The European Union's Directorate of the Bleeding Obvious* has concluded, essentially, that the media is full of rubbish and that its audience is ill-equipped to assess the quality of the information that it is offered. Furthermore, the audience itself is now complicating matters by producing its own rubbish in multiple overlapping and intersecting formats. It follows, says the European Commission, that media literacy "becomes even more essential for active citizenship and democracy."
We at The Register are entirely unconvinced that the addition of electronic Web 2.0 media rubbish to the pile of traditional paper-based media rubbish makes media literacy any more or less essential or achievable. Nor do we see it as necessarily following that the skills needed to analyse and assess information have materially changed because the world has gone digital. Yes, we accept that critical analysis skills are sadly lacking these days, and that it is possible that the world might be a better place if that were less the case; but we have severe doubts about the ability of the Commission and its miscellaneous collection of vested interests to do much more than pontificate ineffectually.
That link gives you the list of contributors to a public consultation on media literacy run by the Commission in 2006, and you'll note that despite the apparently Web 2.0 nature of 'the issue' ("The media are changing, and so is citizens' use of such media. New information and communication technologies make it much easier for anybody to retrieve and disseminate information, communicate, publish or even broadcast," says the Commission), it consists overwhelmingly of old media, public bodies, traditional organisations and educationalists.
The Commission brings its own agenda and preconceptions to the party. "In a digital era, media literacy is crucial for achieving full and active citizenship," says Information Society and Media Commissioner Viviane Reding. "The ability to read and write – or traditional literacy – is no longer sufficient in this day and age. People need a greater awareness of how to express themselves effectively, and how to interpret what others are saying, especially on blogs, via search engines or in advertising. Everyone (old and young) needs to get to grips with the new digital world in which we live. For this, continuous information and education is more important than regulation."
Does it necessarily follow either that media literacy is "crucial" for "full and active citizenship" or that this is more the case in "a digital era"? And given that younger people are heavily active and skilled in the use of digital media, what is it that Reding actually means by "media literacy"? Doesn't being able to use the Internet effectivedly count? Is the "problem" perhaps that old chestnut, declining newspaper sales, plus a declining interest on the population's part in politics and politicians?
The Commission's problem seems to be not that "ordinary people" are using digital media and posting web content, but that the poor souls don't seem to know what they're doing. They don't always "fully understand the context within which such material is written, seen or read, or the possible consequences of publishing something themselves." And indeed quite often they don't, just as those selling 'my exclusive story' to the popular prints quite often don't understand the possible consequences. So your point is?
Apparently, that everybody "therefore" needs to develop new skills as active communicators and creators of content. As a first step, the Commission's efforts are being directed at media literacy relating to advertising ("promoting media literacy is a much more appropriate approach than advocating advertising bans," says Reding), "raising awareness of European film" (did we not mention vested interests?) and "media literacy for online which, for example, will give citizens a better knowledge of how Google and other Internet search engines work."
Which seems a pretty restricted approach to online media literacy, but hey, it's a start. The Commission communication itself (available here) breaks down "media literacy" into a number of areas.
These include "feeling comfortable with all existing media from newspapers to virtual communities" (The Register fails on that one); "actively using media through... interactive television, use of Internet search engines or participation in virtual communities" (failed again); "having a critical approach to media as regards both quality and accuracy of content"; "understanding the economy of media and the difference between pluralism and media ownership" and "being aware of copyright issues which are essential for a 'culture of legality', especially for the younger generation..."
So to summarise, first you immunise the population to lying advertising, then you awaken it to the lies the press prints, then the whole of the citizenry becomes wise, communicative, creative and law-abiding, originating and exchanging its own crystal-clear information. And then suddenly they all see a point to you, and to voting for you? Is that it? ®
* Well OK, the Information Society & Media Directorate General, really.