Concepts, Assessments, Subversions
Edited By Matteo Stocchetti
Media and Information Literacy in the Digital Age. An Example on Exploring Pluralism
In the digital age, the media appears to be a powerful actor of social changes as it is seen and used simultaneously as a tool, a mean of communication, of information and of knowledge. As a consequence, it has brought the relation between school and media to a even higher level of complexity. It is therefore urgent and needed to re-think school missions and to define what it is to be media literate. This chapter aims at combining several issues brought by technological convergence and the multiplicity of media practices. To do so, it critically questions the accuracy of the Media and Information Literacy project supported by UNESCO and focuses on one of its main subject: information pluralism. Media education shouldn’t be limited to the technological possibilities but should instead deeply reconnect with the actual users’ experiences of media tools and contents.
When referring to the digital age, it is necessary to point out not only the technical developments that have occurred, but also the social, economic and political changes that have accompanied this cultural upheaval in media practices. It is no longer required to demonstrate the importance of media in the lives of young people (some even mention a mediated youth culture – Hodkinson, 2007; Jenkins, 2009). However, it becomes crucial to understand media’s implications in the (trans)formation of the youth’s identities, their functions in citizens’ participation and their ability to convoke personal expression in modern societies. By enabling the development of “smart” technologies and the explosion of social media, digital media have led to profound changes in young people’s media practices, which includes the way they acquire information, entertain and communicate. The digital age then implies important modifications in how we connect to the world, in a broader, more interactive and simultaneous way (in space and time). As the UNESCO report stresses, “we live in a world where the quality of information we receive largely determines our choices and ensuing actions, including our capacity to enjoy fundamental freedoms and the ability for self-determination and development” (UNESCO, 2011: 11). Therefore, there is today no other option than to be media literate.
Being so integrated into the daily life of young people, the media have revolutionized both educational needs and opportunities. School has always been at ← 77 | 78 → the crossroads of information and knowledge production and diffusion. Since the emergence of communication technologies, and most of all, since the beginning of the digital age, this hegemony, however, has been challenged. School institutions have more or less succeeded in adapting pedagogical models to this new reality, and (professional) teachers have tried to overcome the paradox of being at the same time techno-enthusiasts – for the didactical possibilities offered by new media – and techno-cynics towards new contents and practices. Media education, as a project of empowerment, has arisen from this tension and is still confronted with the question of power: media industry versus institutional education, teachers versus media tools, information versus knowledge… these forces tend to collaborate in building a media literacy made of participation through media and critical thinking of media contents.
Media education has a unique history in many countries (Piette, 1996; Loicq, 2012), and in order not to focus on a specific national approach, we tend in this chapter to refer to UNESCO’s label Media and Information Literacy (MIL1). Our aim is not to explore all the issues and tools of MIL, but rather to show that the media can be analyzed and understood in the digital age through one of its central issues: information pluralism.
I Media and Information Literacy: background of a permanently accurate education
Historically, young people have been too often portrayed as passive spectators and subordinated to cultural industries. However, reception studies, including cultural studies, have revealed their active attitude towards media consumption and the interpretation of texts. What has changed dramatically in the digital age is that the public is not only receiving but also equally producing messages. Ranging ← 78 | 79 → from one to the other, the boundary between production and reception is becoming increasingly blurred, as is the one between communication (process) and information (content). However, the active participation of young people in the media universe has nevertheless brought up once again the debate on the role of school in controlling their media environment. Past issues concerning young people’s ability to demonstrate critical thinking, reflective distance and creativity are once again emerging. If each “new” media, before being supplanted by the arrival of another new one, has been accused of the same prejudices (bondage, disconnection from reality, disturbing social and educational order, etc.), then digital technologies are no exception to the rule. However, another major factor has interfered in the debate: the need to develop technical competences (often promoted by the media industry). Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) are supposed to have widened the gap between digital natives (considered to be spontaneously competent) and digital immigrants (seen as struggling to catch up with these technologies). They also renewed the confusion between media in education and media education (the first one is an educational use of a medium, the second involves an analysis of the media for itself).
The same kind of popular mythology leads the institutional debates between technophiles and technophobes who compete for the risks and opportunities of digital technologies, although all agree that school has to be associated to these technologies. For many, school can guarantee a sage and rational use of technology; for others, media is an essential issue for the social, personal and professional integration of the youth into their changing environment. The articulation of digital technologies and school processes does not refer to the same level for everyone.
