoy your blog posts mainly because of your superior talent for verbal expression; it's a delight to read such wonderful English. I was sad to find that you had stopped following me on Twitter because it meant that there was then less opportunity for dialog.

As for how news is made I can only talk from my own experience as a freelancer. In that case you are simply wrong; I never rewrote a press release during the 4 years I did freelancing. All of my stories came from telephone or in-person interviews, email correspondence to and from government departments and companies, and from material taken from published documents such as research reports. In large media organisations there is no doubt more of what you impute to journalists.

Resuna said...

When you and I were just growing into our teen years, science fiction was beginning to struggle with the digitally connected future. John Brunner's "Stand on Zanzibar" and "Shockwave Rider"; Mack Reynold's "Meritocracy" stories; even some of the wacked out stories of fnord Robert Anton Wilson, who in 1974 envisioned this exchange being commonplace by the year 2000: "Can you program?" "Well, I'm literate, if that's what you mean!".

They were none of them accurate in all their details, but the hectic violently transiotional present is clearly presaged in these works. And the idea that _some_ kind of new literacy (whether it's Wilson's naive 'programming', Brunner's 'eptification', or the permanent education regime needed to rise in Reynold's Meritocracy) was essential. Media literacy is as good a name for it as any, and it's definitely lacking...

Your avatar looks like Bunyip Bluegum from the Magic Pudding, Fred. Good egg.

Anonymous said...

I agree Matthew, and while Andrew Elder's comment does appear to come from a cynical perspective... in the words of George B. Shaw: "The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it.".

And it is exactly this type of 'cynicism/accurate observation' that needs to be taught to our youth at an early age.

Your list of 'required learning/questions' is far from exhaustive, and that is not a criticism.

There are many aspects of our lives now, that previously ingnorance to was un-important(?), and the exposure and connectedness provided by the internet now requires our youth to begin to "question" the information they are presented with in many more ways than previously required.

This applies to 'media literacy' in the broadest sense... not just from a journalistic perspective...

One would like to think that we aspire to an education system where "teaching spelling/grammar, maths, Asian languages" is well and truly covered by the time a student reaches secondary school (yes, Asian languages is an option primary schools).

Secondary schools are where we should be teaching our youth "how to think", not 'what to think'.

Considering they now have a lot more access to "what is going on in the world" a media literacy component, also incorporating privacy, discrimination, censorship, etc in our schools would go a long way to creating a generation that can responsibly manage, respond to and intergrate the plethora of information they are now able to access, AND PRODUCE on their own account.

FOOTNOTE: I was very disappointed to see how many mainstream media outlets/journalists virtually reproduced, word for word, the original article as written by Serkan Ozturk on the 'excessive use of force by police at Mardi Gras', and then put their own names in the by-line.
I guess that's how they fill the other half of the paper (as per Andrew Elder's comment on 'press releases'.)