Katie Donnelly 

As we settle into the public media 2.0 ecosystem, in which everyone is a media maker, consumer and critic, the need  for large scale, comprehensive media literacy initiatives is becoming more and more apparent. We’ve written about the intersections between media literacy and public media 2.0 in this space before  — simply put, publics can’t use media to address shared problems unless they understand how to access and critique media messages, and how to make their own contributions. Over the next two months we’ll be profiling promising projects in the Showcase, and examining how they assess their effectiveness.

Media literacy has a complicated history, complete with a slew of philosophical rifts. Former subsets of the field have recently emerged as distinct fields of study, including digital literacy, news literacy, information literacy, health media literacy and advertising literacy, all of which share some fundamental values with the broader field of media literacy. In Digital and Media Literacy: A Plan of Action, a 2010 white paper from the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program and the John S. and James L. Knight FoundationRenee Hobbs notes that, “although they reflect distinct and important theoretical ideas and values from different disciplinary traditions and historical contexts, effective programs in all of the ‘new media literacies’ reveal many similarities.” For the purposes of this upcoming series, we’ll be using the term “digital and media literacy,” which encompasses the foundations of media literacy and emphasizes the importance of access to and informed use of digital tools. In the broadest possible sense, we are arguing that fully engaged citizens in a public media 2.0 world need to be able to “access, analyze, evaluate and communicate messages in a wide variety of forms.”

High-Priority Digital and Media Literacy Initiatives 

Although there is a clear need for it, at present, digital and media literacy does not have strong national support. It is embedded in almost no state educational standards and few university teacher-training programs. In Digital and Media Literacy: A Plan of Action, Hobbs outlines 10 initiatives for supporting digital and media literacy, two of which are especially relevant to the future of public media.

Hobbs suggests creating a national Digital and Media Literacy Youth Corps to bring digital and media literacy to underserved communities across the country. In this program, recent college graduates would undergo digital and media literacy training and then work in teams providing education to libraries, public access centers and non-profit organizations. Hobbs recommends that Congress dedicate 10 percent of AmericaCorps funding (which currently in danger) for the formation of this initiative.Existing programs like the Public Media Corps, which the Center for Social Media has been helping to incubate, could be integrated into the process or serve as models. While it’s currently unlikely that Congress will dedicate funding to such an initiative, it will be important to assess the best practices, collaborative opportunities and funding structures of such programs like the Public Media Corps. We’ll be releasing a report on that program’s first year later this spring.

Another important consideration that Hobbs points out is the current dearth of effective metrics for assessing digital and media literacy skills. As we’ve pointed out in the past, this is challenge that exists in the public media sphere as well. Hobbs recommends that the Department of Education initiate funding to develop a simple, inexpensive online measurement tool to assess media and digital literacy skill development. However, she notes, “There are so many dimensions of media and digital literacy that it will take many years to develop truly comprehensive measures that support the needs of students, educators, policymakers and other stakeholders.” Developing appropriate comprehensive measurement tools is not an impossible task; the European Union has already developed preliminary metrics for assessing digital and media literacy competencies.

Challenges Facing the Digital and Media Literacy Field

Hobbs also argues that it is crucial that we also consider the pressing challenges associated with digital and media literacy, including:

1) Moving beyond a tool-oriented focus that conflates having access to media and technology with the skillful use of it: While access to technology is certainly an important factor in creating a media literate society, digital access doesn’t necessarily translate into digital and media literacy skills. Many people use online technologies for entertainment purposes without thinking critically about the messages they are consuming.

2) Addressing risks associated with media and digital technology: There are potential problems associated with online technologies that need to be included in the conversation about digital and media literacy. These include privacy concerns, cyber-bullying, and access to age-inappropriate materials. Part of digital and media literacy education must involve reflecting on ethical behavior online and empowering people to make well-informed choices.  

3) Expanding the concept of literacy: Digital and media literacy is clearly tied to reading and writing, but educational programs, especially school-based ones, need to “bridge the gap” between the two worlds and make the connections more apparent.

4) Strengthening people’s capacity to assess message credibility and quality: In an age of information abundance and excessive hyperlinking, most people have a hard time carefully evaluating sources of information and remembering where information comes from. The digital and media literacy field needs additional best practices research and assessment tools in order to understand the best ways to help people evaluate the massive amounts of information they encounter every day. 

5) Bringing News and Current Events into K12 education: Civics education has declined tremendously in American schools in recent years. Many teachers lack access to quality journalism sources, and many more are afraid to discuss current events in the classroom due to the polarized political climate. 

While these challenges present important considerations, there is still a great deal of promise in the field. There is a host of exciting digital and media literacy projects popping up (sometimes in unexpected locations) all over the country. Watch this space over the next two months; we’ll be profiling some innovative digital and media literacy projects, which run the gamut of public broadcasting, nonprofit organizations, children’s book authors, museums, schools and federal agencies, helping people to become fully engaged media consumers and producers.

Artciles in this series include:

  • PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Lab Program Ready to Expand
  • FTC’s Admongo Promotes Surface-Level Advertising Literacy
  • Holocaust Museum Repackages Multimedia Propaganda Exhibit for Media Literacy Educators
  • Common Sense Media Employs Comprehensive Evaluation Strategy for Digital Citizenship Curriculum
  •  Digital and Media Literacy Book Review: Spaceheadz
  • City Voices, City Visions Uses Digital Video to Promote Learning
  • Public Media Corps Publishes Toolkit of Community Engagement Models