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Media Awareness Network, Media and Digital Literacy in the 21st Century

 
Matthew Johnson is Media Education Specialist with Media Awareness Network, a Canadian non-profit that has been pioneering the development of media and digital literacy programs. You can find them on the web at www.media-awareness.ca.
As education specialist, Matthew creates resources for educators, parents and community groups. He is the designer of Passport to the Internet, Media Network’s comprehensive digital literacy tutorial and the writer of their Talk Media blog. He has presented on topics as varied as the effect of media violence on children, video game addiction, alcohol advertising, children's use of new media and the moral dimensions of computer games.
He is interviewed by Dan Leshem, program manager of the Holocaust Denial On Trial website. For more information please visit us at www.hdot.org. This podcast is underwritten by the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties.
Q. [Leshem]
I wonder if you could begin by telling us a little bit about who you are and what your background is, and then also who Media Awareness is, and what your role is within the organization?
A. [Media Network, Matthew Johnson]
Sure! Well, I’m a media education specialist for the Media Awareness Network, and what that means is that primarily I develop resources that are used by teachers and parents and also community groups to help educate young people about media issues, and also to help them develop media skills. I’ll talk more about that in a moment.
As far as my background is concerned, I was a teacher. I taught high school for a little under ten years. Then I also have some experience in the media industry. I worked in television, and a little bit in radio, which is how I wound up here.
Media Awareness Network is a non-profit Canadian organization. It actually started life as part of the Canadian National Film Board, but spun off into a separate organization not connected to the government, some time ago. And our mission is to ensure that children and youth have the necessary skills to understand and actively engage with media.
Q. [Leshem]
That’s very interesting. Can you tell us a little bit about why one would need to educate youth about interacting with media?
A. [Media Network, Matthew Johnson]
Well, partly because media is such a big part of all of our lives, and particularly a part of young people’s lives. We know that young people spend more time consuming media than doing almost anything else. It is a tremendously important part of their experience. And it’s important that young people, and people in general, not be passive consumers of media. That people be able to question what they encounter, be able to treat it critically, and not necessarily accept what they’re getting from media directly.
Q. [Leshem]
Can you tell us a little bit, in general terms again, what do you mean by media.
A. [Media Network, Matthew Johnson]
Well really we include all the mass media and our work has covered almost every medium you can consider. Obviously a big part of our work in recent years has had to do with the Internet, and other new media such as cell phones, because that’s just been such a growth area for media. Computer games as well are something we’ve done a lot of work in. But also a lot of our work has had to with TV and movies, and also issues that are relevant to more than one medium. So for instance we’ve done a great deal of work around diversity representation, which of course is relevant to nearly all mass media. We’ve done a lot work around gender representations and body image, which again touches nearly all of the mass media.
Q. [Leshem]
But why would education about the media be so important since it’s something that we all consume daily and seem to consume fairly well? What is it that you’re trying to point out?
A. [Media Network, Matthew Johnson]
Well as they say, what’s important is that everyone, and in particular youth be critical consumers, of media. And that is to say that we’re not just accepting what we see, but that we’re able to question it, and we’re able to understand some of the decisions that went into its creation. We’re able to question the assumptions that are communicated by media. So, for instance, turning to the point just raised about body image, we know that young people, both men and women, are tremendously affected in terms of their self-image by what they see in the media. We know that exposure to idealized forms, to idealized bodies, hurts young peoples’ self-esteem and increases the risks that they will be dissatisfied with themselves, and increases the risks that they will engage in unhealthful practices. Things like anorexia, things like bulimia, or steroid abuse.
So it’s important that young people be aware of the effects that the media can have and be able to engage with them critically, because we know this has an effect on peoples’ attitudes, on people’s beliefs, and on people’s health.
Q. [Leshem]
Excellent, thank you. You referred just now to some empirical data, some study about findings related to young people and body image issues. What other kinds of empirical research do you guys refer to or use, or even what other types of research do you guys conduct, to find out what issues arise out of media exposure?
A. [Media Network, Matthew Johnson]
Well we keep very close tabs on all kinds of research that is being done about the effects of media all around the world because it’s very important to us that our work be based on the most current, and the most accurate and comprehensive, research that’s available. So we really do make a point of keeping up with research on media effects, effects of media violence, effects on body image, and so on.
