Media play an important role for people of all ages: as a source of information, as a means for social interaction and as a basis of political opinion forming.
However, several side effects of media have become apparent. Phenomena such as hate speech, filter bubbles or fake news have become serious issues. To navigate today’s diverse media landscape, experts call for a focus on media literacy and digital competence in education.
“Digital competence has become an omnipresent catch-phrase,” says Helmut Peissl, a media expert and founder and managing director of COMMIT, an Austrian community media institute for adult education.
“This is to a large part due to the problematic effects of the dominant commercial social media platforms.”
Focus is mostly on children and young people, disregarding adults as a target group for media literacy.
Consequently, belief that media literacy and critical thinking should be fostered in our society has become common. Numerous guidebooks and blog articles already deal with these issues, carrying titles such as “How to teach your kids to tell fact from fake news”.
But two problems can be named here. First, they focus mostly on children and young people, disregarding adults as a target group for media literacy.
According to Peissl, however, considering the rapidly progressing digital transformation, it is not enough to address young people. On the contrary, the challenge is to create low-threshold education opportunities for all generations.
Secondly, concentrating on ‘telling fake from fact’ focuses only on media reception, which is only one part of critical media literacy.
“The concept of media competence, as defined by Dieter Baacke in the 1990s, consists of four dimensions: media criticism, media studies, critical reflection of own media consumption, and media creation,” says Peissl.
In the light of digital transformation, aspects such as data consciousness and privacy should also be considered.
Community media as a learning space for developing media literacy
An example of a learning space that allows individuals to develop all four dimensions of media literacy are community media: non-commercial media such as free radio or TV stations.
In Austria, their existence is a rather new phenomenon. It only became legal to broadcast as a non-commercial radio station after a 1993 judgement of the European Court of Human Rights against the broadcasting monopoly.
In 1998, the first community radio stations aired in Austria, thus establishing a “third media sector” besides public broadcasters and private channels. Today, there are 17 non-commercial broadcasting stations (14 radio and 3 TV) in Austria.
Community media allow individuals to bring in their own ideas and create their own programmes. They enable people to participate in media creation, regardless of their previous experience.
“Many of the volunteers in community media start their ‘career’ by actively approaching media stations and seeking ways to become involved,” explains Carla Stenitzer who is responsible for education and training at both community radio station ‘Radiofabrik’ and free TV station ‘FS1’.
“This can be a result of transitions in their private life, reaction to a political event or the presentation of certain groups or beliefs in the media. Very often, being personally affected plays a role.”
Active media production empowering the disadvantaged
One of the committed individuals getting involved in media creation in such a way, is Sabri Opak.
Sixteen years ago, when he arrived in Austria as a refugee of Kurdish-Alewit origin, he received a small second-hand radio from a room-mate. Scanning through the channels, he found Radio FRO, a community radio channel.
“They had multilingual programmes, which was like a window to the outside world for me. I learned what happened around me in my federal province, and I had some musical entertainment, which was good for me,” he says.
Being on air also allows them to have a public sense of achievement and to experience social participation.
As his curiosity had been aroused, Opak visited the radio station, made some new contacts, and started organising programmes.
“This had the positive effect of allowing me to often leave the refugee home and giving me a purpose. At the same time, it helped me to develop a sense of the local language.”
Language skills and participation
Improved language skills are not the only benefit that language learners can gain from such experiences.
According to Andrea Sedlaczek, a linguist and researcher of media and multilingualism, if migrants learning German have the possibility to actively create media products, such as radio programmes or a podcast, this can enhance their skills in three different areas: media competence, social competence, and language competence”.
“Being on air also allows them to have a public sense of achievement and to experience social participation.”
Carla Stenitzer agrees. Community media can be especially helpful in empowering disadvantaged groups, whose perspectives are usually not represented in mainstream media. But there is one obstacle.
“While we cannot generalise this, we can observe that these people rarely approach media proactively to get involved. We therefore have to find ways to reach groups such as migrants or individuals with physical or mental handicaps.”
One possibility to reach diverse target groups is to cooperate with organisations that work with these people.
“We go to these organisations and hold free introductory courses to show people the possibilities of community media and how easy it is to contribute,” she says.
Participation in media production increases media awareness
With all the professional and social development mentioned, where do the media literacy aspects come in?
Being involved in media creation not only increases technical knowledge but can change the way people perceive media in general, say the experts involved.
According to Stenitzer, new media producers at FS1 have to complete a basic workshop. During these workshops, they often observe that people start to reflect on their own media perception – for example, by realising that it is not a coincidence when all respondents give the wrong answer to a trick question, but a conscious selection by the editors.
Adult educators should not forget the dimension of active media production.
In other words, knowing how media content is being produced allows people to reflect on their compositions.
“In general, media producers are more attentive to media phenomena – not only in radio or TV broadcasting, but also when it comes to newspapers or the internet,” says Stenitzer.
A statement by a workshop participant on a feedback sheet underlines this change in perception:
“I am now more critical when I see or hear something in the media, because I now know how topics are being selected and that issues can be displayed one-sidedly, depending on who is being interviewed or which questions are being asked.”
Collaborative effort required
In the face of the present challenges in the media sector, adult education is called upon to view critical media literacy as a goal and function of adult education. While it is important to reflect on media reception, adult educators should not forget the dimension of active media production.
“Currently, only a few adult education institutions seize the opportunity to create, for example, radio programmes together with their participants,” says Carla Stenitzer and calls for an increased awareness of the possibilities of media creation within community media.
Helmut Peissl confirms that engaging people in active media creation can be a promising approach to fostering critical media literacy.
“For adult education, cooperation with non-commercial community media has the potential to connect learning about media and digitalisation with active media creation and critical reflection of one’s own media actions.”
Media literacy defined by Dieter Baacke
The concept of media literacy, as defined by Dieter Baacke (1997) and commonly referred to in the German-speaking world, proposes four dimensions:
- Media criticism (tracking and analysing developments in the media landscape)
- Media studies (acquiring knowledge of current media systems and technical skills when dealing with media)
- Critical reflection of one’s own media consumption
- Media creation (possibilities of designing and shaping media)
In the light of digital transformation, Helmut Peissl suggests including aspects such as data consciousness and privacy when talking about media literacy.
Popular in English-speaking areas, David Buckingham advocates a concept of media literacy that includes the aspects of language, representation, institutions and audiences. Buckingham also highlights the central role of one’s own media production when it comes to developing media literacy (an overview of the concept can be found here in English language).
“Spaces of Inclusion” is a study on migrant representation in media that assesses the needs of refugees and migrants in the domain of media communication and on responses by community media. Download here.