Digital education is linked to the field of “computer literacy” which had arisen from debates about “information literacy” (Buckingham, 2009: 17). These approaches, which can be described as very ‘technicist’, were carried by an inclusion initiative aiming primarily at the participation of everyone in the “knowledge economy” or “information society”. Issues of access and individual technological competences were put forward rather than understanding, collaboration and creation. Digital education is, nonetheless, offset by the skills and abilities already developed by young people according to specific needs through their experience of technologies. A relevant perspective involves understanding the communicative approach behind the use of these tools (as innovative and powerful they might be). It is the social dimension that should be apprehended in the use of digital technologies, since young people are expected to become major players in the development of a participatory web (from an educational, a social and a citizenship point of view, but also in relation to consumption, entrepreneurship, etc.). ← 79 | 80 →
Thus, we prefer to look at media literacy, encompassing all of these approaches without limitation, to apprehend a cross media convergence and participatory culture. Indeed, the distinction between non-digital media and digital media no longer has much relevance as media experiences now combine different modes of communication, technology platforms and practices.
I-1. Media education, information literacy: two convergent projects towards MIL
Media education is a settled project, with a strong history, and with theoretical and institutional foundations, whose aim is to comprehend these new experiences. It has been based on several theoretical concepts and movements (Piette, Giroux, 1997) which have led to specific media education projects (Anderson, 1980). Media education is a process through which students should be able to critically understand the nature, techniques, impacts and issues of media messages (their own and those produced by other individuals or by media industries). Diverse skills and competences for being media literate can be put forward, like sharing and taking part (to be full participants in the emerging participatory culture online – Jenkins, 2009), judging (ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources), negotiating (ability to go from one community to another, discerning and respecting plural perspectives), and being motivated (to take part in public discussions – Carlsson, 2009), etc. Each of these abilities pertains to larger institutions and particular ‘mediatic’ systems. Furthermore, since media education is deeply rooted in socio-cultural, economic and historical concerns, the analysis has to take into account the specific educational contexts, the changes that have occurred in media industries, and the citizen expectations linked to particular national environments.
If media education has been designed differently in many countries, international bodies serve as a gateway and common place for these different approaches. In UNESCO’s framework, media education has been widely investigated, promoted and even modelled at various meetings (Grunwald, 1982; Toulouse, 1990; Vienna, 1999; Sevilla, 2002; Paris, 2007; Fez, 2011; Bellaria, 2012; etc.), as well as in reports and other educational materials (Minkkinen, 1978; Morsy, 1984; Carlsson et al., 2008; Frau-Meigs, 2006). Today, these different approaches can be found under a common label – Media and Information Literacy (MIL) – which integrates the theoretical and practical achievements of media literacy on the one hand and of information literacy on the other, in a transversal perspective eminently carried by the digital.
Thus, media education ensures that people learn how to “analyse, critically reflect upon and create media texts; identify the sources of media texts, their ← 80 | 81 → political, social, commercial and/or cultural interests, and their contexts; interpret the messages and values offered by the media; select appropriate media for communicating their own messages or stories and for reaching their intended audience; gain, or demand access to media for both reception and production” (Vienna, 19992). Key concepts for media education are: representations (media are constructions), reception (audiences negotiate meaning), media industries/producers (media have commercial implications), norms and values (media have ideological implications), languages (signs, codes and narratives), technologies (uses and social meaning), and aesthetics (cultural experience), etc. This project aims at empowering media users.
Furthermore, the idea of empowerment also brought by information literacy leads to three different levels of competences. In the first place, technical and methodological access to information should be mastered. It is necessary to be able to retrieve information, but it cannot be disconnected from evaluation since information is not a neutral good, and because the distinction between facts and opinions is not a natural process. Then, critical and creative uses of information should be taken into account when accessing information. Finally, these steps should lead to an information culture that includes ethical considerations and knowledge on media functions and uses. The development of an information literacy relies on information potentials, which are the individual capacities to increase their competences (Yoon, 2008). This perspective is crucial for the student’s learning process, as she/he needs to feel confident about her/his own possibilities to adapt to the several digital environments she/he is confronted with.
Therefore, MIL as a combination of those two approaches, is concerned with “competences that emphasize the development of enquiry-based skills and the ability to engage meaningfully with media and information channels in whatever form and technologies they are using” (UNESCO, 2011: 18). It should also “emphasize the ability to understand media functions, evaluate how those functions are performed and to rationally engage with media for self-expression” (UNESCO, 2011: 18). Being media literate means being critically engaged with mass media, which includes nowadays digital technologies. It implies to encompass the personal, technological and intellectual skills that are needed to live in a digital world, including the broader social, ethical, legal and economic aspects of digital uses. Moreover, it should also take into account the diverse competences needed for playing, learning and working in a digital environment. ← 81 | 82 →
The MIL project is deeply rooted in digital media because, first of all, there is no longer a clear distinction between digital media and non-digital media; and, second, MIL is concerned with all media-related literacies (information literacy, media literacy, advertising literacy, news literacy, television literacy, cinema literacy, games literacy, internet literacy, computer literacy, digital literacy, FOE and FOI literacy, library literacy).