In terms of our own research, we’re not able to do as much of it as we’d like. But we have engaged in one long-term project, that is the Young Canadians In A Wired World survey, that’s a multi-phase project. Phase I was in 2001, and Phase II was in 2005, and we’re currently undergoing Phase III. And what it essentially is, is to try to get a sense of the Internet landscape in which particularly Canadian youth are participating. So, getting a sense of what young people are doing online and how they feel about it. What positive experiences they’re encountering, what negative experiences they’re encountering, what they would like to know about the Internet, what skills they feel they have and feel they need to have and don’t have, and they’re experiences in particular with the Internet at school and what they would like to know about the Internet at school.
Q. [Leshem]
Do you find that, transitioning a little bit to discussing education in general, do you find that new media is penetrating the classroom context more? Are more classrooms using the Internet and all types of media to teach?
A. [Media Network, Matthew Johnson]
Yes and no. Certainly some aspects of it have already received a great deal of penetration. I know here in Canada, for instance, there was over the course of the 1990s a tremendous effort to get every school in Canada wired to the Internet. And as a result almost every school in Canada has computers that are Internet capable. And what that’s meant is that young people turn overwhelmingly to the Internet to do any kind of school research.
We found when we did our study that students preferred the Internet to any other source of information by a factor of roughly nine to one. So you can see that when we talk about a lot of traditional schoolwork that students do it’s now carried out almost exclusively over the Internet. At the same time the use of some other technologies that have been adopted by youth are very slow to get into the classroom. So things like making use of social networking, the use of wikis and other kind of collaborative software and websites, is slow to be finding its way into the classroom.
Q. [Leshem]
And do you think it’s important that it find its way there?
A. [Media Network, Matthew Johnson]
Well I think teachers... obviously you don’t want to bring technology in just for its own sake. And you don’t want to bring things in just because youth are using it. But at the same time when there’s a technology, or when there’s an interface, we might say a medium, that young people are embracing strongly it makes sense to try to use that to get to kids. I mean, when we have young people who increasingly spend a great deal of their time, of their lives, outside of class online, sticking exclusively to some of the traditional means of teaching seems kind of counter productive.
Now that doesn’t mean that young people should be allowed to use Facebook or MySpace during class time necessarily, but a lot of the habits of collaboration, a lot of the skills that young people are using online, can be effectively transferred to the classroom. So for instance, in something that might traditionally be done as group work in a class where everyone’s sitting around a table and someone’s, you know, maybe taking notes on a pad of paper, this is an experience that young people are much more likely to have encountered either collaborating through a social networking site or collaborating through a piece of wiki software.
Q. [Leshem]
Thinking about the Internet and the increased use by young people, as you say, even when they’re asked where would they go for research, do you feel that the Internet presents different challenges than other types of media?
A. [Media Network, Matthew Johnson]
In some ways, yes. I mean, no source of information is perfect. I can tell you, for instance, that my local public library has probably a dozen books on the healing powers of crystals. So even sending kids to a library is no guarantee that they’re going to get reliable information. But at the same time one of the strengths of the Internet, as a means of expression, is also one of its weaknesses as a source of information. And that is how easy it is to publish something online. And of course recent trends in the Internet, in new environments on the Internet, have made publication even easier than they once were.
So, what it means is that there is a great deal of information available of course online. But a lot of it is not necessarily reliable. Some of it is simply mistaken. Some of it is intentionally misinforming. And some of it is simply opinion. And young people don’t necessarily have the skills to distinguish fact from opinion.
Q. [Leshem]
Can you explain a little bit what you mean by these new methods of publication and how it gets easier and easier?
A. [Media Network, Matthew Johnson]
Sure. Well one example that I’ve already mentioned is Wikipedia. Now, Wikipedia has something of a bad rap with teachers. I’ve known quite a few teachers who refuse to let students use it as a source, and I think that’s an overreaction. There’s certainly ways that one can use Wikipedia, or a Wikipedia article, because each article properly speaking is a separate source. There are ways in which you can use it responsibly as a source of information. But students and teachers have to learn how to do that because Wikipedia of course is crowd-authored. Not only is it not originally authored by necessarily an expert on the subject, but since in the time since a Wikipedia article was created it might have been modified by any number of people. And obviously that raises a concern that shows us that each Wikipedia article has to be judged individually and that we have to look carefully for the clues that are going to indicate whether or not this is a reliable source. And in fact we recently added to our free lesson library on our website a lesson that deals specifically with using Wikipedia in the classroom.
