By Juma Inniss
Whether media literacy actually sucks or not is unimportant. I got your attention.
And that’s the point: How do we get people to care about media literacy? How can media literacy compete for mindshare and heartshare today? In considering a solution, it’s usually helpful to consider the underlying problem(s). So, here are what I believe to be the three biggest challenges facing media literacy educators, advocates, and activists today.
1. Nobody knows what media literacy is.
The average person you meet at the grocery store or the laundromat has never heard the term “media literacy,” much less knows anything about it. And that’s a big problem. Case-in-point: If no one knew road rules existed most of our streets and highways would look something like this:
However, if you ask the average person about another social issue such as bullying, there’s much more awareness and concern around it. It’s an urgent matter of public health and developmental wellness. Much more, anti-bullying sentiment is now, thankfully, woven into our cultural fabric. But how did that happen?
Some may argue bullying is easier to ascertain, and in turn promote, because it’s a behavioral act of aggression toward another person. I get it; but I disagree. My belief is bullying is popular because people made NOISE about it. Powerful stories told by youth through a mix of media compelled people. From Lady Gaga to Ellen, pop culture got involved.
2. Everybody knows what media literacy is.
If I had a dollar for every person I’ve spoken to, from laymen to educators, who thought they knew what media literacy was, I’d have more money than Scrooge McDuck. What’s worse is how affirmative some people are in their misinformation. But I don’t fault them. One of the major obstacles besetting media literacy as a brand, aside from a lack of awareness, is that it hasn’t been branded. And, consequently, the explanations for it among those outside of the broader media literacy community are all over the map.
Media literacy as a brand can absolutely be multi-vocal—able to speak with multiple voices to multiple audiences—but it cannot be schizophrenic. Optimus Prime is both a truck and a human-like robot, but no one will disagree that he is a transformer. Different people may say different things about you, but few will disagree on your basic personhood, unless you’re Donnie Brasco. Sure, there are a few definitions that nail it to an academic wall at least (thankfully), but what value do those definitions hold for the average person?
That’s the name of the game. Value. “WIIFM (What’s in it for me)?”
3. Nobody knows they care about media literacy.
Ask the next person you see with a child if they care about that child’s safety.
Ask the next passerby if they would be concerned if you had their personal information and were selling it off to unknown third parties, or worse.
Ask anyone if they’d like to keep more money in their pocket.
If I were a gambling man I would bet the answer to all three of these questions would be some form of a “yes.”
So what’s the problem?
Can the same kind of awareness and activism that catapulted bullying to the forefront of America’s conscience be true for media literacy? Are there compelling stories that can be told around the end results of media illiteracy? Is there a smorgasbord of credible scientific research to support those stories and underscore the need for media literacy? The answer to all of these is a resounding, “YES!”
So what’s the problem?
Juma Inniss is a recording artist/songwriter/producer from Boston, and the director of The Message – an interactive live music tour promoting media literacy education. He is a member of the MLN advisory council.