Media Literacy is Bigger Than Fake News

The news media have been getting a lot of bad press lately. And although I’ve written in support of press freedom as a general rule in the past, I have to say that not all of that negativity is undeserved.

The biggest issue is that the mainstream media completely whiffed on the Trump phenomenon before the election and still don’t really “get it.” They seemed to be on their game last week when they were on the hunt for facts about Russian connections in Trump’s campaign just after the Flynn resignation, but they haven’t been able to regain their footing since the #TrumpPressConference debacle. In general, they seem at once to be on the defense and on the attack. They’re losing a PR battle with an administration intent on sidestepping them when they can and, when they can’t, decrying their very existence.

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Compounding the problem for the legitimate news media is that #fakenews has destroyed the very relevance of facts for many people and given license to anyone with an opinion to spew unmitigated lies all over the internet, often with a leading headline that nominally supports the racism/sexism/etc. of the original post. The ubiquity of such posts is made worse by the fact that no one is really even clicking on the links anymore. What a commentary on mindlessness it is, that we as a culture are posting stories about other people all over the internet merely because we “liked” the headline enough to share it with our circles of friends and colleagues.

Most people scroll past these posts because it’s too taxing to engage in public discourse when the well has been made this toxic, but who was it that poisoned the well? Back when cable news was a brand-new thing, its 24-hour nature gave birth to an immense appetite for content with an increasingly “infotainment” angle. Fast forward twenty-five years or so, and there were competing news networks that found the best way to gain market share was to vary their points of view. Fox News then became the right-leaning answer to what it considered a “liberal” and “biased” media by responding with its infinitely quotable “fair and balanced” label.

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Across news channels, the fundamental change precipitated by Fox’s new brand of journalism was the ratcheting up of political debate. The louder and more disagreeable the guests, the higher the ratings would go, or so it seemed. I later learned that all of this was largely due to a phenomenon central to understanding news ratings: loyal viewers watch more. They’ll keep the TV on the same channel all day as long as they like the programming. Which, in the media – and news media in particular – means that they must like the worldview that’s being presented. And worldview, in media circles, is something we manufacture very intentionally. Media literacy accordingly demands we acknowledge that truth and try to unpack any relevant meaning underlying a show’s (or a network’s) worldview.

In a short span of time, our lives have become increasingly dominated by media everywhere we go. Yet when I say media literacy I can almost see people’s eyes glaze over. Perhaps the term is too vaguely defined to warrant recognition and too dull to elicit enthusiasm. For me, though, media literacy holds all the promise that literacy initiatives offered a hundred years ago: specifically, some measure of equality, or of equal participation at least, in the larger discussion being held in society – the conversation we have with ourselves through the stories we tell about who we are.

That same conversation that takes place in TV news studios is also unfolding on the silver screen as well as the small screen. However, those locales afford a wider range of voices than the bickering gabble of news pundits. Not only that, they offer deeper cultural relevance as vehicles of the personal narrative. And that’s something that all humans can relate to.

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From my perspective, the media are missing a great opportunity here to do a little bit of media education while still fulfilling their entertainment function in society. The subject doesn’t have to be dull and boring, and it isn’t all about news sources and understanding how to spot a fake headline. There are plenty of fun ways to approach literacy in digital media.

For me, storytelling conventions are the easiest way into this subject because we’re all familiar with how stories are supposed to go. This is one of the first things I teach in most of my classes.

For example, as a screenwriter, I’m trained to follow formulas. Each genre has its own formula. Visit Dan Wells’ video series on this for a quick rundown, but once you see these patterns, you’ll notice they are everywhere. In fact, you already do see them, if only subconsciously. When you’re sitting in the theater awaiting the climax of a movie, you already know how it will go. You don’t know how it will get there, and that’s what keeps you in your seat. But you know that a space adventure is, at some point, going to have a huge battle with massive explosions in the vacuum of space and at least one mano a mano showdown between the forces of good and evil. You know what to expect because that’s the formula (and because you saw the trailer). At any rate, the “formula” seems to work pretty well for the entertainment business and audiences alike. In fact, the formula commonly known as “genre” has become a central pillar in Hollywood (even the awards shows are built around the concept) because it works so well: the viewer gets exactly what they expect, and everybody’s happy.

 

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The same is true for television series, and here is where the formula narrows quite explicitly. Each series, for example, has a “series bible.” It lists all of the characters and conventions of the show and offers a point of view for the show’s narrative – the show’s worldview. For each episode during the writing process, the script is weighed against the conventions in the series bible until revisions are finalized. Ultimately, each episode ought to come out like a chain restaurant or any other franchise: predictable in a friendly, familiar sort of way.

I offer these examples as ways of thinking about media literacy as a separate thing from its sister, information literacy – which is all about assessing the relative merits of news content and other sources of information. Media literacy is about understanding the principles and processes that guide the production of media – not just news media but entertainment media as well. Students are encouraged to write or act out short productions that follow the rules of a specific genre or advertising strategy in order to get an inside view of how storytelling patterns are implemented in a variety of ways. Students who are fully capable of encoding and decoding mediated messages are said to be media fluent, and this will be the essential skill of the next ten years.

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In addition to analyzing media in order to produce content, we also consider the validity of the worldviews being presented, offering up relevant social critique that affords a variety of perspectives. Different voices within a community are encouraged to share their experiences and get beyond their own “filters.” Media literacy efforts are also concerned with critiquing the advertising that gets bundled with the media, the conceptual and political links between advertising and the content itself, and the blurring of the lines between content and explicit marketing material.

At the end of the day, media literacy urges us not just to question everything and thereby throw all facts into doubt, but to engage responsibly with the media we consume, questioning its perspectives and its intrinsic authority while weighing its messages against our own real, lived experiences. In short, the efforts made in media literacy are intended to help viewers become conscious consumers of mediated messages with the ability to critically analyze and discuss media texts.

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