On Readership

Just last month, California Governor Jerry Brown signed Bill 830 and introduced the concept of media literacy to the state. It requires the state Department of Education’s website to list resources on media literacy, including professional development programs for teachers, by July 2019.

The bill was inspired by a recent Stanford University study that found an overwhelming majority of middle school students unable to distinguish between advertising and news online. Senator Bill Dodd, who introduced the bill, states that the importance of media literacy is paramount in  “safeguarding the future of our democracy.”

And he’s not wrong. For how deeply entrenched we are in media, today more than ever, the concept of media literacy is not as commonplace as it should be. The Center for Media Literacy defines it as such:

“Media Literacy is a 21st century approach to education. It provides a framework to access, analyze, evaluate, create and participate with messages in a variety of forms – from print to video to the Internet. Media literacy builds an understanding of the role of the media in society as well as essential skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy.”

The key takeaway is critical thinking. More specifically, to be media literate is to employ critical thinking in examining the systems of representation behind all the media we consume. Beyond being able to differentiate advertisements from news, it should really be a no-brainer that we’re also able to analyze our news sources and challenge the various platforms we use in navigating this landscape.

The nation is becoming more aware of the dangers involved with a democracy that is not media literate. Fake news is now the new buzz phrase. In the wake of an election that has seen our President throw around false facts and be rewarded for it, the country is decrying our collective willingness to overlook truth in favor of narrative – narrative that often fits right into our individual worldviews.

According to researcher and journalist Claire Wardle, who produced a very helpful visual guide to understanding this subject, fake news falls within a larger ecosystem of mis- and dis-information. In order to fully understand information that’s being shared, we need to know what type of content it is, the motivations behind this content creation, and the way this content is disseminated. While it might be easy to verify the profit-driven creation of “clickbait-style” fake news, it seems like those on the left and right have fallen prey to something even more insidious – technological autonomy.

Closely related to the idea of technological determinism, technological autonomy is a framework that presents technology as a largely external function of society, or as an independent, self-perpetuating force. Given rising criticism of Facebook’s algorithms, which have been called out for contributing to the spread of fake news, it is clear that we are increasingly aware of both the mediums we use and the messages they’re perpetuating.

But are we doing enough? The history of the term “reader-friendly” might have something more to tell us. The marketing buzz phrase of the 1980s and 1990s was popularized by print publications that sought to increase sales and readership by catering to what readers wanted. USA Today, for instance, initiated the monumental divide between the “serious” newspapers and the catchy, eye-grabbing publications we see on the stands. Being reader-friendly not only meant shorter articles, but that content could be dictated by focus groups instead of journalists. Undoubtedly, the implications of this are different today, but how many of us digest information with a critical look at who made it digestable for us, and why?

With Bill 830, California has at least taken its first step. But the conversation must continue much further. We need to give more thought to media literacy programs and curriculums. Our resources cannot be one-size-fits-all, nor too outdated to be relevant. If the future of democracy depends on us and future generations being media literate, then it should worry us how cavalier we currently are about it.

It might be that we’ve simply all been passive readers for too long. Now that we’ve experienced the dangers, it’s time to start changing our habits.

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