3.3 Media Literacy

Irena Chiru


The current section acknowledges the various attempts of theorising the competencies needed for an informed and aware media/ news consumption, while trying to bring into discussion the elements that forms media literacy in a media interconnected society as it is the society we are presently experiencing. Within the broader scope of the DOMINOES Handbook, this section aims to present and analyse the most recent developments in developing media competencies. It stems from the premise that with the multiple problems of hate speech, cyberbullying, hacked YouTube content or fake news we need to better understand and manage the media environment. In addition to exploring the alternative approaches of media literacy as an over-arching concept for information literacy, digital literacy, and fake news literacy, the section will identify, structure and investigate both the challenges and the inspiring practices in understanding the role of media in society and promoting a critical approach to messages constructed by media. Given the specificity of the DOMINOES Handbook, the focus will be mainly on the actions assumed at the European level and, out of all media contents, on news.

Main research questions addressed

● How has media literacy evolved in the last years? How has the intensive debate on disinformation and fake news shaped the “media literacy” initiatives?
● Which are the main media competencies needed in the current information ecosystem?
● What are the good practices in the field? 

Media literacy represents a widely invoked solution facing the dangers of misinformation, disinformation and the use of information to cause harm. Also found as “information literacy” and/or in close relation with “media education”, media literacy can be simply defined as the ability to:
   ● decode and understand media messages (including the political and economic ecosystems in which they are produced and exist);
   ● assess the influence of those messages on human beliefs, feelings, and behaviours;
   ● repost/ create mediatised content thoughtfully and conscientiously. 

Regardless of the field in which it is considered (e.g. financial, digital, computer or cultural), “literacy” is understood as a desirable state or “something we seek to achieve” (Leaning, 2017, 30), in which one has or aims for a level of understanding beyond simple competence based on cognitive skills and reasoning. The existing literature displays a large set of alternative definitions (e.g. Aufderheide, 1993, Potter, 2010, Polanco-Levicán, Salvo-Garrido, 2022) that vary from the ability to access, understand and produce media content in a variety of contexts to an informed and skillful application of literacy skills to media and technology messages. The literature also offers a full panoply of concepts and definitions related or subordinated to media literacy, as well as their evaluation and comparison, however arriving at a universally applicable and practical model is impossible and would be unworkable. Therefore, the current section acknowledges the various attempts to theorise the competences needed for an informed and aware media and news consumption, while trying to bring into discussion the elements that form media literacy in a media interconnected society as is the society we are presently living in.

Media literacy definitions

● “A critical-thinking skill that enables audiences to decipher the information that they receive through the channels of mass communications and empowers them to develop independent judgments about media content” - Silverblatt and Eliceiri (1997)
● “The ability to effectively and efficiently comprehend and use any form of mediated communication” – Baran (2013)
● “[media literacy] includes all technical, cognitive, social, civic and creative capacities that allow a citizen to access, have a critical understanding of the media and interact with it” (EU Media Literacy Expert Group). 

Although seldom incorrectly and flexibly used as a replacement for ”information literacy” or as an obsolete formula for ”digital literacy”, ”media literacy” mirrors the result of the media convergence – that is the merging of electronic media (mass communication) and digital media (multimedia communication). Therefore, the formula embraced by the current section - media literacy - is to be considered as the appropriate concept leaving behind or including former or subordinated types of literacy:
   ● Classic literacy (reading-writing-understanding) was dominant for centuries and corresponded to the process of reading and writing, and in which primary schooling has played an essential role;
   ●  Audiovisual literacy, which relates to electronic media such as film and television, focuses on image, and sequential images. It is the beginning of different educational initiatives early engaged but not sufficiently supported by a real policy;
   ● Digital literacy or information literacy stems from computer and digital media, which brought about the necessity to learn new skills. This is a very recent concept, and is often used synonymously to refer to the technical skills required for modern digital tools which occurs in the advanced stages of development of information society.

The recent conceptualising and measuring initiatives at the European level (Celot, 2012) identified two dimensions within media literacy. The first one is derived from an individual’s ability to utilise the media, Individual Competencies, defined as:
a) Use – an individual technical skill;
b) Critical Understanding competency – fluency in comprehension and interpretation and
c) Communicative – the ability to establish relationships through the media and the other informed by contextual and environmental factors.

