If the press is not free, if speech is not independent and untrammeled, it makes no difference under what form of government you live, you are a subject and not a citizen. – U.S. Senator William E. Borah
The term “media literacy” refers to a person’s ability to understand, analyze, and utilize the media, as well as their ability to differentiate between quality, unbiased news and opinion. Many argue that media literacy should also involve citizens’ understanding of the importance of free and independent media to the stability of a democracy.
Within media development, the value of media literacy is often overlooked. Improving the level of a society’s understanding of the media increases the demand for quality news over sensational reporting or “infotainment.” Thus, for quality media to survive, a media literate population is essential.
The benefits of media literacy are applicable to both media development organizations and media for development organizations. “The basic news literacy argument is that you can’t get the vaccine in someone’s mouth until you get the idea in that someone’s head that the vaccine is good for you,” says Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. For that message to be effective, the public needs to know which news sources are reliable, and which are not.
There are four lenses through which media literacy education can be viewed: the general population, youths, citizen journalists, and government officials. Each of these groups has different needs and attitudes toward the news media, and there are different ways of educating each. Yet each group’s understanding of quality news is essential to the development of sustainable, valuable news media.
Equally important is each group’s understanding of the news media’s importance to the development of a stable democracy:
- Knowing which information to trust and how to become better informed is vital to the general public’s ability to determine the direction of the democracy. A media literate citizenry is essential to building and sustaining democracy and these citizens can pressure governments to be accountable and to root out corruption.
- Similarly, by educating youths and instilling healthy habits of inquiry through media literacy can enable individuals, from a young age, to uphold the social and civic structures that will provide them future opportunities for prosperity, peace, and progress.
- Citizen journalists, who have an increasingly prominent role in the generation of the news, must understand their place within the democratic system. In places largely ignored by “traditional” media, citizen journalism allows residents not only to take control of—and responsibility for—the media coverage of their own hometowns but also to learn about and get engaged with the issues and events that matter to them. Citizen journalists can also be trained in basic journalism skills at the same time they gain media literacy training.
- Government officials, particularly in developing countries that have never had a free press, rarely understand the important role of the media to a democracy. Rather than seeing the media as an essential watchdog and pillar of the society, many officials see the press as an adversary to be confronted and controlled. Bureaucrats and elected officials should understand the important role that the news media play in society, and why it is their responsibility, as public servants, to be open and transparent to citizens and the press.