Why media literacy is more important than ever

From left to right: Katya Vogt, Alina Ostling, Bayan Tal and Flora Graioni

Fake news, post-truths and populism – teaching the audience how to consume news critically has never been more crucial. An all-female panel of researchers and practitioners discussed why “Media and Information Literacy” projects should be rolled out in every country.

During the International Journalism Festival 2017, numerous panels and workshops dealt with the topic of fake news: how can the media sector oppose propaganda? Debunk alternative facts? Call out lies? While most talks focused on what journalists can do, this session changed perspective. “We want to talk about the demand side, about the audience,” said Katya Vogt, director of IREX Ukraine, who led the panel discussion.

It’s important to talk about the audience because it is viewers, readers and listeners who keep fake news alive. They click headlines that confirm their views and share links on social media without questioning the content, which is why we need Media and Information Literacy programmes, Vogt argued.

In Moldova and Ukraine, for example, the NGO IREX teaches people to be more critical in their news consumption by checking and verifying sources. They also train them to produce their own media content and organize meetings between journalists and citizens because residents of both countries have low trust in their news providers. In some regional parts of Ukraine, word of mouth is the most trusted source of information. “Two out of three people believe family and friends first and then the national media,” said Flora Graioni, deputy director IREX Europe. By creating an exchange between media professionals and the audience, IREX hopes to create a better understanding the media and the public.

Similar projects take place in Jordan. And ‘it’s urgent,’ said Bayan Tal from the Jordan Media Institute. “Polarization, radicalization and terrorism are everywhere in the country. We started to notice hate speech in the media. Young people are recruited by terrorist groups via social media.” According to estimates, up to 4,000 young Jordanians fight with ISIS in Syria. Tal believes that extremists are so successful in attracting youths because they fill a gap in the media. “In our part of the world, extremist groups are much better in providing news in an attractive way with appealing music [than traditional media],” explained Tal.

Pilot media literacy projects have taken place in eight schools across Jordan for a year and have already yielded positive results. “Students know now the difference between news and an opinion and they know when a photo has been photoshopped,” said Tal.

Teaching the public to become media literate is not only important in countries with extreme situations like Jordan. Every country needs media and information literacy (MIL) training, the panel agreed – especially in light of rising populism in Europe and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. “In the US, I think that audiences are naïve. Living in a democracy they haven’t been exposed to propaganda during elections like we saw last year. So they trust all news,” said Vogt after the panel discussion.

But policy makers seem to disregard the importance of media literacy, said Alina Ostling from the Centre of Media Pluralism and Media Freedom. According to the Media Pluralism Monitor, that assesses risks for media pluralism in the EU member states plus Montenegro and Turkey, two thirds of European countries have underdeveloped or no MIL policy at all. A fact that needs to change quickly to fight fake news, post-truths and populism, the panel concluded.