The second dimension, Environmental Factors, is defined as a set of contextual factors that facilitate or hinder the development of the Individual competencies including the following areas: (a) Media education, (b) Media Policy, (c) Media Availability, (d) Roles of the Media Industry and Civil society.

From a more nuanced perspective, media literacy is characterised by eight fundamental characteristics (Silverblatt, 2008):
1. A critical thinking skill enabling audience members to develop independent judgments about media content;
2. An understanding of the process of mass communication;
3. An awareness of the impact of media on the individual and society;
4. Strategies for analysing and discussing media messages;
5. An understanding of media content as a text that provides insight into our culture and our lives;
6. The ability to enjoy, understand, and appreciate media content;
7. Development of effective and responsible production skills;
8. An understanding of the ethical and moral obligations of media practitioners. 

Media Literacy Fields of Application

(A European approach to media literacy in the digital environment, 2007)
This reference material on media literacy published by the European Commission places the primary focus of development on the following three fields:
● “Online content - empowering users with tools to critically assess online content - extending digital creativity and production skills and encouraging awareness of copyright issues - ensuring that the benefits of the information society can be enjoyed by everyone, including people who are disadvantaged due to limited resources or education, age, gender, ethnicity, people with disabilities (e-Accessibility) as well as those living in less fortunate areas (all these are encompassed under e-Inclusion);
● Raising awareness about how search engines work (prioritisation of answers, etc.) and learning to better use search engines;
● Commercial communication - giving young audiences tools to develop a critical approach to commercial communication, enabling them to make informed choices - encouraging public/private financing in this area with adequate transparency;
● Audiovisual works - providing, notably to young European audiences, better awareness and knowledge about our film heritage and increasing interest in these films and in recent European films - promoting the acquisition of audiovisual media production and creativity skills - understanding the importance of copyright, from the perspective of both consumers and creators of content”. 

Hence, media-literate people develop critical thinking skills enabling “to develop independent judgments about media and media content” (Baran, 2014) and to have an awareness of the impact of media on the individual and society. News media literacy has proved to be effective in modelling several psychological or behavioral variables, such as event knowledge (Vraga et al., 2011), political efficacy (Semetko & Valkenburg, 1998), and conspiracy theory endorsement (Craft et al., 2017). Other surveys have illustrated a positive association between news media literacy and current events knowledge (e.g., Ashley et al., 2017). Moreover, news media literacy was also found to facilitate individuals’ skeptical attitudes toward news content (e.g. Maksl et al., 2015; Vraga et al., 2015). Scholars have suggested that an important feature of news media literacy pertains to the ability of general inquiry and critical thinking; hence, highly media literate individuals usually are skeptical of the media content due to their familiarization with media practice routines, and better understanding of the news production and dissemination environment (Vraga et al., 2015).

Present state of affairs – what is new?

In line with the changes experienced by the media (from traditional to digital) and the growing quantity of information we daily produce and consume, in the last decade media and information literacy has been undergoing a ‘great turn’ (Hargreaves et al. 2010), meaning a period of rapid transition and change in practices. This switch can be easily attributed to the emergence and unprecedented use of digital technologies and to the irreversible and incontrollable claim they have on the economic, political and societal arenas. By comparison to the moment when this significant turn in media education was initially theorised, the effect has grown exponentially from the political weaponisation of misinformation and its use during presidential elections, to large dissemination of conspiracy theories, to viral COVID-19 infodemic during pandemic, and “organized social media manipulation” or “industrialized disinformation” (Bradshaw et al. 2020).

Accordingly, the specificity of the new digital media (Internet, mobile) is challenging the traditional approach to the media literacy and education. Due to their interactive specificity, digital media raises additional problems: not only the risk of passive consumption and a lack of critical thinking (as in one-way media), but a reshaping of the modalities in which people interact with them and the difficulties encountered in regulating the development of media content and in controlling its effects. The new roles – from receivers of messages as with traditional media to acting effortlessly as creators and producers - added new challenges and made media literacy education more complicated. So, in the current age of media literacy, to the competencies of accessing, analysing, evaluating, and creating media messages across a variety of contexts, we must add the creative and playful forms of multimodal media content production, as well as abilities to reflect on one’s communication behaviour, to act and participate in society (Cannon et al., 2018).

