Elizabeth Thoman, the godmother of the “media literacy” movement recently told me that the Internet has endowed her field with a sense of salience, if not urgency.

i-b5b5a22374d0aeed7e55878b6bcaf33c-2009-thoman.jpg
Elizabeth Thoman

“As long as media literacy education was about television, it was perceived to be fluff,” she said. “But when the Internet came along, kids didn’t know how to cite sources online, and they were creating publicly visible content in their own homes without their parents’ knowledge…which sparked serious safety concerns.”

If Thoman and her colleagues’ work over the past half century can be credited with establishing media literacy as an academic subject, it’s possible that the digital media revolution will catalyze this subject’s introduction into the mainstream curriculum.

That reality seemed closer when, in May, my former boss Sen. John Kerry, along with Senators Rockefeller and Snowe, introduced the “21st Century Skills Incentive Fund Act” into the Senate. The bill recognizes that, in order to prepare students for the modern workforce, education must go beyond core curricula and teach “critical thinking and problem solving skills, communication skills, creativity and innovation skills, collaboration skills, contextual learning skills, and information and media literacy skills.”

If this bill becomes law, the Department of Education will award matching grants totaling $100 million per fiscal year to states that wish to participate.

Not surprisingly, the bill received a positive reaction from the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), an organization that held its biennial conference earlier this month in Detroit. I attended the conference, and it occurred to me that media literacy is an important topic for MediaShift’s audience. (See previous MediaShift coverage of media literacy here.)

The State of Information and Media Literacy

Before going any further, it’s important to define “media literacy.” One of the most frequently cited definitions came out of the 1992 Aspen Media Literacy Leadership Institute: “[educating students to possess] the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and create media in a variety of forms.” This sounds straightforward enough. However, the discipline has had a rocky time since its inception in the 1960s (a useful timeline of media literacy thought leadership can be found here). I think there are two reasons for this.

First, the subject lacks the perception of urgency. How can we expect children to read between the lines if many of them don’t know how to read? Second, media critics like Noam Chomsky have endowed the phrase with an anti-corporate tone and, in turn, made it a cause célèbre for anti-corporate activists and conspiracy theorists alike. There’s a fine line between educating students about dominant stereotypes and editorial considerations during news production, and accusing certain media outlets of having editorial or commercial biases.

The reality is that media literacy is more urgent today than ever before. The Millennial generation has tools at its disposal that empower its members to become citizen journalists and create and experience media in ways previous generations couldn’t imagine, let alone develop curricula for.

The media environment is also more challenging for consumers (i.e. not just producers or participants). As the Pew Center for Excellence in Journalism found in this year’s State of the News Media report, the rise of cable television and Internet news outlets is fomenting “deliberately coarse and provocative” news content and, increasingly, “the line between unfiltered personal thought and public discourse is evaporating.” If news is indeed becoming more of a public spectacle than a public utility, young people need to know why this is, what it means for deliberative democracy, and even, perhaps, how to reverse the trend if they so choose.

Young people also need to understand how they’re empowered by the vast spectrum of digital media at their disposal, and how to use that power safely and responsibly. The Ad Council has launched several thought-provoking public service announcements about digital exploitation and the potential consequences of sharing and publishing information online.

The campaign reports that 61 percent of 13 to 17 year-olds publish a profile on social networking sites, and one in seven young people receive sexual solicitations over the Internet (70% of which are girls). But kids aren’t only the victims. They can be perpetrators, as when it comes to so-called textual harassment” or cyber-bullying.

Obstacles to Information and Media Literacy

Given all this, it’s laudable that the “21st Century Skills Incentive Fund Act” has been introduced, and I hope it receives broad support. But there are obstacles to making media literacy a component of public school curricula. One problem is measurement, or the lack thereof. NAMLE’s mission is to “ensure that all people have the skills needed to critically analyze and create messages using the wide variety of communication tools now available.” This is a worthy goal, but it’s broad and its success is not easily measurable. NAMLE concedes that it “defines both education and media broadly,” and media literacy — along with all “21st century skills” — will certainly come under scrutiny by educators and bureaucrats who seek universal metrics and methodical testing.

My curiosity about the prospects for media literacy education in the testing-heavy era of the “No Child Left Behind” Act led me to attended a panel at the NAMLE conference entitled, “Does It Work? Assessing the Effectiveness of Media Literacy in K-12 Education.” The panel featured some of the brightest minds in media literacy, including Renee Hobbs, Cyndy Scheibe, Peter Worth and David Kleeman. Yet there was hardly a consensus on how to create a measurement protocol that can determine whether a certain media literacy curriculum is successful.

Hobbs said that media literacy educators come from dozens of disciplines and so it’s difficult to get a unanimity of vision. It’s not even clear what should be measured, be it analysis skills, content knowledge, motivation and engagement, attitudes, participation, or some combination of these.

Hopefully, the federal government’s loosened purse strings will encourage a more systematic development of these new curricula. It could enable media literacy experts to come together and develop lesson plans that are standardized, age-appropriate, testable and, ultimately, applicable to students’ development as informed consumers and citizens.

Photo of Elizabeth Thoman via Oklahmoma State University.

Mark Hannah has spent the past several years conducting sensitive public affairs campaigns for well-known multinational corporations, major industry organizations and influential non-profits. He specializes in issues and reputation management online. Before joining the PR agency world (v-Fluence Interactive and Edelman), Mark worked for the Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign as a member of the national advance staff. He’s more recently conducted advance work for the Obama-Biden campaign. He is a member of the Public Relations Society of America and a fellow at the Society for New Communications Research, and he serves as an awards judge for both organizations. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, he’s currently pursuing a master’s in strategic communications at Columbia University. He is an independent communications consultant based in New York City and the public relations correspondent for MediaShift. You can reach him at markphannah[at]gmail[dot]com.