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Should We Care About Media Literacy? An Interview With Frank Baker

"In a world dominated by images and video, the ability to see through propaganda and understand the ever-present slick marketing messages, is critically important. By some estimates, we are exposed to an average of 3,000 media messages everyday. Everyone, it seems, is out to sell us something. Today's young people, exposed to thousands of media messages, don't think critically about their media habits or consumption. They tend to believe everything they see, read, and hear. If it's on television, or the Web, then (they've concluded) it must be true. Media illiteracy is rampant." Frank Baker

Do we really believe every story on the news? We used to know the two or three magazines to stay away from if we wanted "real" news. Are the commercials we see about food all accurate? Are those pills really going to give us six-pack abs? I mean, they have a real doctor who says it works! When politicians bash each other in political campaigns do we believe everything one is saying about the other? Just because we read it online, doesn't mean it's true, does it?

Media literacy is an extremely important topic for educators to understand. When turning on the television or cruising through sites on the internet, it's easy to forget that not everything we see is true or accurate. Political campaigns have a slew of misinformation about the opponent, as does a great deal of the opinion-based news we watch, and we know that the food that says "Fat Free" isn't always as healthy as we want to believe, even though the buff guy with the six-pack abs says he eats it all the time. We have a plethora of noise coming at us that we need to weed through to find the truth ... and that means our students do as well, and they may not understand what is accurate and what is not.

Interview with Frank Baker
Author Frank Baker knows a great deal about the importance of media literacy. His chapter in Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World (ASCD, edited by Heidi Hayes Jacobs) entitled Media Literacy: 21st Century Literacy Skills focuses on ways we can help students understand the importance of media literacy. His new book is called Media Literacy in the K-12 Classroom and we discussed why it's an important topic for educators and students.

PD: What is media literacy?
FB: This phrase has many meanings and in the workshops that I conduct with educators (and students) I make all of the participants draft their own definition. Surprisingly, many understand media literacy to be about analyzing media messages, but most omit the fact that media literacy is also about creating and producing media messages.

In my newest book, Media Literacy in the K-12 Classroom (ISTE, 2012), I listed a number of factors that comprise media literacy:

  • a set of skills, knowledge and abilities

  • an awareness of personal media habits- an understanding of how the media work- an appreciation of media's power/influence

  • the ability to discern, critically question/view

  • an understanding of how meaning is created in media texts

  • a healthy skepticism

  • access to media

  • the ability to create and produce media

One of my favorite definitions of media literacy emanates from Canada, where the Ontario Ministry of Education wrote:
"Media literacy is concerned with helping students develop an informed and critical understanding of the nature of mass media, the techniques used by them, and the impact of these techniques. More specifically, it is education that aims to increase the students' understanding and enjoyment of how the-media work, how they produce meaning, how they are organized, and how they construct reality. Media literacy also aims to provide students with the ability to create media products."

Clearly today, media literacy is more than just "the media." Today, we need to be concerned about new media (e.g. Instagram, Twitter, blogs, etc.) and how they communicate and use some of the same techniques as traditional media to communicate a message to the intended audience.

PD: Why is media illiteracy so dangerous?

FB: Those who are not media literate or do not question media messages, or do not seek out reliable, trustworthy information, are destined to be tricked, misled and fooled by advertising, politicians, propaganda and more. Many critics believe the future of our democracy is at stake due to the overwhelming media illiteracy today.

Again, in my new book, I noted a number of times during a typical year when media literacy is so important. Right now is one of those times. People living in the battleground states, for example, are being bombarded by political advertising from the presidential candidates as well as from the so-called Super PACS. One of the media issues that many in the electorate don't consider is: who, other than the candidates, benefits from this avalanche of advertising? And the answer is "the media" themselves.

During the holiday time of year, TV is full of those ads for toys. Parents, who've worked hard to make a living, are going to spend money on toys because their children have been exposed to the deceptive ad tricks used by toy advertisers. Parents as well as young people have an opportunity to learn not only the techniques of persuasion, but also the techniques of production. Engaging students in making their own ads, using free, user-friendly software, is one way to begin to help them understand ad tricks and techniques.

The annual Super Bowl game rakes in millions of dollars in ad revenue.
Using these ads in a classroom setting is another way of embracing popular culture and teaching advertising literacy at the same time. But there are hundreds of examples, everyday, from the news to popular culture, to the Internet, as well as radio and TV.

PD: How can we get our students to care about it being media literate?

FB: I think the classroom teacher has a unique opportunity to introduce media literacy concepts and critical thinking questions every time they teach with images, film, video, news, advertising and the Internet.

In fact, in a study of state teaching standards, (published in Education Week, October 27, 1999) elements of media literacy were found to already exist in most state's standards for English, Social Studies, Health, Art, Technology and more.

Many national organizations already recognize and recommend media literacy education. Among them: the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, Horizon Report 2012, Future Work Skills 2020, the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards and others.

Media literacy is not an add-on: it is simply a lens through which we see and understand our world. So every time a teacher uses media, they have opportunities to engage students in some simple questions: who made this, why did they make it; who is the audience; what techniques are they using to make me believe this, etc. (End of Interview)


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Click here to read Frank Baker's OpEd Commentary that appeared in Education Week.


Frank W. Baker is the author of three books; his most recent is Media Literacy In The K-12 Classroom (ISTE, 2012). He maintains the nationally recognized Media Literacy Clearinghouse website and he conducts media literacy workshops at schools and districts across the United States. He is a consultant to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). He can be reached at: fbaker1346@aol.com

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