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screenshot-2017-01-09-13-18-37It’s a great headline, isn’t it?

As director of Data & Society Research Institute and author of It’s Complicated, danah boyd has a conflicted relationship with the media literacy community as is revealed in her post, “Did Media Literacy Backfire?”

Indeed, researchers have found that media literacy can backfire when it’s taught badly. And because the effective deployment of the pedagogy of media literacy requires substantial knowledge, skills and habits of mind, it’s not always done well, as researchers have found that when media literacy is taught badly, it can have unintended consequences.

But danah boyd makes no such assertion about the need for media literacy to be taught well. In fact, the essay contains not a single reference to media literacy pedagogy or practice. Instead, she merely hints that perhaps media literacy is responsible for the growing levels of tribalization and polarization that is itself the result of a culture of critique and a mistrust of authority, where experience is valued over expertise and personal responsibility is valorized.

And while it’s important to explore factors that have contributed to the problem of both apathy and political polarization, pinning media literacy education as the problem seems a bit misplaced. This seems, at face value, to be a straw man argument. Why?

1. Media literacy educators are not responsible for the decline in trust in authority and expertise. Of course, the postmodernists among us might feel a twinge of guilt, but even they were just recognizing and describing the epistemological shifts resulting from the changing shape of information and knowledge due to the rise of the Internet. When the editorial gates come down, power-knowledge dynamics are altered.

2. Neither are media literacy educators to be held responsible for the culture of critique, which has been rising since the Vietnam Era when we learned that experts abuse their power in ways that require people to “ask critical questions about what they see, watch, read and listen to.” The culture of critique is a product of the Enlightenment; media literacy educators merely seek to recover what John Milton, John Locke and others have said about respecting the integrity and dignity of the individual and the powers of the human mind.

3. And media literacy educators did not lead people to trust their experience over expertise: actually this social phenomenon is at least partly a response to the glut of information, as Rushkoff and other critics have explained. Media literacy educators, with their focus on evidence and reasoned argument, value expertise even as we point out that expertise is itself a social construction. It’s a cheap shot of sorts to claim that kids who trust Google over Wikipedia have learned to do so from their teachers.

But that headline, “Did Media Literacy Backfire?” sure creates a buzz. You got my attention, danah. By using that time-honored device of bashing ideas to call attention to oneself, you suggest an “us-or-them” framing that unfairly places the blame on those grassroots souls, working individually and collaboratively under impossible conditions (like K12 schools and underfunded public universities and non-profit organizations) to create learning experiences that help people to critically analyze and create media through media literacy education. From my point of view, there are far better ways to build coalitions and advance new ideas than writing essays. But, to your credit, danah, you provoked a response.

But we in the media literacy education communication are educators, researchers and activists, not pundits who use clickbait headlines to push half-baked ideas.  There’s a place for pundits, of course, and lord knows we value the gigantic megaphone and the access to Silicon Valley funders (oh, I mean thought leaders), which even makes some of us workers-in-the-field quite envious. But media literacy educators aim for genuine dialogue and discussion to advance our ideas. See the conversation with Paul Mihailidis and D.C. Vito on our response to danah’s provocation, below. And let’s keep talking about these ideas on the Flipgrid here: https://flipgrid.com/5f64ba

6 thoughts on “Did Media Literacy Backfire?

  1. Ha ha, Renee, that’s what we call a forthright response. I largely agree, but I think there’s an interesting debate to be had here. Yet again, there’s a risk of people looking to media literacy as the easy answer to a complicated problem…

  2. Pingback: Fake news: is media literacy the answer? | David Buckingham

  3. My initial response to boyd’s question was, “I wish!” As in, I wish media literacy were practiced and media literacy education were implemented widely and deeply enough to have a significant cultural impact (even if that impact had some unintended unsavory consequences).

    While I also see this article as a shortsighted and shallow critique of media literacy for reasons Renee points out, I think boyd’s article provokes a few useful reflections on shortcomings of the media literacy education field and points to one possible way forward. Since Renee discusses how ML researchers have looked at the consequences of shallow or partial implementation, I will focus on the bit about the way forward for media literacy. boyd’s positive suggestion is the notion that our goal should be to encourage people to want to understand more diverse perspectives. While this is not new to media literacy as concept, practice, or movement, perhaps it is not at the forefront of public perception of media literacy. However this is certainly, precisely what Jordi Torrent (ML for cross-cultural understanding and peace), Elizaveta & Yonty Friesem (ML for empathy), Carrie James (ML for sustained civil online discourse across diverse communities), Laurel Felt (ML for socio-emotional development through play), and I’d guess a third or more of the media literacy leaders and researchers and teachers that I am most interested in, are working on; and, I’d guess that at least two thirds of our field would list “developing media literacy approaches for understanding diverse perspectives” as a current top priority. The idea has been a core concept in U.S. media literacy, one of the five core concepts (imported and distilled from Canada’s 8, imported and distilled from Masterman’s/UK’s 18) for nearly three decades. “How do different people understand media messages differently?” is a core question and concept in media literacy, and has been since Liz Thoman tacked her ninety-five minus ninety media literacy theses to door of the Center for Media Literacy in L.A. in 1989 (CML’s 5 Core Concepts of Media Literacy, 1989).

    This either/or that boyd sets up between either seeking to understand others’ views or questioning information and doubting others is a dangerous false dichotomy to create. I believe we should always question and doubt ourselves and others and the world (and therefore information about each) as part of our effort to understand and act in good faith with each other and ourselves. Theologians welcome doubt and questioning as a path to faith in most religions, so don’t think this is some leftist progressive elitism. Our work to encourage understanding others, rather than demonizing doubt and questioning, should strive to make social communication contexts safe for using doubt and questioning to achieve common understandings. At base I think media literacy makes life more enjoyable, in large part because it leads to greater understanding of others, new perspectives, new ways of seeing ourselves, and new ways of fortifying our current views, all at once.

    My research on the history of media literacy turned up the figure of the media literacy educator as provocateur, inciting the learning community to problematize, analyze, reflect and act as a group to affect relationships with and through media. Perhaps boyd’s article can productively play this role of provocateur for us. I suppose it depends on how we respond…

  4. I had a few eyerolls — who watches a student list google as a “source” and choose it over Wikipedia while clearly knowing almost nothing about how either one works and thinks: “this is media literacy’s fault!”? Kind of blaming the firefighter for the fire there.

    But my big question was whether any research has shown media literacy education interventions to increase cynicism. I seem to remember research from the folks studying civic engagement and media literacy (and from some of your own research, Renee) that suggests that media literacy interventions generally *decrease* cynicism, as questioning processes, perhaps even shallow ones, open up the kind of curiosity that blanket cynicism shuts down.

    This has been my experience working with extremely cynical students whose social position (many living in urban poverty, most very unlikely to vote Trump) seems to exempt them from all of this hand-wringing about misinformation and its effects on our society. My students have lots of reasons to be cynical, but even minor media literacy interventions in school make them more open to at least engaging with sources they distrust — even if they ultimately reject them. I’m not, to my knowledge, giving them tools to amplify their cynicism; the tools don’t really allow that kind of amplification! I’ve long thought that no one is ever likely to get rich with a “Solutions Too Easy” button.

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