MIL aims at the understanding of how the media works as a whole, the idea of media configuration being sometimes used in that sense. MIL can participate in the understanding of processes extending from the lowest level of meaning – the study of media signs (framing, narratives, etc.) – to the largest considerations of economic and political control of the creative industries. This means questioning at the same time the production of representations in relation to issues of power, and values, etc. and particular modes of reception and patterns. MIL is mobilizing a strong theoretical background in media studies, but is also concerned with production practices connected to the reality of the audience. It is also necessary to examine the myths underlying the uses of media ownership and tools as well as the contribution of the symbolic content in the “moulding of minds” (Caronia, Caron, 2009). MIL’s principal work is to break the code of the media, but also to shape it, in a process that is both theoretical and practical, as well as critical and creative, and always collaborative. Media should therefore be apprehended at the same time through a (critical) reception posture, a (responsible) production posture, and an analysis of the association of these two positions which increasingly tend to mingle.
I-2. Re-distribution of powers
This complex vision of media systems is the modern phase definition of media education. It has not always been so oriented towards the youth’s media experiences, nor did it always acknowledge the public active participation. Previously, with the invention of writing, new professions, new issues, new fights for power, new hierarchies appeared, as also with the invention of printing and with the advent of electronic media. In the pre-history of mass media developments, knowledge was still constructed and built by the school and in the school. But, with an increasing number of students with a diverse experience of the world thanks to the media practice, schools had no choice but to take into account these new forms of knowledge. With the idea of introducing media into classrooms, media education was at first generally a protectionist project. This protection was operated at two levels. First, with the growth of new communication tools (press, radio and television), educators saw a risk of manipulation of the youth which had to be ← 82 | 83 → protected. Young people were perceived as naive and at risk, and should therefore be afforded protection against these “weapons of enslavement”, through an education project built “against” the media. Secondly, these tools were perceived as a threat to the educational role of the adults, and to the institutional status of schools.
However, media cannot only be considered as tools since they have challenged this distribution of power. As school is no longer the place for dispensing a controlled knowledge, teachers are confronted with a new approach of their own functions. This is not so much that their role is abolished at the expense of another, but the roles are distributed differently, and it is necessary to reconsider the relevance and place of each in the educational process. When students bring to school a wide amount of information that they have accessed through the media, teachers have to adapt to this new reality. Information is no longer only contained in textbooks. Power is then redistributed and rivalry between institutions emerges. Education systems all over the world have been impacted by the changes brought by digital (r)evolutions. Media education has forced education systems to think differently. From a media education perspective, school should abandon its function of transmission for a more interactive vision of learning. From being the place where information is transmitted, school should become a place of (co)building knowledge.
II- Exploring pluralism in the digital age (through Media and Information Literacy)
Pluralism of news appears to be crucial for media education studies because on the one hand it refers to the historical questionings on the merging of media and school issues (which started with the development of the press), and on the other hand it is related to broader inquiries on critical and reflective thinking of citizens. Media education emerged precisely around these approaches, and these skills appeared to be central in the MIL curriculum “understanding the role of media and information in democracy” – UNESCO, 2011:30). Even if it has sometimes been used locally as a political (or marketing) argument to transfer the regulatory role of the state to individual responsibility (as is the case with Ofcom in the UK – Freedman, 2008; Livingstone, Lunt, Miller, 2007), media education is a field of study that captures the media in their complexity, and meets a vital need for adaptation to an environment largely rooted in communicative logics and information culture (Serres, 2009). ← 83 | 84 →
II-1. Pluralism in the digital age
The digital age has led to a more participatory culture. By being a place where everyone is able to speak up, in particular alternative voices, the Internet has been labelled a pluralistic sphere. But is it so? And what are the consequences on education? As mentioned by Cordier (2012), the formal information literacy based on the idea of learning a typical procedure to search for information and the definition of media education as a way to warn kids about media dangers are no longer accurate. Digital information is associated with a risk-taking policy, which implies to have a permanent critical view on this media practice (Serres, 2006). Being media literate means being prepared for the unpredictable. It is then more important to be aware of the process than to be able to apply strict methods for retrieving information.