Another example of course would be blogging software. So for instance Google runs a service called Blogger where, for free, anyone can have a blog, and they have quite professional looking templates set up, and you can put on this blog whatever content you want really. And if you want to present your blog as being a source of information you can do so. And again, a student who doesn’t have the skills to authenticate information they find online isn’t going to be able to tell whether someone is really providing accurate information or whether they’re simply expressing their opinion.
Q. [Leshem]
So what are the skills you think are necessary in order to evaluate Internet content, and at the same time, what sort of resources do you have on your site? You mentioned one that can help people to analyze information, whether it’s text or images or audio clips or YouTube videos, it’s all information that they’re finding on the Internet, it seems.
A. [Media Network, Matthew Johnson]
Well, the fundamental skill is critical thinking. All of us in the media age, and again youth in particular, have to approach any source of information critically. It’s important that we not simply accept anything as an authority, that we question whatever we encounter. And there are a number of skills that attach to that.
So for instance, particularly when it comes to online sources, we can do things such as doing research on an author, and certainly if there’s no author given or if we can’t get any information on the author, that’s a big clue that something may not be reliable. We can find what other sites link to a site through a very simple search. On almost any search engine you can do a link search. And so for instance, if you find that the other sites linking to that site are themselves reliable sources, let’s say you’re doing research about cancer and you find that the source is linked to by the American Cancer Society, you find this is perhaps a reliable source. On the other hand, if you find that all of the links to something are from sources that have the same point of view, or perhaps are commercial sites, then that’s going to be a knock against it.
Students can learn to keep an eye on when something was created and how often it was updated. And again there are easy technical ways of, little tricks for doing that. And in particular, students can learn, and this is something that applies to all media, not just online media, students can learn to look for the telltales of bias. So for instance they can look for things like the use of loaded or emotional language. They can look for opinion statements and learn to differentiate opinion from facts. And they can look for other kinds of manipulative tricks like uses of imagery or, as I say, logical fallacies that try to manipulate the reader.
This is a big part of our online resources. A lot of our online resources have to do with different kinds of critical thinking, whether it’s critical thinking in terms of evaluating information, or whether it’s critical thinking when dealing with media images, again such as images of minorities, images of men or women, and so on. We’ve also developed a number of interactive resources, some of which are licensed resources and some of which are available free through the website that teach young people a variety of digital literacy skills.
Our biggest one, most recently, is called A Passport To The Internet, and that’s an interactive program for students in grades four to eight that teaches a wide variety of digital literacy skills, including authentication of online information, but also teaches them about managing online relationships, teaches them about ethical online behavior, privacy management, and in particular recognizing commercial environments online. That’s one area where we found students really don’t employ a critical spirit, is when they encounter commercial material.
As an example, one of the most successful forms of advertising online is what are called advergames, and these are computer games that are essentially advertising. So you’re playing the computer game and you may be, instead of controlling some other character, you’re controlling Lucky the Leprechaun, and instead of collecting whatever is your power-ups you’re collecting Lucky Charms. And these are sites where essentially young people will play for half an hour or an hour, being exposed to these branding images and this advertising material. And what we found in our survey was that a large number of young people didn’t consider these to be advertising because they saw the surface of it, which was the game. And they weren’t able to look beyond that and see that they were in fact advertising. So this is an example of how young people really need to bring a critical spirit, to bring critical thinking, to the experiences they encounter online.
Q. [Leshem]
One of what I found to be the most effective presentations on your site had to do with online hate, and this is something that occurs to me ‐ however similar the Internet might be to other forms of media, it seems that it has a particular... that something about its ability, as you say, to self-publish and also in the ways that new sites like Blogger let self-published sites look a lot like sites that are well resourced or well funded, but there seems to be something about the Internet that allows it to become something of a breeding ground for hate in a way that if we’re talking about books or, as you’re talking about, corporate advertising; corporate advertising has encoded cues about how we should look and how we should act, but the kind of hate one encounters online seems to be of a very different order.
