(a response to What Hath We Wrought? at SXSW)
So let me get this straight…boyd did some school observations and saw teachers who maybe had a workshop’s worth of prep on how to teach media literacy (because only a handful of teacher ed schools in the U.S. offer anything serious related to media literacy). They did an inadequate job of developing students’ inquiry skills, and that somehow makes media literacy responsible for Dylann Roof shooting up a Charleston church, the culture wars, and millions of people rejecting fact-based discourses? Really?
Boyd acknowledges that media literacy professionals are well intentioned, saying that we “imagine” that our work empowers and gives individuals agency and “the tools to help create a democratic society.” Maybe she thinks that this grudging nod offsets the rest of her argument, which suggests that we’re delusional and don’t understand our own work. Really? Spare me the condescension.
Boyd doubts the efficacy of media literacy because in scattered observations in high schools over the course of ten years she has seen “a perverted version of media literacy.” I’m not surprised that boyd has encountered questionable practice. Me, too. Contrary to boyd’s portrait, media literacy educators don’t have our heads in the sand. She isn’t pointing out anything we don’t already know. We are already profoundly aware that changes in digital technologies over the past decade have challenged educators, media, and the foundational cornerstones of democracy, and we haven’t yet figured out a comprehensive, effective response.
Unlike boyd, however, we don’t respond by intentionally misrepresenting media literacy, or blaming it, or arguing that we should dump the inquiry processes at its core. We adapt. When one strategy doesn’t work, we experiment with another (and another and another if needed). Because boyd’s existential crisis, while it is understandable, is a luxury that educators can’t afford. There are children in our classrooms today who need us right now.
Imagine if we applied boyd’s logic to reading: We’d point to ineffective teachers and note that literacy hasn’t cured all of society’s ills and then use those shortcomings to claim that reading has failed. Then we’d undermine the work of those who are trying to improve it by suggesting to a few hundred thousand people that maybe we should re-think our endorsement of reading as a strategy to strengthen democracy. Sounds ridiculous, right?
Provocateur or Troll?
Is it actually possible that boyd has only seen poor practice? It’s true that media literacy is still far from a universal presence in U.S. schools, but it stretches credulity to think that she has never encountered even one brilliant teacher who equips their students with exactly the skills, knowledge, and dispositions she seems to want. Has she seen no teachers who could serve as models for others? Really?
Either boyd doesn’t know enough about media literacy education to know what to look for (which may be the case since she gets the description of it so wrong – see below), or she’s visited the wrong schools, or she’s being less than forthcoming about her motives.
I have no idea what boyd’s motives are. I just know that she isn’t an ally. Because intentionally misrepresenting media literacy education isn’t the act of an ally. Ever. My critique of boyd isn’t because she is poking at my “sacred cow” (her label). Over the years I have been a vocal critic of central practices in the field. But there are ways to critique practice without delegitimizing the work of those under scrutiny. Boyd chose not to travel that path.
So I’m left wondering, of all the things she might address (the pedagogy of far more common education subjects like science, civics, and social studies or the shortcomings of media platforms or poor science reporting or corporations and governments that disseminate intentionally misleading information come to mind), why is danah boyd choosing to specifically troll the media literacy education community? On the playground we would see this as a mundane bully predictably picking the target least able to fight back. Who benefits when boyd undermines media literacy initiatives just now gaining serious traction in the U.S.?
What boyd Gets Wrong about Media Literacy
Oddly, boyd reduces media literacy to a superficial version of fact-checking and describes it as “fundamentally, a form of critical thinking that asks people to doubt what they see.” That makes her “nervous.” It would make me nervous, too – if that was what we actually did. It’s not.
Media literacy education doesn’t teach students to “doubt” what they see; it teaches students to interrogate what they see, and to do it routinely. We call it “inquiry.” That isn’t the same as doubting. And it’s not just a matter of semantics.
Doubt requires no intellectual effort. Inquiry requires evidence-based analysis, consideration of context and culture, making informed judgements about purpose and value (not to agree or disagree, but to understand), noticing voice (both amplified and silenced), and more.