While the multiplicity of information is increasing exponentially, especially in the case of news, it is becoming crucial to learn to discriminate the sources and viability of information, but it is at the same time important to seek for pluralism. In other words, it is essential for schools to give students the tools to deal with both information diversity and redundancy: “If we want media diversity to effectively contribute to opinion forming in democratic societies, communications policies should also aim at enlarging the willingness of citizens to take on their democratic responsibilities and at enlarging the cultural receptiveness in media audience to the distinctiveness of different constituent groups, ideologies, religions and life styles in society” (Cuilenburg, 2002:17). Therefore, MIL precisely aims to give citizens the competences they need to fully enjoy the benefits of this fundamental human right: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers” (Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). This statement regulating information policies in numerous countries reflects a typical European approach of pluralism, or otherwise called “media diversity” in the English speaking world3 (Cuilenburg, 2002; Rebillard, Loicq, 2013). ← 84 | 85 →
Four empirical dimensions of media diversity can be distinguished: formats and issues (linked to the functions of the media), content (which is most of the time mentioned as information pluralism), people and groups (which is called media diversity), and geographical coverage and relevance (McQuail, 1992). In the American tradition, this notion is linked to the idea of media heterogeneity and is defined by three levels: source diversity (ownership and workforce), content diversity (programme type, format, genre, etc.) and exposure diversity (audience reach) (Napoli, 1999).
Pluralism is thus a major issue in democratic societies and depends on the ability of the media to support several views and voices. With the development of the Internet and related technologies, and by offering multiple areas of web publishing, some have claimed that it would allow more voices to speak up and let more people have access to information and thus have a positive impact on the public sphere. The Internet, as a wild flow of information, is consequently seen as a systematic guarantee for diversity, increasing the illusion of information multiplicity. It is then seen as a means for alternative contents to reach a larger public (more than it would with traditional media) and at the same time, as an opportunity for everyone to access any kind of information. And such an argument is based on a good reason: online markets (production, distribution, storage, etc.) have the advantage of being low-cost and of having unlimited geographical flows. But does it systematically mean that the Internet is devoted to diversity?
II-2. Pluralism and redundancy of information in the digital age
As a recent study on news pluralism suggests (Rebillard, 2012; Marty et al., 2013), we can actually admit that if pluralism and “diversity as sent” exist for online news ← 85 | 86 → (much more than television for instance), it does not represent the “diversity as received” (Van der Wurff, 2011). It shows that most of the sources publish mainstream information, and the densest online traffic is observed on those redundant websites. Therefore, on the contrary, those studies tend to reveal that the multiplicity of a news website can lead to a less original information (“more is less” theory by Paterson, 2007). This is sometimes seen as a result of an informational imperialism of a new kind. Nevertheless, we can still see that the Internet has a higher tendency to pluralism (than television for instance) and revives the issue of the relation between diversity of sources and diversity of contents. It appears that most of the sources give redundant information and that the less visited web sites are the ones with the most diverse content.
This means that pluralism can be applied in two different ways. Firth of all, it is a pluralism of production, or offered diversity, which is controlled by policies in certain countries, or an ethic engagement in others. Secondly, there is a consumed pluralism which results from the choice of oneself to vary one’s consumption of information (source, formats, genre, etc.). As citizens, we all are supposed to be able to discriminate information, to take part in democratic debates and to actively contribute to the political and civil life of our sphere. But this perspective implies that the important problematic of pluralism in the digital age is not only the increased capacity of information production (especially from a technical point of view), but it is associated with the ability (or desire) of consumption. An important distinction can therefore be related to the exposure to diversity: content as sent and content as received (McQuail, 1992: 157). And yet, it appears that even when the content sent is diverse, the content as received might be really redundant. So consumed pluralism is not directly linked to the diversity offered, but is dependent of the capacity and desire of the individuals to seek for pluralism (Napoli, 2013). As a result, “one can hypothesize that consumed diversity of content on the web is actually lower then diversity offered” (Smyrnaios, Marty, Rebillard, 2010: 1258).
After all, the Internet is reviving the ancestral debate on media impacts on society and its issues. Such discussion usually starts with media effects theories on propaganda, accusing the powerful media industry of abusing people’s interests, and then focuses on one’s empowerment (as it is in reception studies for example)4. Despite the fact that online media consumers have a certain type of ← 86 | 87 → competence in interpreting and discriminating information, school still appears to have the power (and mission) to give tools for developing choices towards diversity. In other words, education in the digital age, to be relevant, should include a reflection on the tension between what is possible with technologies and what is profitable from them. Being conscious of the necessity to seek information through different sources, to evaluate information, to compare it to others and to make our own opinion through it, can be considered as a practical critical thinking approach that can be held by MIL. As for schooling issues, it is at the same time an opportunity to teach pluralism values to future citizens and a challenge to bring them to critical thinking.