In the context of the accelerated misuse of information for deception in the public arena, media literacy has been redefined as “fake news literacy” that is as “the individuals’ ability to discern fake news from real news” (Huber et al. 2022). However, existing results have not so far been able to significantly relate general media literacy, news literacy or digital literacy to the accurate identification of fake information. Surely, fostering people’s general media news literacy skills can be helpful in addressing to disinformation, but only the developing of specific fake news literacy skills can make a difference since only those will enable individuals to engage in corrective actions.

Looking at the initiatives dedicated to fostering media literacy in the last 20 years, we cannot help but notice the high level of consensus about the need for public policy to give special attention to the promotion of media literacy. Gradually, the initial focus on introducing ICT skills into the education system as the main means of media education and media literacy was extended by countries appointing specific departments (ministerial departments, pubic companies or other) to promote media literacy skills among citizens, and the launch of campaigns promoting media literacy. Most countries have modified their curricula to include digital and media skills: the United Kingdom, Spain, France, Finland, Italy and Portugal but only in certain countries is the promotion of skills related to digital literacy extended to the mass media and general communication, that is, to media literacy. Such countries include Germany and Finland. Nevertheless, the dominant trend is that there is “no complete convergence between the digital and media curriculum, meaning that problems that could be resolved with an integrated framework still remain without solution” (Study of the Current). In addition, several studies that were conducted in the last decade showed that the meanings of media literacy and the formal (in schools) or informal practices associated with media education significantly vary from one state member to another (e.g. EMEDUS, 2014).

According to the report Mapping of media literacy practices and actions in EU-28 9 (European Audiovisual Observatory, Strasbourg 2016), the main media literacy skills addressed by European initiatives are: “creativity, critical thinking, intercultural dialogue, media use and participation and interaction”. Results show a rather disproportionate implication of different European countries in joint European or international endeavours. Most of these projects are carried out by cross-sector collaboration, civil society, public authorities and have as main target the group of the teens/ older students.

With the advent of social media and their insufficient content regulation facilitating a dynamic environment where mis- and disinformation are spread, the European Commission approach to media literacy (concepts and practices) has been gaining ground. For example, the revised Audiovisual Media Services Directive strengthens the role of media literacy also by “requiring Member States to promote measures that develop media literacy skills” (adopted by the Council in 2018). The Directive obligates “video-sharing platforms to provide effective media literacy measures and tools, this being a crucial requirement due to the central role such platforms play in giving access to audiovisual content”. In addition, platforms are also required “to raise users’ awareness of these measures and tools”. Furthermore, the European Commission supports other initiatives such as the Media literacy expert group which aims to identify, document and extend good practices in the field of media literacy, facilitate networking between different stakeholders and explore ways of coordinating EU policies, support programmes and media literacy initiatives or the European Media Literacy Week and European Media Literacy Awards

Main challenges

Challenge 1: Media literacy is not the only solution to the problem of disinformation and should stop being hailed as a silver-bullet solution
Although seldom considered as a one-shot campaign, media literacy must be reconsidered as a long-term solution requiring thought-through pedagogical strategies and years of teaching. In this sense, S. Livingstone defines it as a moving target.

As society becomes more dependent on the media and the media are becoming more complex, fast-changing, commercial and globalized, media literacy strategies require sustained attention, resources and commitment – to education, to curriculum development, to teacher training, to research and evaluation. Hence, although media literacy tends to be seen by policy makers as an easy win, in fact it is incredibly complicated. There is so much about the online world that is illegible and constantly changing, and it is crucial to avoid burdening the citizen with the responsibility of understanding the incomprehensible.

For example, one of the constant sources of dispute conferring complexity to the topic is the relation between developing media competencies and promoting regulations for reducing/ eliminating the online harmful content. Because many regulations will be less effective without an accompanying level of education and awareness, media literacy is an essential partner to regulation in terms of improving the public’s ability to navigate the online environment.

Challenge 2: The vague status of media education as a curriculum subject
Over the last decades, media education has significantly been embraced in formal and informal working formats by many nonprofit organisations and governments. However, despite the numerous initiatives, media education has a vague status. For example, there is considerable uncertainty about whether media education should be regarded as a separate curriculum subject, or just be considered a part in existing other study units. Where existing, the formal practices associated to media literacy in different schools are highly dependent on the circumstances provided by different national contexts (Buckingham and Domaille, 2001). It appears most frequently as “a ‘pervading’ element of the curriculum for mother tongue language or social studies without being a well-established and clearly defined area of study” (Buckingham and Domaille, 2001). Hence, the dominant trend is that there is no complete convergence between the digital and media curriculum, meaning that problems that could be resolved with an integrated framework still remain without solution.

