Why Media Literacy is More Important than Ever

NYDN cover

This semester we’ve witnessed a brutal execution, played out initially on live television to a small audience and then broadcast worldwide via social media channels.  Some are now advocating for stricter gun laws while others suggest that automatic-play videos on social media be outlawed.  Neither one of these solutions are quickly feasible or easily enforced.  There is a larger point here that is being ignored.  The suspect filmed the murders.  He shared the murders.  And we watched the murders.

Although Twitter and Facebook took down the videos, reeling in content on social media is much like trying to get toothpaste back into the tube.  The clips were on YouTube within an hour, and the online debate turned into “to watch or not to watch”.

While society can debate gun laws, mental health and the legality of sharing disturbing videos online, the ever-increasing role of the media in our lives cannot be debated.  Countless studies show that Americans are spending more time than ever in front of screens, both consuming and creating content.  Some of it is banal, some of it is interesting, all of it is educational even if it was not created with that intent.

Since the role of media in our lives is likely to only increase, perhaps it is appropriate to stand back and ask ourselves what it all means.  How many viewers of last week’s crime felt like they were watching a film?  Or a first-person-shooter video game?  Or perhaps more disturbing, how many viewers were desensitized to what was actually happening in the video?

Disturbing video is nothing new.  The public relations experts of ISIS have mastered the art complete with professional production quality and soundtrack music.  We are at once voyeurs and squeamish about the accessibility of all this disturbing content.

Sometimes disturbing content is delivered without context or analysis.  Think of the photos of the refugee crisis in Europe.  We see desperate people huddled in train stations and images of a lone drowned child on a beach.  But how many of us really understand the context and history of why this is happening?  Or do the media just give us compelling images and expect us to research them ourselves?  This is a quandary.  That these images cause affective responses requires special responsibility in sending as well as decoding these images.

So what to do?  The likelihood of disturbing media content somehow dissipating or disappearing is minute.  In fact, it is more likely to increase.  We cannot stop the senders of these messages, the tools are ubiquitous.  We cannot change their message.  We can, however, educate and empower the receivers of these messages with media literacy education.

Media literacy is not media bashing.  It’s not a topic, it’s a skill.  It’s the ability to critically evaluate the thousands of media messages we consume daily.  Media literacy isn’t a panacea for negative media effects, but it can force us to step outside ourselves and ask basic questions.

Who created this particular message, for example?  What is their motive or intent?  What information is being omitted?  What tools are used to get me to pay attention?  How might others interpret this message?

Americans live in a mediated world.  It only seems logical that we should analyze our media consumption and what its effects are.  Yet, although media literacy is mandated in several countries, it faces an uphill battle in the United States.  Teachers are stretched to the limit, and although media literacy can easily be implemented across the curriculum, there’s very little teacher training, time or administrative support to teach this critical subject in schools.

While we may not see another live execution on television, we will definitely see irresponsible behavior being celebrated, fake stories being circulated and news stories exaggerated.  Isn’t it time we give our children a defense mechanism that doesn’t involve censorship or sequestration?  We owe it to our children to teach them how to live in this mediated world.  And it doesn’t have to begin in schools, it can begin at the kitchen table.

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