Adventures in Jutland

What is Media Literacy Today?


A post from 2009 that seemed to get lost when another blog went down …

Recently I was discussing, with colleagues, the sometimes vexed question of media literacies. In what sense should people be literate today—in what mode, or in what medium? Does literacy in one mode or medium mean you lose literacy in others. For example, do web literate “youth”—and “youth” is a term I don’t like at all because it implies a bunch of people who are all the same—lose their ability to read, or even worse, to concentrate. Is attention now a literacy? There are, today, a series of media panics about literacies, although this probably tells us more about the world at large than literacy per se.

We decided the central question concerning media literacies was variability, but what does this mean? For me, several things perhaps—

This does not mean fixed differences between established media, but ongoing variability in a very dynamic climate. The models that are a crucial part of literacy dynamics, and often the established businesses— newspapers, television channels, are all collapsing or changing dramatically. At the same time lots of new models, businesses, experience frameworks arise of course, although most of these are destined to fail (!). Everything is in constant variation. As Marx had it, famously, all that is solid melts into air: audiences, reception, production processes, narrative, software, business models, communications processes, advertising models etc. It’s very exciting but also pretty scary. All this this perhaps implies the need for a new “metaliteracy” – an ability to adapt. This is the single biggest thing to my mind. Our happier, more successful students have generally been those who’ve got this and gone with it.

This does not mean, however, that you don’t have to develop current literacies. Quite the opposite.

The first move here is acceptance (resistance is futile but surprisingly many students, not to mention staff, desperately resist many aspects of media literacies) and …

The second move is commitment to higher level literacy skills and knowledges over a range of areas. in short, the more you develop multiple literacies, the more you will be able to adapt as they change. It’s a bit like learning languages. One is work but we do it “naturally”. For those of us not growing up in bilingual homes, learning the second is hard work. However, once you’ve got two or three languages down, it’s much easier to adapt to more. Media literacies and knowledges are like that. You need to know how to make a competent video—in short, today you need visual literacy in production as well as in visual analysis—but you still need to know how to read and write text (and edit it, as well as publish in a range of forms!). You need to be able to put a good tweet together, but also be able to talk to a range of people face to face.

A problem: we think we get this. We are all these days used to “choice”—but this means, “if I don’t like doing this, I’ll just do that, etc”. Choice works in our favour—we get to choose. This is to some extent now changing. “Variability” will sometimes mean this, but it will just as often mean the opposite. That is, as above .. you will have to be good at more things that change, that are moving targets, that are demanding, and concerning which you have no choice. You must be more literate in more ways.

It’s about knowledge as well, across a range of areas.. You need to know about complex media set ups these days, but you also need to know about politics, climate change, urban conditions, social policy, the history of ideas, etc … all of these are also highly variable, subject to context. Most of the people (e.g. people like Jon Stewart) who do well these days are people who understand media variability and also, simply put, are broadly literate. They know lots of “stuff” (yes even non-media “stuff”). They can communicate, and work with this “stuff”, across a wide range of situations. So media literacies means more than knowing what the latest video is on YouTube (although this is definitely part of it). All forms of literacy—essay writing, reading, video production etc—are not just “outcomes” .. they need to be established (stage one) so that you get to the interesting stuff—knowing and working with content, real relationships, business, whatever (stage two).

Beyond this points are all the obvious. The media as we know it are changing very dramatically, as is the nature of media work. Perhaps a fair bit of the industry (to be fair, less often media workers, but more often the structures within which media work takes place) still has its head in the sand, or thinks it can self-spin or re-regulate its way out of the problems. Yet that still leaves those with their heads above the sand doing really interesting stuff.

Media Studies is currently caught betwixt and between all this.


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