The Fag End of Media Literacy

Bias, moral equivalency, impartiality, subjective reality where to start?

This is one of my brain dumps, unrefined in its arguments, which requires a nuanced approach. But I’m prompted to write this from seeing @BrianStelter’s call for media literacy.

It comes after Stelter’s interview with BBC Newsnight, followed by Sebastian Gorka, Deputy Assistant to the President, mocking Stelter’s professionalism. Stelter says he called Gorka to appear on his show to debate, but as yet his calls have not been returned.

Better investment in media literacy would help customers understand what it is they (CNN and journalists) do, Stelter concludes. It’s a noble proposition, indeed a necessary one and I agree with it. As a former broadcast journalist working for Newsnight in the 1990s, and ABC News in 1994, media literacy continues to be my dog bone.

As a Varsity senior lecturer helping to shape the next generation of journalists, I’m all too aware of its potency, and how dismissive generally journalists can be, when queried by academics who drill into its many layers — sometimes, yes looking at the bark on the trees in the woods.

I think therefore I am, I tell my students about Descarte’s notion of self, and in spite of centuries of philosophy through the likes of Locke, Berkley, Hume, and Kant, it’s still easy to fail to understand that decision making is nor absolutely objective, even sometimes with the best intentions. We strive to be objective, truthful, but a journalism story is but a snap shot of a narrative at a particular time, interpreted by audiences in myriad ways, dependent upon what I wrote recently

That internal matrix which synthesises and grows our conscious in all its guises e.g. moral, ethical and the creative mind which is as much welded by social development, family and community and various external forces e.g. TV.

Our rush for tech, drive for immediacy favours the working and assimilation of multimedia above understanding the semiotics of the multi-platforms. ‘If you can tweet, then why can’t you say anything?’ I ask my students, lamenting that in the year when I will have their attention, I will share many things but their conscious and how they see the world formed over lengthy periods, I will but scratch the surface.

This doesn’t mean we won’t have invigorating debates, but to paraphrase a saying about journalism, judgement is a social construct, informed by cultural, technological, social and philosophical issues shaped from years.

Stelter, I make the assumption from the above segment welcomes a response on the immediate ’cause and effect’ of the news cycle. If a photo shows a crowd that is partially filling a concourse does that evidence, as media literacy, constitute the final word? You would think so? If you walk into a shop to buy a leg of lamb and then the shop owner removes it to the back and vehemently denies it was ever up front, is that not evidence enough the lamb was there?

Somehow when these events have an immediate cognitive impact of consequence on us, they resonate more. There’s a story doing the rounds at the moment about a well known chocolate spread, which has pictorially been broken down in its constituent parts. There is a claim made on the product, which has caught the white-heat end of retweets. Whether I like the product or not, what’s worrying is how very little evidence supported by a visible pursuance of objective reality has been presented. Who did the investigation and is it verifiable?

If I can write, why can’t I retweet it? As a journalist and conscientious person, where’s the evidence? Last year, Britain’s most senior judge had to remind twitters that repeating what could constitute a libellous tweet also render the retweeter guilty of libel. There’s no defence that you didn’t know.

So what about this story that broke from a BBC drama ‘The Moorside’ less than a week ago. On 19 February 2008, a nine-year-old girl Shannon Matthews was reported missing in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, England. It sparked a community-driven campaign in which several people from different cultures became visibly involved. Yet on the BBC drama, they were airbrushed out. Shannon was eventually found alive when the whole elaborate abduction orchestrated by her mother fell apart. Channel 4 Presenter Fatima Manji asked below.

How could you avoid this happening, because about six weeks earlier I was prompted to write to a BBC executive querying the optics from his event which had a significant impact on the contributions from diverse participants.This is not to suggest in any way then the BBC falls foul of the same reality that Stelter wants to draw our attention to from the Whitehouse. It’s to suggest the breadth and depth of addressing media literacy in its many forms.

Educating the millennial generation about the use of unsourced material, how to critique what they interpret, how to shape a narrative that either intentionally centres around them given their interests, or distances them, how meaning is not value free and how empirical evidence is not the same as suppositions is what educators will continue to do. Engaging with viewers who’s minds may often appear set, whilst they reflect their views through social bubbles, disregarding external sources, may be more problematic.

It’ll take a CEO’s salary and more than enough town hall visits to educate a nation of viewers, or not for that matter.

Forethought author and one time news anchor

Dr David Dunkley Gyimah leads the Digital and Interactive Storytelling LAB at the University of Westminster.. He is behind the Cinema Journalism movement — a group of video journalist who are platform agnostic absorbing tech to create factual cinema. You can contact him at www.viewmagazine.tv

David speaking to Christiane Amanpour about cinema journalism
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