The aim of digital literacy is to help people to become active and conscious citizens of the information society (Rivoltella, 2006). In school, this does not mean to make place for a new subject, but to develop a cross-curricular approach so that students have the chance to learn in a digital environment and teachers to adopt media and communication as a teaching style. Interactivity and user content generation could be the new methodological perspectives of this new paradigm.

Challenge 3 Developing media competencies require a tailored-made approach
Different groups of people require different media literacy interventions at different points on their learning journeys. If in the traditional approach of media literacy it was mainly addressed to children and youth as part of their initiating educational processes, current perspectives must be tailored as to meet different needs. What is the impact of the age differences in the ability to identify fake news? To what extend do analytical reasoning, affect and news consumption frequency effect this ability?

For example, recent research has identified older adults as a demographic group in particular vulnerable in front of fake news. Several surveys conducted during the COVID 19 pandemic when presumably social technologies were used more than usual for critical social interaction, showed that the more elderly older adults showed a reduced ability to detect fake news, not just on COVID but on any other topic, and that “decreased ability was associated with levels of analytical reasoning, affect and news consumption frequency” (Pehlivanoglu et al. 2022). In particular, the individuals age 70 or older form a high-risk population with high stakes for engaging in “'shallow' information processing, including not looking as closely at information or paying attention to details”. This results are valid even when discussing the problem outside the pandemic framing - older adults are more likely than all other age groups to incorrectly think that news encountered in their Facebook Newsfeed are filtered by professional editors and journalists, which might make them more likely to trust and share misinformation encountered in that environment (Fletcher et al, 2020). One of the main conclusions of these surveys is that besides family and friends technology companies along with support older adults’ use of digital media, by providing resources like technology tutoring, loaner devices, or educational content about new platforms and online safety (Moore and Hancock, 2022).

Children can be targets and objects of disinformation, spreaders or creators, but can also act as opponents of disinformation by actively seeking to counter falsehoods. When it comes to youngsters, the data collected in several European countries and Quebec illustrate that 12 to 18-year-olds develop numerous and shared uses in fundamental domains such as ethics or social issues of IT, but their appropriation remains incomplete, mostly in information and creative activities (Bevort and Breda, 2008). The study also highlights how young people appropriate digital media and how their practices differ within different contexts of use (at school and at home, for example). The landscape depicted is certainly more optimistic than usually considered: youngsters are more critic and conscious than we might expect. On the contrary, educational institutions, that is, essentially the school, but also associative educational spaces and media do not seem to have measured the importance that the new media have acquired in the daily lives of young people remaining unable to act so that educational challenges coming from these media could be accepted finding their answers. However, additional research is needed in the field as for researchers and policymakers to get a clear and comprehensive picture of how susceptible children are to disinformation and how it affects their development, well-being and rights (Howard et al., 2021).  

Inspiring practices, projects, interventions in the field 

Example 1 - Learning from Finland as top 1 media literate European country

Finland (1st), Denmark (2nd), Estonia (3rd), Sweden (4th) and Ireland (5th) are at the top of the ranking of the Media Literacy Index 2021. These are countries that have the highest potential to address the negative impact of fake news and misinformation due to the quality of their education, free media and high level of trust among people.

Taking a closer look at Finland, that has remained no 1 among the 35 European countries during the last years, several characteristics of media literacy projects and useful conclusions can be extracted:
● Media education is present throughout Finland’s education curriculum. Starting in day-care, media education continues via lifelong learning aiming to reach out to everyone.
● Recognising disinformation is considered to be important, but it is only ”a small part of media education” (Pekkala). According to the Finnish governmental strategy, media literacy by itself is not the end goal, but it is a means combining both the technical skill to use media and the ability to understand it with the scope of becoming a good citizen and thus contributing to a stable democracy and a healthy society.
● Media education in Finland takes an approach that includes the whole of society. Many different civic organisations take part in developing and enacting learning programmes, including schools, libraries, government departments, universities and NGOs. To this, various actions, campaigns and training formats are implemented.  

Example 2 - eTwinning 

eTwinning represents a learning community for teachers in Europe, which published in 2021 the book ‘Teaching Media Literacy and fighting Disinformation with eTwinning’.

