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Panpa Bulletin : March 2007
30 PANPA Bulletin March 2007 Enough of the literacy debate. What about a media literacy debate? What is the level of media literacy among young people today? Yes, primary school children learn a little about the different media types and the products they create. High school pupils learn a little in their English and social sciences curricula about what they call media "texts" and, in programs influenced by cultural studies, are taught to analyse them "critically". For "critically" read "negatively" and "suspiciously". As a journalist and academic, I am all for healthy scepticism. My concern is that the fine line between scepticism and cynicism is being crossed and our young adults are being trained to be media critics rather than astute media consumers. Newspapers in Education programs need to be seen as more than just a wing of the marketing department, trying to boost circulation by dropping a few extra bundles at the local school. Editors and publishers need to start a media literacy debate in the community. My own local newspaper, the Gold Coast Bulletin, has done just that by hosting a workshop for school leaders titled "Media Literacy in the Digital Age". It's a healthy start. To my mind, there are five key elements needed for developing a new media literacy in the school curriculum. They are: 1Valuing truth over image and sub- stance over spin Public relations and image management has become a bigger industry than jour- nalism itself. There are more spin doctors (agents, PR practitioners, media relations officers ... they go by many names) than there are journalists and they are often paid much more than journalists. Several studies show the primary author of much of the material published in the mainstream media is, in fact, such a person. They serve a different master to the journalist. Yes, a journalist works for an employer, but most also believe they are serving the public. Spin doctors are just serving their client. Journalists are truth-tellers. Spin doctors are message managers. Young people need to be taught to distinguish the two and to put a premium on truth. Sadly, governments and corporations discourage whistle-blow- ing and truth-telling. Employees get into trouble for talking to journalists. It is a career limiting move to tell the truth about your organisation when policies dictate that the media be "handled" by a department of spin. Most often, the truth gets smothered or processed beyond recognition. 2Showing the importance of media truth-telling in history Part of this appreciation comes from get- ting an historical understanding of the importance of great journalism throughout history ... the impact of CEW Bean's des- patches from Gallipoli, Wilfred Burchett's accounts of the scenes in Hiroshima in 1945, Nick Ut's photograph of the burnt naked Vietnamese girl running down the road, Bernstein and Woodward's Watergate investigations and Phil Dickie and Chris Masters' reports on 1980s corruption in Queensland. These were journalistic truths that changed the course of history and they continue today on a smaller scale in every community. 3Demonstrating media freedom is the right of the citizenry As US publisher Arthur Sulzburger said in 1990, "the benefit of freedom of the press belongs to everyone --- to the citizen as well as the publisher ... The crux is not the pub- lisher's 'freedom to print'; it is, rather, the citizen's 'right to know'. This is too often for- gotten, sometimes even by the media them- selves. Democracy depends on a free and unfettered media because it is only through independent and accurate scrutiny that we can be confident our social and political systems are working effectively. Students are taught about other rights --- like the newly fashionable right to privacy --- as if they are somehow superior to media freedom. Critics lambast the media for their so-called invasion of privacy and governments pass laws restricting media access to informa- tion about citizens. We are learning to value private rights over public rights, and losing our sense of community in doing so. 4Learning to distinguish journalism from infotainment As part of media literacy, students need to be taught to identify the charlatans of journalism --- the tabloid television turkeys who parade as journalists but who rarely produce actual reportage. Every day profes- sional journalists shoulder the stigma of the previous night's commercial current affairs television programs and their sensational- ised and fabricated intrusions into people's living rooms. They do untold damage to the reputation of journalism and the future of media freedom. 5Singing the praises of quality journal- ism as well as issuing criticism where it is due That is justified criticism ... and we need to do more of it in our own pages. But we also need to highlight our achievements and those of our journalistic colleagues for the successes we have when media freedom does some good for our readers. More editorial columns should be devoted to explaining to readers (and high school stu- dents) the impact of our stories on society. If our front page lead exposing the hospital waiting lists led the government to appoint a new doctor then let's blow our trumpet about it. If we are to achieve any of this we need some champions. Newspaper editors scream from the leader pages when media freedom is challenged, as they should, but everyone expects them to do that. The Press Council writes its submissions to Parliament when media freedoms are chal- lenged by politicians. They do a good job of it, and so they should. A few judges like NSW Chief Justice Jim Spigelman still hold press freedom in high regard, and state as much from the bench. We need to groom some new champions of press freedom for this new era; to do so we need to convince the next generation . It's time for a new media literacy media matters It is time for to promote the true value of press freedom before a new generation of media critics expunges it forever ,writes Mark Pearson.