As the pervasiveness of media increases, giving citizens a near-constant input of news to digest, the importance of media literacy has never been more pressing. Before journalists and citizens can begin to work on the problem, however, a definition is needed of what exactly the term media literacy entails. This, it appears, is a larger obstacle than anticipated. A survey done in 2004 by researchers in Maryland asked administrators of 48 university Journalism and communication programs for a definition of media literacy. The survey revealed that most of the participants could not adequately set the parameters of media literacy and a sizeable portion also dismissed the idea media literacy being relevant.
Only one undergraduate program exists that specifically focuses on media literacy as a degree. Webster University in St. Louis has a Bachelor of Arts degrees in “Media Communications with an Emphasis in Media Literacy.” The university offers their definition of media literacy in the mission statement for the program:
“…media literacy consists of the following areas of study: an awareness of the impact of the media on the individual and society; an understanding of the process of mass communication; the development of critical approaches with which to analyze and discuss media messages; an awareness of media content as a “text” that provides insight into our contemporary culture by the media; and the cultivation of an enhanced enjoyment, understanding, and appreciation of media content” (Webster University 2005).
Working with that as a definition, we can begin to break it down. The definition emphases the importance of understanding how an individual’s media literacy can affect the society they live in. Paul Mihailidis, a professor of journalism at Emerson college and a foremost expert into the study of media literacy, has dedicated several articles to explaining why being media literate is the first step in becoming an engaged citizen. He uses the term “civic participation” to describe the job of citizens once they can critically examine information and media and “citizen empowerment” to describe the reward that comes after. While Mihailidis’ definition predated the era of fake news we find ourselves in now, his message remains relevant. Fake news, as a form of propaganda, misleads citizens and prevents them from adequately understanding current societal situations.
Webster University’s definition also points out that a key feature of creating media literate citizens is to get them familiar with the news making process. The implication is that the average citizen has no idea the depth of work that goes into writing a hard news story. Journalism has colloquially been referred to as “the discipline of verification” as a way of calling to attention the almost scientific way journalists write a story. Not only does this require verification of the facts presented in a story, it also refers to the verification of the journalist themselves in the sense of transparency. It seems that some believe that journalists are shrouded in mystery, hiding behind the pages. When in actuality, journalists strive to remain open and honest with their readers. Journalists are in the business of truth telling, usually first and foremost.
Finally, it seems that Webster University sees the understanding of media as enjoyment of media.This ties back to Mihailidis’ idea of the citizen empowerment. A citizen who is actively engaged with their media and news input, able to understand both the journalist and the journalistic process behind the facts presented, derives satisfaction from the experience. They are able to appreciate the story more and are thus likely to discuss the message with others. So in that sense, it seems that journalists should be encouraging this; we should be more active in teaching media literacy.
Enter Graffed: The Media Literacy Project. It is aimed at High school and college students or anyone who could use a refresher course into the subject of media literacy. The site is broken into two parts: the podcast and the resources. The podcast is dedicated to explaining aspects of journalism and media in short episodes ranging from under a minute to 15 minutes. The resources aim to give depth to the episodes, adding videos, infographs, articles, and books in the subjects for users to explore.