Media literacy inquiry is not just about looking for flaws. It asks people to reach beyond all-or-nothing conclusions to identify strengths and weaknesses, accuracy as well as inaccuracy. It consciously promotes strong sense critical thinking, meaning that we interrogate the things that confirm our opinions as well as the things that challenge our views. We are after “rich readings,” not “single truths.”
In media literacy, identifying sources is a first step, not an end point of analysis. We require students to explain why a source is credible (or not) and how they know. We encourage them to reflect on how their own beliefs and experiences influence their conclusions about credibility.
We know that people don’t see things for which they have no language, so we teach concepts like “confirmation bias,” and “agenda-setting.” And we encourage awareness that has that has nothing to do with veracity or deception, like noticing why something is emotionally moving or seemingly important at one life stage and irrelevant at another.
When we assign students to become producers of media, we don’t just teach them how to write a lede or frame a shot; we require students to reflect on the potential impact of their choices. We facilitate student voice and, in the process, ask students to take themselves seriously enough to demand that they exercise that voice effectively and ethically.
There’s more, of course, but I won’t take the space here to repeat The Teacher’s Guide to Media Literacy or Media Literacy in Every Classroom. Instead I invite you to take a moment to notice the contrasts between what I’ve described and what boyd reports:
boyd: “Students are asked to distinguish between CNN and Fox.”
authentic media lit ed: Students would be asked to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the evidence of reports presented on CNN and Fox, applying the same analysis standards to both, including how the format and commercial interests of cable news shaped the stories. Students would also be asked to examine how other news outlets covered the same story and account for any differences.
boyd: “Or to identify bias in a news story.”
authentic media lit ed: “MLE teachers do not train students to ask IF there is a bias in a particular message (since all media messages are biased), but rather, WHAT the substance, source, and significance of a bias might be.” (NAMLE Core Principle 1.6)
boyd: “When tech is involved it often comes in the form of ‘don’t trust Wikipedia; use Google’”
authentic media lit ed: Censorship is incompatible with media literacy. No one would ask students to avoid a source (unless we’re intentionally avoiding things that would endanger students, like sites promoting suicide). Instead, students would be asked to use their inquiry skills to determine for themselves whether a source should be trusted, and for which subjects (because a source that is trustworthy on one topic is not necessarily the best place to go for every topic).
You can see why boyd’s description is likely an accurate portrait of things she has seen, but it is a misrepresentation of the field. If, as boyd suggests, “the conversation around fact-checking has already devolved to suggest that there’s only one truth,” it is not because that conversation has been informed by media literacy.
Maybe boyd never read the “fine print” of NAMLE’s Core Principles, i.e., the “Implications for Practice.” Here are just a few tidbits that have provided guidance since the Principles were first published in 2007 (emphasis is mine):
1.5 MLE is not about replacing students’ perspectives with someone else’s.
3.1 MLE is not a “have it or not” competency, but rather, an ever evolving continuum of skills, knowledge, attitudes, and actions.
4.4 MLE invites and respects diverse points of view.
4.9 MLE is not partisan.
4.10 MLE is not a substitute for government regulation of media, nor is government regulation a substitute for MLE.
5.1 MLE integrates media texts that present diverse voices, perspectives, and communities.
5.6 MLE does not excuse media makers from their responsibility as members of the community to make a positive contribution and avoid doing harm.
6.1 MLE is not about teaching students what to think; it is about teaching them how they can arrive at informed choices that are most consistent with their own values.
6.2 MLE helps students become aware of and reflect on the meaning that they make of media messages, including how the meaning they make relates to their own lives.
Are these aspirational? Sure. But they’re also achievable. And some teachers do them quite regularly. Check out Project Look Sharp’s videos of constructivist media decoding if you want some examples. The ones on global warming and reading maps of Israel/Palestine are favorites.