This book aims to inspire and support teachers and pupils of all ages by exploring the multiple aspects of this topic, illustrating examples of eTwinning projects, and offering resources and activities. It explains the concept of disinformation, looks at how young people engage with media, showcases outstanding eTwinning projects on media literacy and disinformation, and gives examples of tools and resources, as well as of classroom activities for developing media literacy.

Example 3 - SPreaD

By developing a toolkit on the management of digital literacy projects SPreaD aims at disseminating digital literacy all over Europe and to raise awareness on this important topic. The SPreaD toolkit gives useful tips regarding the development, coordination and financing of large scaled digital literacy projects.

It is an innovative educational project aiming to develop social media literacy. It created an educational toolkit for teachers teaching social media literacy in school including a curriculum for the development of social media literacy in schools, a course support for the development of social media literacy in schools, a methodological guide for teaching social media literacy, a mobile application for implementing social media literacy in school and a collection of learning scenarios including the use of social media tools.

The variety of definitional elements, the diversity of interpretations of widely quoted definitions, and the frequent citing of alternative sources for the same idea leads to the conclusion that scholars who write about media literacy exhibit considerable variety in their meanings for the term. It appears that everyone who writes about media literacy has a different perspective on what it is or what it should be, unless we keep our focus at the most general level of meaning. This raises the question about how this sharing of meaning only at the most general level benefits or limits the development of media literacy as a scholarly field.
As shown above, the definition of media literacy is very broad and, although it has recently included digital competencies, it cannot be reduced to the use of the Internet or computers. More than the technological ability to use a computer, media literacy focuses on users' capacity to receive and evaluate information in the digital environment and to use this information in an effective and responsible way. Therefore, becoming and remaining digitally and media literate is a continuous process that requires exercise in non-formal and formal working formats, from early stages of education to special programs for elders.
Facing the challenges of our multimedia society, characterised by interactivity, portability and connectivity, we have recently witnessed an intensification of initiatives aiming at fostering media competencies as a defensive shield against the individual and social perils of disinformation. These involve a wide range of actors - governmental, educational, NGOs, private ones as and no single organisation or sector can be expected to achieve this range of media literacy support on their own. But there are so many initiatives that an attempt to try to find the “right one” may be overwhelming. To ensure efficiency future endeavours should also cover the following questions: How can we better structure and push forward the already implemented solutions? How can we better make all these project be convergent while avoiding redundancy?
Although frequently invoked as an all-in-one solution in fighting disinformation, along with critical thinking, media literacy must be reconceptualised as to specifically address the challenges of disinformation and of the new information age. Also, a continuous and systematic empirical data-driven approach is needed as the landscape of information is so quickly changing. At a global scale, the deficiencies in digital media literacy have been considered as one of the significant factors explaining the widespread belief in online misinformation; in the recent years, this observation determined changes in education policy and the design of technology platforms. However, in order to be properly oriented, polices must be systematically informed by rigorous evidence regarding the relationship between digital media literacy and people’s ability to distinguish between information and disinformation, low- and high-quality news online (Guess et al., 2020).
A very recent swift in designing media literacy projects has been given by the focus on individual responsibility in combating the threat of disinformation by becoming more information literate. For the future, such a model, whose focus is the idea of citizenship, seems to be the most wanted and sustainable given current variables in place. Given these challenges, we need to invest more into human-centered solutions focused on improving people's media and information literacy. They not only demonstrate a much deeper and longer-lasting impact, but also may be easier and cheaper to implement than commonly believed. Last but not least, no matter how attractive or adapted to targeted audiences media literacy initiatives are, the media literacy interventions that do not form and cultivate users’ motivation to resist such influences are doomed to failure. 

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Co-funded by European Commission Erasmus+
University of Malta
University Rey Juan Carlos
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Project: DOMINOES Digital cOMpetences INformatiOn EcoSystem  ID: 2021-1-RO01-KA220-HED-000031158
The European Commission’s support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents, which reflect the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

Ivan, Cristina; Chiru, Irena; Buluc, Ruxandra; Radu, Aitana; Anghel, Alexandra; Stoian-Iordache, Valentin; Arcos, Rubén; Arribas, Cristina M.; Ćuća, Ana; Ganatra, Kanchi; Gertrudix, Manuel; Modh, Ketan; Nastasiu, Cătălina. (2023). HANDBOOK on Identifying and Countering Disinformation. DOMINOES Project https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.7893952