Media literacy is often cited as the solution – but to what problem? In this new blogpost for the Media Policy Project, Professor of Social Psychology at LSE and Chair of the LSE Truth, Trust and Technology Commission, Sonia Livingstone, provides an overview of the current debates about media literacy following a recent Westminster Media Forum seminar about fake news at which she spoke.

Call it what you will – media literacy, digital literacy, critical literacy, news literacy – educational alternatives to the regulation of the digital environment are suggested on all sides. Yet oddly, this rarely results in concrete policies or resources to increase the media literacy of the public. It seems the mere suggestion is enough to deflect attention from the politically undesirable or practically-challenging. Media literacy, conveniently, is someone else’s responsibility and they (teachers, experts in pedagogy, the Department of Education) are rarely present when “fake news” or platform regulation or journalism standards or data exploitation are being discussed.

At a recent Westminster Media Forum seminar entitled ‘Next steps for tackling fake news – impact, industry response and options for policy,’ I heard high hopes expressed for media literacy – for children, for the general public –  the consensus being that, as Richard Sambrook put it then and before, this is ‘incredibly important.’ I couldn’t agree more. Indeed, I cannot help wondering whether we’d be facing today’s problems if the case for media literacy had been heeded earlier.

But what exactly does the call for more media literacy mean?

 “Media Literacy … provides a framework to access, analyze, evaluate, create and participate with messages in a variety of forms — from print to video to the Internet. Media literacy builds an understanding of the role of media in society as well as essential skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy.” (Center for Media Literacy)

The more that the media mediate everything in society – work, education, information, civic participation, social relationships and more – the more vital it is that people are informed about and critically able to judge what’s useful or misleading, how they are regulated, when media can be trusted, and what commercial or political interests are at stake. In short, media literacy is needed not only to engage with the media but to engage with society through the media.

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 globalised. So any media literacy strategy requires sustained attention, resources and commitment – to education, to curriculum development, to teacher training, to research and evaluation.
  • We cannot teach everyone all they need to know. Education has never reached 100% of the population (think of the UK’s struggle for basic literacy for all). Also, unless education is carefully targeted, it tends to increase rather than reduce the knowledge gap between more and less privileged groups.
  • We cannot teach what is unlearnable, and people cannot learn to be literate in what is illegible. Terms and Conditions written in legalese are a case in point. Should we really try to teach these or, rather, shouldn’t they be made interpretable, as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) promises? Relatedly, we cannot teach people data literacy without transparency, or what to trust without authoritative markers of authenticity and expertise. So people’s media literacy depends on how their digital environment has been designed and regulated.

Still, let’s get media literacy firmly embedded in the school curriculum

Media education is expensive, for it must be sustained over the years that it takes to educate a child. It is expensive also, for to reach the adult population, a sustained and inclusive intervention is surely needed. But before balking at these costs, it might be wise to calculate the cost also – to individuals, to society – of not promoting media literacy, of having a population with insufficient critical knowledge to manage its digital safety, security, privacy, civic and health information needs or consumer rights.

I’ve started asking those supposedly in favour of media education where exactly they think it is, and should be, in the school curriculum. Few are able to answer. Note that:

  • Media Studies is best positioned to offer the most rounded account, but it has long had an unfairly bad press, it is not a compulsory school subject, and it is taken by only a handful of students (8% of GSCE entries in England, 2016).
  • The new Computing curriculum was thought by many to be the perfect place to grasp the complexities of the emerging digital environment. But there’s considerable scepticism about whether the English curriculum will deliver, though matters look brighter in Wales.
  • Citizenship is taught and assessed as a foundation subject at Key Stages 3 and 4, with some interesting resources provided by the subject association. But it has been described as “a second tier subject shoehorned into an overcrowded, assessment-driven curriculum,” so what can be hoped for here is unclear.
  • Last, it is commonly said that media literacy is, at heart, critical thinking (demand evidence, question sources, analyse claims, consider what’s at stake for whom, etc.) and, therefore, should be taught right across the curriculum from history to science or English; but it is far from clear that this is happening, given the policy emphasis on traditional ‘book learning.’

Media literacy policy – now you see it, now you don’t

To the best of my knowledge, media literacy is only mentioned in regulation in two places:

  1. “It shall be the duty of OFCOM to take such steps, and to enter into such arrangements, as appear to them calculated […] to bring about, or to encourage others to bring about [Media literacy]” (Section 11, Duty to promote media literacy, Communications Act 2003)
  2. “Not later than 19 December 2011, and every 3 years thereafter, the Commission shall submit to the European Parliament, to the Council and to the European Economic and Social Committee a report on the application of this Directive and, if necessary, make further proposals to adapt it to developments in the field of audiovisual media services, in particular in the light of recent technological developments, the competitiveness of the sector and levels of media literacy in all Member States.” (Article 33, Audiovisual Media Services Directive 2010 – AVMSD)

In practice, both statements have proved as strong or as weak as policy makers and regulators wish them to be:

  • Up until 2010, Ofcom actively promoted media literacy in the UK and internationally with some vigour, with financial and political support from the government of the day. But when the coalition government came to power in 2010, both forms of support were summarily cancelled, and little progress has occurred since, except in the specific domains of digital access and internet safety.
  • The UK’s support for media literacy in the AVMSD has never been very visible, especially if it seems to bring a regulatory burden. As far as I am aware, the UK government did not weep when, frustrating to media literacy advocates, the current revision of the AVMSD suddenly and inexplicably omitted mention of media literacy. Nor has it, I believe, welcomed the fight by the European Association of Viewers’ Interests to get it reinstated, as the Education and Culture Committee of the European Parliament has now approved. In addition to updating Article 33 above, an important paragraph has been added:

“In order to enable citizens to access information, to exercise informed choices, evaluate media contexts, use, critically assess and create media content responsibly, they need advanced media literacy skills. This would allow them to understand the nature of content and services taking advantage of the full range of opportunities offered by communications technologies, so that they can use media effectively and safely. Media literacy should not be limited to learning about tools and technologies, but should aim to equip individuals with the critical thinking skills required to exercise judgement, analyse complex realities, recognise the difference between opinions and facts, and resist all forms of hate speech. The development of media literacy for all citizens, irrespective of age, should be promoted.” (New (8a))

For some, this will be inspiring in and of itself. To others, media literacy is only a good idea in that the more literate the UK population, the less we’ll be deluged with #fakenews or #privacyfails or #onlinerisk stories resulting in calls for more industry regulation. Either way, I urge those calling for media literacy now to:

  1. Require Ofcom again to honour both the spirit and the letter of the law in not merely researching (valuable though that is) but also promoting media literacy in the UK.
  2. Ensure that the revised AVMSD does include provision for media literacy as above, and that we incorporate this into UK law post-Brexit.
  3. Work to get media literacy firmly embedded as compulsory in the school curriculum.

Will this be enough?

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.

This country has long been a global thought-leader in terms of media literacy research and pedagogy. So it is ironic that it is often in the UK rather than the rest of the world that such expertise has, especially recently, fallen on deaf ears.

Perhaps the furore over ‘fake news’ along with other problems finally on the public agenda, will provide the impetus now to make a real change.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Media Policy Project nor of the London School of Economics.