Most people teach digital media literacy badly. Or, they teach it in ways that indoctrinate students into ideologies complicit with ruling class interests, which is essentially the same thing. Let me explain.
The usual approach to media literacy, emerging after the election of Donald Trump and the panic of fake news, is to teach students to recognize the difference between facts and opinions, truths and falsehoods, real news and fake news, credible sources and untrustworthy sources. It thus takes the crisis of fake news very seriously and assumes that the crisis can be solved or at least alleviated by a rigorous media literacy education project. There are two problems with this approach.
First, it assumes that there is an easily recognizable difference between fact and opinion, and that this difference can be determined by just a quick google search. What date was it published? How did you learn of this source? Can you find other sources that corroborate the story? Was it written for a trustworthy publication, like NPR or the Washington Post, or is it from Some Guy’s Blog? The New York Times has launched a whole media literacy campaign that as much as promises: if you go through this process, you’ll be okay!
Second, this solution to fake news emerged out of a particular exigence and worldview. The story goes like this: in the election between the qualified, truthtelling Hillary Clinton and a belligerent, fake news-spewing Donald Trump, falsehood and lies won out (given a helping hand of course by foreign others like Putin). People were tricked into voting for Donald Trump because they lacked sufficient literacy and knowledge to interpret and dismiss the fake news from the real. If America were more educated, we might have a different president. Teach media literacy; save the world, says English professor John Duffy.
My tech fellows project emerged out of a response to this approach to media literacy. I believe the issue is much more complicated than it is being given credit for, and I will illustrate that through a story: In the spring of 2015, a police department in the Denver area killed an unarmed black man in broad daylight. Having just emerged from protests for Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Jessie Hernandez, myself and many other Denver-area community members were ready to go for another march. But the police department was hush-hush about the shooting, and the local media barely covered it. When they did, they were quick to emphasize the dead man’s criminal record and the police officer’s achievements and commendations.
In order to get any “real” information on the shooting, especially information that contextualized it in relation to the larger history of violence against black bodies, I had to leave the official media sphere and turn to independent blogs and locally-run, grassroots websites. I have no doubt that any of these websites I visited would be labeled questionable and biased by the anti-fake news, facts-only train. But most of the time, they are all that is available to us.
Writing studies has grown very good at acknowledging the ways that some discourses and genres, like legal ones, are structured in such a way that simply do not allow for subaltern voices to speak and be heard. The same, I argue, is true of journalist discourses; the kind of parrhesiac positioning that mainstream media performs, wielding such slogans as “The Truth Is More Important Now Than Ever” and “Fair and Balanced,” commits itself to a liberal-bourgeois worldview that would never allow itself to narrate an event from a far left perspective without feeling that it was breaching some core journalistic value. Hence why mainstream media like the NYT or the Washington Post prove themselves, time and time again, utterly incapable of representing anti-racist, anti-capitalist politics.
The “truth” is that the left in America has no major news outlet. It has some very good smaller-scale operations, but most of us still have to get the majority of our news from the same places that Democrats and Republicans draw from. So we get used to wading through the pro-capitalist muck that is a New York Times article. We get used to having “alternative facts,” because we know that the official ones are pretty lousy. We become very, very good readers of the media precisely because we have embraced “post-truth” in a world where truth is equated with neoliberalism.
Teachers of writing and writing programs that commit themselves to media literacy pedagogies that proclaim a war against fake news and post-truth are, I argue, ultimately reactionary. They could only be made by a person (or a field) who is not used to reading mainstream media with a bitter taste in their mouth, who has grown comfortable with the soft-spoken, liberal NPR or the fiery “debates” on CNN. They represent a new, 21st-century “literacy crisis” narrative, except all the more insidious because at least when “Why Johnny Can’t Write” was published, the field recognized the crisis for what it was: conservative politics dressed up in pedagogy. Somewhere between then and now, we lost that critical gaze.
For my tech fellows project, then, I taught a digital media literacy unit that attempted to avoid these downfalls. Rather than decide for my students ahead of time that the NYT is trustworthy and their friend’s website is not, I asked them to create a “map” of the media along coordinates of their choosing, position individual media sources on the map, and write an essay defending their placement using evidence from actual media articles. To ensure that their maps did not fall easily along the usual liberal-conservative lines, I required that they include a few non-standard publications, like the far-left Socialist Worker.
Most of our in class time was spent reading digital media sources, comparing one account of an event to another, and talking about the many writing techniques publications use to condition information. Students learned firsthand how slippery the concept of “evidence” can be when tasked with the job of “proving” a publication is pro-war/imperialist or anti-animal rights, particularly when most journalist articles are written in such a way that they appear reasonable until compared to a radically different account. Along the way, they conducted their own original research to find their evidence and had to make an argument for why their map was socially useful–what it contributed to our conversations about media. Media is complicated, and so should be our pedagogies.