As a conclusion…
The sheer volume of media content can sometimes make us feel overwhelmed by information overload. We are all immersed in a vast array of communication networks, and we live in a world that is increasingly saturated with media images and representations. With the emergence of digital technologies, the flow of symbolic contents has exploded, putting a final end to time and space, and making it possible for everyone to create their own products. As media consumers, we are no longer only receiver/interpreter, but also producer/actor of communication. Therefore, everybody can access this new public sphere offered by the Internet, to express ideas and be at the same time confronted with someone else’s ideas. But are we, as media users, aware that perhaps the more diversity of information is offered, the less we are able to see, hear and read it all?
Pluralism is a social issue that concerns not only the state in terms of regulation and public policies, but it has also become a central matter in the understanding of each and everyone’s media practices. Media education has always been preoccupied by the challenges offered by pluralism, its (political, economic and social) processes, and by the role that can play individuals as media users. But to be fully relevant, it should be able to adapt to the specificities of the digital age, i.e. the portability of contents from one medium to another and multi-purpose skills. Ultimately, media education has to embed transliteracy issues. School’s traditional aims are to produce literate students by teaching them how to read, write and calculate. In a time of convergent digital age, school has to encourage “the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing ← 87 | 88 → and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, for digital social networks” (Thomas et al., 2007). This is what we call transliteracy. It gives answers to the questions about technological improvements, economic issues, and the social, cultural and global participation of media users. It can in fact be related to the convergence culture (Jenkins, 2006). Transliteracy is being explored and studied by scholars around the world and appears to be a convergent point between media education, information culture and digital literacy. It is based on the fact that media users navigate from one tool to another with fluidity. It is motivated by the importance to clearly understand the implications of this flow (in terms of symbolic significance, responsibility and sociocultural impacts). And it is preoccupied by the necessity to be competent in handling those tools and contents, and to have equal chances to fully participate in the digital age.
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1. UNESCO specialists have chosen this appellation relying on diverse experts of Media Literacy and Information Literacy. It suggests (as well as the whole MIL project) that information and media are two different things. But even if we use it as a reference in this chapter to refer to a common project despite the local specificities, this term can be problematic and could lead to a legitimisation process of one (information) over another (media) and to confusion in the understanding of media functions and issues. Instead of defining information as “news” (which is after all just a media format), we should think of it as “everything that gives facts – or representation – on the world”. In that sense, every media content is a piece of information, so the distinction is no longer accurate. We have preferred elsewhere the notion of “media education” (as a reflection of “medias studies”) even if it is also associated to diverse representations of the media in education (Loicq, 2011, 2012).
2. Vienna Conference on « Éducation aux médias à l’ère du numérique », April 18–20 1999. http://www.unesco.org/education/nfsunesco/pdf/VIENNA.PDF.
3. On the theoretical level, this terminological dichotomy is much less marked in the English speaking world, where the terms of pluralism and diversity are both employed almost indiscriminately. Both terms refer, in its most basic definition, to a state of media heterogeneity, indicative of a more assumed cultural heterogeneity (the distinction between citizenship and culture is less clear). The plurality is discussed together in the mission of the media to promote different views (using the term pluralism in French) and in identifying the origin of the voice heard (use of the term diversity in French). We can still see a difference in their use: ‘media pluralism’ designating more an ideal or a general orientation and ‘media diversity’ rather refers to a tangible achievement (Karppinen, 2007). The idea of pluralism is also generally associated with sources whereas diversity is often used in the description of the contents. In the European tradition, studies on access for citizens to pluralistic information prevail (information pluralism or pluralism of news). It is thus associated with media regulation and public service broadcasting. In the French speaking world, the use of the term pluralism is not equivalent to the term diversity, on the contrary, it can reveal the ongoing tensions in the Republican model. The first seems wider and may affect up to the organization of the media system, when the second would be more limited to the content of media and be seen from a social and political issue. The first would refer to the plurality of ideas in the name of freedom of expression, while the second concerns the representation of the diversity constituting a society, in the name of equality. The first affects the vision of a plurality citizen, the second of cultural plurality. In this chapter, we use pluralism in the broader sense used in the English speaking world.
4. Media education has always been confronted with a lot of myths around media uses and functions. Even if media studies aim at dissipating fantasies about media effects, they still occupy an important place in the field of media education. In fact, by being at a crossroad of research, educational problems and parenthood concerns, media education should link education practices with media education researches (which is present in three different fields: media studies; education sciences; youth and media).