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A Media Literacy With Teeth

danah boyd’s Did Media Literacy Backfire? argues that some basic tenets of media literacy, such as check your sources or look for bias, backfire too easily in an age where large segments of the population distrust experts, the ‘liberal media’, and people who generally contradict their word views. Thus, she joins the calls to re-think media literacy: “We cannot fall back on standard educational approaches because the societal context has shifted.”

I’m not sure what ‘standard approaches’ boyd has in mind and unfortunately she doesn’t refer to specific programs. In boyd’s characterization, the standard approaches to media literacy involve strategies that are detachable from larger world-views. Whether someone is a Creationist or Evolutionist, they would agree that we ought to “focus on sourcing quality information” and ask “Is the venue a respected outlet? What biases might the author have?”

Are such strategies all that media literacy has to say for itself?

Mike Caulfield argues for a media literacy that goes beyond ‘skills’ approaches and takes domain-specific skills and technical skills into account. If you simply look for bias without  “domain knowledge or a toolkit of specific technical resources and tricks,” then it “is just as likely to pull you further away from the truth than towards it.”  Caulfield offers a strong critique of RADCAB and CRAAP and makes a detailed case for domain knowledge.

I read boyd and Caulfield as calling for media literacy with teeth, and I think there are approaches out there that we can learn from.

A robust media literacy informed by people like Jean Kilbourne, Naomi Klein, and Noam Chomsky will go beyond teaching kids to look for quality information. It will deepen students’ background knowledge about the world and teach them theoretical lenses through which to see it. We can’t pretend that either the knowledge or lenses will be neutral.

In Jean Kilbourne’s analysis of advertising, she talks less about looking for bias and instead focuses on how advertisers objectify women to ‘cut them down to size’, depict men as powerful, and sell us on consumerism. Naomi Klein doesn’t merely advocate tracing the supply chain behind famous brands, but building “a resistance – both high-tech and grassroots, both focused and fragmented – that is as global, and as capable of coordinated action, as the multinational corporations it seeks to subvert.” (No Logo, p 446) And Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman don’t simply tell us to distrust the media, but perform an institutional analysis of how mainstream media functions as propaganda for the government and the elite.

Thus, a media analysis with teeth tells us what kinds of biases matter by teaching us about oppression. It validates specific lenses such as feminism, and critiques other lenses such as white nationalism. The background knowledge and critical lenses help to immunize students against certain kinds of arguments, such as ‘feminists hate men’ or ‘people who argue for reparations are part of a victim culture’. They will help us distinguish what “sounds like oppression” from the real thing.

A media analysis with teeth also analyzes how particular structures in the media enact bias against people who are oppressed by failing to give them a voice in how their experiences are represented. On Democracy Now!, Amy Goodman points out how “how rare it is to bring on a Palestinian to comment on this in the last few days since the [UN] resolution. I’m not talking about Fox here. MSNBC, CNN rarely interview a Palestinian.“ Her guest, Diana Buttu, replies that “the international community has spoken about us and not to us.”

Perhaps the best we can do as educators is reduce the chance that our students will ‘single story’ people, and encourage speaking to people rather than about them. In her talk The Danger of the Single Story, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie argues:

“Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, “secondly.” Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.”

We have an obligation as part of any literacy program to teach students what came before ‘secondly’, to teach them the beginnings of stories that matter.

I am not arguing that we do not need to take social and technological shifts into account as we go forward, but want us to recognize that we already have some important critical tools at hand. Among the shifts that we need to take into account are the way that our data is collected, sold, and used to target us. It’s an age of personalized spectacle. And we are increasingly urged to turn ourselves into spectacle by ‘producing’ and participating on social media to develop our own personal brand.

We should help to build a progressive digital ecology around our students, the kind of ecology that will encourage brave, critical, and compassionate thought to flourish.  Imagine that students build up a Goodreads profile that features David Levithan, Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Adichie, and Shyam Selvadurai instead of just ‘the classics’. On Twitter they follow Democracy Now! and not just the New York Times. We will have already enlarged the size of their social media ‘bubble’. They will have brave role models that care about more than their brand.

Obviously, a media literacy with teeth will face vigorous opposition not unlike teaching evolution in American schools or the movement for climate justice. But a media literacy with teeth is less likely to turn on us. I think that means it’s worth fighting for.


Header photo by Mike Wilson


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