This paper offers a snapshot of the current state of media literacy programs.
In 2009 and 2010, people coming and going in a collection of public places in Ukraine saw an unusual set of electronic billboards. “The person who uncovers that which was hidden–that’s a real journalist,” read one, against an image of a curtain being pulled back to reveal the word “truth.” Another, showing different colored pens writing different letters and numbers, declared that “True news means various views on a single event.”
Part of a program sponsored by Internews, the billboards were a rare attempt to teach concepts of media literacy directly to a population at large, that is, anyone who happened to be passing by. The target was the practice of what Ukrainians call jeansa, or hidden advertising, in which a company or politician pays money to a media outlet to get a puff piece, presented as real journalism.
But after 2010, Internews decided to discontinue the campaign. It cited the relatively high cost, but also concerns the strategy wasn’t sufficiently effective. In surveys and focus groups, significant numbers of people showed they “were able to distinguish paid journalism and/or hidden advertisements intuitively,” said Josh Machleder, Internews’ vice president for Europe and Eurasia. Internews decided to focus on public discussions to provide a platform for opinion makers and pilot programs for media literacy education in schools and universities. Generally speaking, Machleder wrote, Internews found that “raising the general level of media literacy in the population is a complicated endeavor, and that running a PSA campaign was not enough to tackle it. It did shine light on the problem … and sowed the seeds for a larger public discussion on the quality of journalism in Ukraine.”
In countries all over the world, whether democratic or one-party states, governments are promoting media literacy as a vital skill set. Media development organizations uniformly say that it is a vital part of their work. Both programming and spending patterns among funders suggest that media literacy programs are a still small but growing focus of overall media development work.
The Center for International Media Assistance published a trio of reports in 2009 that looked at the then emerging topic of media literacy. After hearing much discussion about media literacy among media development implementers since then, CIMA decided to take a second look at the topic. Do media literacy programs offer a promising new approach to media development, or is it yet another example of further fragmentation of overall media development efforts? What have we learned in recent years about how to best approach such programs? Has the expansion of social media and mobile devices had an impact on the way media development organizations approach media literacy?
This report aims to take another snapshot of the current state of media literacy programs and revisit some of the questions that this new area of media development is raising. Looking forward, the subject deserves much deeper research and examination. We need more data to understand how a country’s population gets access to information, understands it, and acts on it. We need more detailed spending figures to see how various donors are approaching this work and funding it. We also need more evaluations to see if this work has meaningful impact. So while “Media Literacy 2.0” is still far from the final word on the topic, it does begin to surface some revealing examples of emerging approaches.