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literacy, new and necessary

What if we lived in a world where we had the ability to distinguish between the real and the fake from the piles of posts we see on social media? Where we had the ability to watch the news on television, or read an interesting article, and judge for ourselves as to what it actually means?  Where we could look at advertisements with questions instead of our normal unswerving trust?

In a media-literate world, all of that is not just possible, but an essential part of the awareness that surrounds the citizens who live in it. This world is currently in the process of being constructed through education and awareness of the concepts that surround it.

What is media literacy? It is “the ability to access, analyse, evaluate, and create media”. The media literate are “better able to understand (and interpret) the complex messages” they receive from print, electronic and digital media. According to the Ontario Association for Media Literacy (AML), all media literacy concepts have to follow certain rules of the game, as follows:

  • All media are constructions.
  • Media construct reality.
  • Audiences negotiate meaning in media.
  • Media have commercial implications.
  • Media contain ideological and value messages.
  • Media have social and political implications.
  • Form and content are closely related in the media.
  • Each medium has a unique aesthetic form.

In an era where media seems omnipresent, with people absorbing a combination of news, social media posts, propaganda, campaigns, advertisements, films, and television shows that all seem to have more impact than ever, this simple yet essential skill is slowly gaining popularity – and for some, being seen as a necessity.

Media literacy education, is unfortunately, still only present in certain educational institutions, and conducted by organisations and groups that feel the need to impart this skill, in particular to students and members of corporate organizations. In countries such as USA, Canada and Australia, it has been incorporated into the school curriculum. In India, however, it is most commonly done as electives and workshops.

“In 1990s, I worked in Loyola College, in the Culture and Communications. It was known for creating awareness about media through media education programs. We used to educate students and teachers about the media”,


“We started with news analysis – how a particular event is reported by various newspapers. We used to analyse news reporters, advertisements, even particularly sensitive films. We analysed the impact of print and electronic medium on viewers. We wanted to teach students to unlearn. We should unlearn after we question what we consume. Media literacy is needed even for advertisements. Ads can have positive and negative impacts. Today, even Facebook posts, anecdotes and memes have impact on people. We have preconceived notions. We don’t want to question what we see as authority”.

Students, being avid consumers of media in general and social media in particular, are seen as susceptible to its effects. During their childhood and formative years, they are influenced by media stereotypes, perceptions and hoaxes. The abundance of media messages they absorb, and their inability to differentiate between the real and the trivial both contribute to their perception (and often misconceptions) of the world they live in.

“When I was fourteen, I genuinely believed that HIV could be spread by the touch of a hand. I had read a bunch of media reports on it.  I believed in a lot of celebrity deaths, even if they were false. In fact, when I watched the Delhi elections, I wanted to vote for Arvind Kejriwal solely on the basis that the media made him look good – although I didn’t know who he was, what he stood for”.

sunil kumar, student

Women of Worth, a Chennai-based organization, recognising the need for students to become aware consumers of the media, conduct interactive media literacy workshops for schools around the city, teaching students how to analyse and interpret the media and the view of the world that it has given them.

“We go to all kinds of schools  and educate youngsters on how to filter media content, teach them what they should take seriously and what they shouldn’t. We conduct workshops for students as young as ten, and up to college level”, says Linda Christopher, Women of Worth training manager.

“Our workshops involve lectures, videos, and activity and game-based learning. Our activities are linked to our content, and audiences. For older students, we give them sensitive cases of people affected by the media, and ask them for solutions, and based on that, we teach them the pros and cons of media. We ask them to analyse advertisements, movies and campaigns. We talk about social media safety, how cyberbullying can change a life, and why they shouldn’t believe everything they read, to interpret and empathise. For smaller classes, we conduct games. We ask students to play robbers, and we ask the people to safeguard themselves from robbers, and from that, we ask them to tell us how they could protect themselves from media. We train school children to overcome the stereotypes and break glass ceilings that wrong portrayals have established”.

In an era where social media is accessible to almost every student, and where fake news is as commonplace as real news on those platforms, it can be argued that every teenager spends their most sensitive years being constantly exposed to differing, and often conflicting views and opinions of the world. They are impacted by alternatively glorifying and demeaning portrayals of people, of life as seen in their screens and phones, and may begin to become influenced by it.

“Imagine the position of a teenager in the world right now. The media portrays that fair is beautiful, that thin is beautiful. When she sees a movie, she gets preconceived notions of what it’s like to fall in love. There is a lot of stereotyping and objectification of women in general. In movies, women are portrayed as what they need to be. The influence of media has led people to both mess up their lives and change it. It’s essential to know how to protect ourselves from the hurt media gives us, to choose what influence we want to take”.

linda christopher

Aside from conducting workshops in schools and colleges, initiatives have been taken to construct a sort of media database, detailing concepts and elements of media literacy, to give access to these skills in the form of capsules to people all over the country.  The JM Foundation for Excellence in Journalism, based in Mumbai, in 2015, began to construct a media literacy database, www.medialiteracy.in, filled with sections on media messages, interpretation of various forms of media such as news, films, television series, radio shows, advertisements, propaganda and campaigns. There are lessons on the difference between fake and real news, and censorship as well.

With the growing awareness about media literacy and its benefits, there are questions asked about whether it would be a good choice to include in the Indian school curriculum, making it mandatory for all students.

“I think that introducing media literacy in schools is needed. We’re also counselors, and we’ve seen cases of students committing suicide because they’ve gotten carried away by the media portraying falling in love as a flowery, beautiful process, and because the reality is nothing like it. We see a lot of young boys self-inflicting and stalking because the media has taught them that it’s desirable. Your self-image is being edited by what media puts out.”

Linda christopher

However, as Dr. Rayan insists, it must not be forced on schools, and must be administered by trained people, with the permission of the teachers and management, and as an addition to their main syllabus, not a core subject. “If it is forced, it will become a ritual. Today, there is so much exam pressure on the students, and no private school is willing to give importance to anything else, even if I conducted the workshop free of cost, because it won’t help students score marks. It’s an essential and useful skill to build their awareness and critical thinking skills. Teachers can use the concepts in any of their other lessons. Let it be infused and peppered throughout their core, so they may keep it for life”,  he concludes.

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