I have to admit that I almost laughed out loud when I heard boyd’s suggestions for how we might modify media literacy. Implying that her ideas are somehow new or original (this was SXSW after all), she advises that we need to help “people understand their own psychology” and “that it’s important to help students truly appreciate epistemological differences. In other words, why do people from different worldviews interpret the same piece of content differently?” Really?
Has boyd seen Project Look Sharp’s Processes of Media Literacy graphic, which makes clear that Inquiry AND Reflection are at the core of everything we do?
Has she read any recent versions of the Key Questions for Analysis and Reflection? You know, the ones that include entire categories on Reflection and Context, and also Interpretation questions like:
– “How do prior experiences and beliefs shape my interpretation?”
– “What do I learn about myself from my interpretation or reaction?” and
– “How (and why) might different people interpret this differently?”
Boyd asserts that, “What’s common about the different approaches I’m suggesting is that they are designed to be cognitive strengthening exercises, to help students recognize their own fault lines, not the fault lines of the media landscape around them. I can imagine that this too could be called media literacy and if you want to bend your definition that way, I’ll accept it. But the key is to realize the humanity in ourselves and in others. We cannot and should not assert authority over epistemology, but we can encourage our students to be more aware of how interpretation is socially constructed. And to understand how that can be manipulated.” So first boyd misrepresents media literacy education, then she suggests solutions that we are already doing (like teaching social construction) and then has the temerity to suggest that “we can call it media literacy if we want to bend our definition.” Really??!!
Yes, we teach students to ask questions – because it is the best method we have for teaching them to think for themselves. And yes, we rely on an epistemology of reason – because it is what the designers of our democracy used when they separated church and state so that people with competing religious views could retain those views and still find enough common ground to create a nation.
I heartily agree with boyd that “ our information landscape is going to get more and more complex [and that] educators have a critical role to play in helping individuals and societies navigate what we encounter.” But when she says “the path forward isn’t about doubling down on what constitutes a fact or teaching people to assess sources,” she’s creating a false dichotomy. Reason matters. It may not be the only thing that matters, but it matters.
Epistemology questions aren’t new. There have always been and will always be different ways of “knowing the world” (as Mary Belenky, et al reminded us in Women’s Ways of Knowing, 1986). It is absolutely important to respect and understand all the ways of knowing that one’s students bring into the classroom. But some ways of thinking support democracy better than others and I won’t apologize for supporting a field that has chosen to put reason front and center.
Boyd’s naiveté is startling when she says, “Developing media making skills doesn’t guarantee that someone will use them for good.” Of course not. But why is that a flaw in media literacy? It’s true for every part of education. Complex factors go into human behavior; education, alone, can never guarantee behavior. We continue to teach students to write even though some will choose to pen racist or misogynist literature and we still teach kids to read even though it doesn’t guarantee that they’ll vote. When I look at boyd’s arguments and concerns through the lens of traditional literacy, her reasoning just falls apart. By itself, media literacy won’t solve the dilemmas created by deceptive news, competing epistemologies, or the multitude of complex changes that digital technologies bring to our lives. That might make it an incomplete strategy, but it doesn’t make it a failed strategy.
In the end boyd asks “What kind of media literacy makes sense?” She answers, “To be honest, I don’t know.” For a thought leader, boyd certainly demonstrates a lack of imagination. We know what to do, we just don’t have enough people doing it, and those who are doing it need more resources and support. So let’s get creative. Together. I’ll start. Here are half a dozen ideas that would help teachers get the skills, knowledge and experience they need to become spectacular media literacy educators:
- The organizations that fund thought leaders could create a media literacy education think tank, so more people can evaluate and disseminate innovative and effective instructional practices.
- Foundations could fund a cadre of media literacy coaches to work with the teachers who boyd sees as failing. That’s what some states did when they noticed that too many U.S. high school graduates couldn’t read or write well enough to meet workplace or college demands. They put reading coaches in every school – not for the students, but for the teachers. And guess what? Instruction improved.
