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Media Literacy: Teaching that the Open and Fair Exchange of Information Is Vital for Civil Society

Susan Moeller's picture

One could make a strong case that the reason why Barack Obama won the US presidential election is because of “Media Literacy” — not just the “Media Literacy” of his campaign workers, but that of a wide swath of the American electorate. 

Media literacy educates people about the value of news and information, about the power of media messages, about the role that the public can — and should play — in setting the public agenda.  Media literacy teaches individuals that the free and fair exchange of information is vital to the establishment and sustaining of civil society. The goal of media literacy is to empower those it educates — empower them to take action to defend their access to information and to secure their participation in the process of governing.

Despite the fact that one could argue that Barack Obama’s supporters are more media literate than many of those who did not vote for him, media literacy training teaches a nonpartisan set of skills. Media literacy programs do not direct their students how to be engaged and certainly do not tell them how to vote.  Media literacy efforts do tell their audiences, however, about how crucial civic engagement and their votes are to creating pluralistic AND accountable societies. 

As the “YouTube” candidate, Obama created a networked, open-source campaign that brought in millions of supporters not just as check-writers, but as parties to a dialogue about issues and values and views about America.  The campaign and the public began a two-way relationship that as David Carr in The New York Times noted, started as an online movement, but then “begot offline behavior.”

“Now Senator Obama’s 20-month conversation with the electorate enters a new phase,” wrote Carr.  Carr quoted Thomas Gensemer, managing partner of Blue State Digital, which helped conceive and put into effect Obama’s digital outreach: “People who were part of the campaign will opt in to political or governing tracks and those relationships will continue in some form.” In an era when leaders, including Obama, are increasingly using new technologies to go over the heads of the press directly to citizens, media literacy about all platforms of news is vital.

The World Bank and others in the business of development assistance can learn from the successes of the Obama campaign—and should watch carefully how the Obama administration both benefits from and is challenged by the newly media literate American populace.

What did the public learn?  What are the essential components of a media literacy program?  First, media literacy is about the basics, teaching individuals:

  1. to identify what “news” is and how media, as well as other actors, decide what matters;
  2. to monitor and analyze media coverage of people and events; 
  3. to understand media's role in shaping global issues.

And second, media literacy is about individuals exercising their right to freedom of expression.  Media literacy teaches individuals:

  1. to defend media in their oversight of good government, corporate accountability and economic development;
  2. to promote civil society by themselves becoming a responsible part of the communication chain;
  3. to motivate media to better cover news by communicating to media their expectations for accuracy, fairness and transparency.

Teaching those skills is a formidable task, especially if considered on the global level, but a number of international organizations together with universities from five continents have joined to tackle the challenge through the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change. Launched by the Salzburg Global Seminar, an independent, non-governmental organization based in Austria, and the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda (ICMPA) at the University of Maryland, the Academy program starts with a global faculty and top undergraduate and graduate students from around the world. 

For three weeks every summer the Salzburg Academy’s faculty and students work in cross-national teams, researching and writing case studies and related exercises about how media affect the public’s understanding of their own societies, governments and regions and about how free and independent media can build and support robust, accountable and more transparent economic and political institutions. The multi-dimensional curriculum, organized along the six points articulated above, is then edited and uploaded to the fully searchable Salzburg Academy website.

The content and tools in the Academy curriculum give anyone from the developed as well as the developing world the ability to create entire courses in media literacy or to just pick and choose lessons and materials to augment existing programs aimed at the young as well as the adult population, journalists as well as policy makers.

The incoming administration would do well to take at look at the Academy’s media literacy curriculum as Obama considers how to defend and deploy development aid.   Last summer, on the 61st anniversary of the announcement of the Marshall Plan, candidate Obama said in a speech to the nation

“I know development assistance is not the most popular program, but as President, I will make the case to the American people that it can be our best investment in increasing the common security of the entire world. That was true with the Marshall Plan, and that must be true today.” 

The Academy’s media literacy resources are written by a global community for a global community. The contributors and users come from the United Kingdom and Uganda, as well as China, Chile, College Park, Maryland and beyond.   Media literacy can help Americans and the global public evaluate available news and information about the world’s needs, make sense of the solutions that are on offer, and engage proportionately and responsibly.  We all have a common need to be more media literate; we all can benefit from listening to the lessons served up by others outside our own borders.

Photo Credit: Flickr user CarolMitchell