- Wealthy individuals or foundations could endow Media Literacy Professorships at Education Schools across the country, perhaps at the alma maters of inspirational teachers that they wish to honor. Endowed professorships is one of the strategies employed by the Koch brothers. Maybe we should follow their lead.
- Universities could fund and host summer mini camps during which district teams are guided by media literacy specialists as they look for systemic ways to infuse media literacy throughout their K-12 school curriculum, so we aren’t relying on scattered one-off lessons to instill essential skills, knowledge, and dispositions. Participating schools could be paired with researchers who would track their efforts and with writers who would spread the word about their struggles and accomplishments.
- danah boyd could ask every one of her Twitter followers to join NAMLE (it’s free!) so the organization can increase its clout enough to push for states to fund professional development opportunities for teachers.
- We could challenge schools to re-examine why journalism is an elective. If Jeffersonian notions of an informed citizenry are essential to democracy and an independent press is a vital part of our system of checks and balances, then lets teach it in every grade and all subjects. Every student should have a chance to write news. Schools could be invited to share their teacher’s best lesson ideas or their students’ best work during National Media Literacy Week.
And while we’re at it, let’s call for every school text book publisher (both print and digital) to examine their existing titles and revise them in ways that integrate media literacy. And, to state the obvious, if you’re having conversations about media literacy education, be sure you have media literacy educators (not just journalists or theoreticians or critics) at the table. It’s not like we don’t have proven strategies for improvement out there. It’s just that no one has ever been willing to fund them at adequate levels in the U.S.
It is so much easier to point out what’s wrong and wonder why there are no easy (revenue-generating?) fixes. If the task seems insurmountable, talk to a principal who has led a team that transformed a troubled school into a source of community pride. Or a coach who has transformed a perennial losing team into a winner. Astonishing change is possible.
I’m well aware that these aren’t the sorts of solutions that boyd is searching for. She is pondering far more philosophic questions. She wants to know how we adapt media literacy education to reach students in fundamentalist and other communities that eschew reason as a way to arrive at truth. Having more people engaged in teaching and researching media literacy would help. But mostly, I think it’s the wrong question. Would boyd suggest that we change scientific method because there are a substantial number of Americans, including in policy-making positions, who don’t believe that evolution is real? I hope not. Likewise, we shouldn’t change reason-based media literacy in a misguided attempt to reach people who would transform the United States from a democracy into a theocracy if we gave them a chance.
That said, media literacy education is used in far more diverse communities than boyd envisions. It’s embraced by the Catholic Church and public health practitioners, and though there have since been modifications, one of the first States to include a “viewing and representing” strand in their education standards was Texas! See Hobbs for even more examples. Media literacy as it exists now has substantial tools to engage people in difficult, deep, and respectful conversations. We do it all the time.
I learned two very powerful lessons from the gay rights movement that I think apply here. First, we can achieve phenomenal success without changing everyone’s minds. Second, the strategy that was most likely to change people’s sentiments from negative to positive was personally getting to know an LGBTQ person. We didn’t change who we were, we came out. Maybe the path forward for media literacy education is to involve more people in high quality learning experiences rather than fundamentally changing who we are.
Finally, I was particularly struck when boyd indicated that “Most media literacy proponents tell me that media literacy doesn’t exist in schools.” I was one of those proponents and I can say unequivocally that she heard us wrong. Media literacy exists in schools and is growing. What we actually said was that not enough schools have integrated media literacy instruction to blame media literacy for “backfiring” and causing our nation’s problems with “fake” news.
I raise this because one of the things that made It’s Complicated so important and brilliant was that boyd actually listened and gave voice to the teens she described. I am disappointed that she didn’t bother to give the same respect to media literacy educators. If she listened to us the way she listened to the teens represented in her book, I think she’d hear a very different story. Really.
The opinions expressed here are entirely my own and do not necessarily represent any of the organizations I’ve mentioned. I strongly encourage people to read other responses to boyd, including those penned by Renee Hobbs and Benjamin Doxtador.