A. [Media Network, Matthew Johnson]
I agree, and there are a number of reasons why this is. Part of it again goes back, as you say, to the ease of publishing online. Obviously it’s much cheaper to publish and distribute online than it is in the physical world, and so it’s a lot easier for hate groups to get their message out in this way. It’s also easier for them to create what we call stealth hate sites. That is, sites that disguise their hate message until readers have gotten fairly invested in them.
So for instance there is a site that pretends to be about Dr. Martin Luther King, and it has a URL that makes it sound quite official. There’s no hint from the URL or from the title of the site that in fact it is a front for a white supremacist organization and that the site is being used to spread quite hateful misinformation about Martin Luther King. So that’s an example of how the ease of publishing and the ability to make something that looks tolerably professional on the Internet allows hate groups to spread their message in a way they couldn’t, or that would have been much more difficult.
It also makes it possible for hate groups to stay under the radar in a way that is more difficult than in the offline. So, frequently parents don’t necessarily have a clear sense of what their young people are doing online, so if you have printed hate paraphernalia, for instance, their parents are likely to see it fairly quickly and be aware of what it is. But encountering hate material online, particularly stealth hate material, is likely to go under the radar.
Similarly with schools because a lot research has found that the filters that schools employ, while they’re very good at blocking sexual material, don’t do a very good job necessarily of blocking hate material.
There’s also the fact that the Internet can be used for what’s called narrowcasting. So of course in traditional media the strategy has always been broadcasting ‐ trying to reach as many people as possible. But hate groups are aware that some people are particularly vulnerable. We know that young people who feel marginalized in particular are the ones who are the most vulnerable to hate messages. And so hate groups are able to target their message directly to the most vulnerable people by taking the messages to the online environments where marginalized young people like to visit.
And finally there is the concern of course of what we call the online culture of cruelty, and that is the notion that everything is a joke online, and that there’s a certain amount of criticism against anyone online who sort of tries to take things seriously, and there is a great deal of effort made online to shock people, particularly by young people. So when you go for instance to some sites like newgrounds or ebaumsworld where there are videos or simple computer games that are created by users, you see a lot of it is created very much with the intent to shock. And some of it is tremendously shocking. And it’s very easy to slide from something that is created simply to shock and offend out of a desire to shock and offend into something that is communicating hate speech.
Q. [Leshem]
And it seems that given this propensity of the Internet to surprise you at any moment with hate speech, it seems like young people must be getting exposed at a much earlier age to this type of messaging than they would otherwise have been. Since as you say it’s very hard to control where one goes on the Internet, much harder than to control which books someone reads, or magazines.
A. [Media Network, Matthew Johnson]
Well, one of the skills in fact that we try to teach, particularly to young students, is to control where you go on the Internet, because in fact there are a lot of ways of making sure you don’t end up in a place that you didn’t want to end up. Some of the most fundamental web skills that we teach are for instance creating effective searches and learning how to judge a link before you click on it. These may seem like simple skills, but our research and my own experience as a teacher has show me that young people, even as late as high school, don’t really necessarily have the skill to judge a link when they encounter it. They just follow it and if it doesn’t pan out they go back. So that’s why some of our resources are devoted to teaching this kind of skill.
I don’t know whether young people are encountering hate material younger than they once did, mostly because I don’t really have a baseline to compare it to. But I would certainly tend to think that more young people are encountering hate speech than once did, and I would say our research bears that. We know that in our survey two out of ten young people told us that they had encountered it intentionally or unintentionally, and five percent of our sample told us that they had consciously visited a hate site.
Q. [Leshem]
What jumps out at me, as a question about that response though, is how many visited hate sites that they never recognized as hate sites?
A. [Media Network, Matthew Johnson]
Well that’s a good question, and certainly some of our resources do deal with this. One of our lessons on our website in our free lesson library is titled "Teaching Zack To Think," and it’s based on a true story about a young man who was doing research on the Holocaust, and found himself on what was in fact a Holocaust denial site, but he didn’t recognize it for what it was and obviously he got a bit of a shock when he brought this material into class. And we use that as essentially a teachable moment in order to help young people understand what kinds of critical thinking skills and attitudes they need to bring to material they encounter online.
Q. [Leshem]
As we’ve referred so much to your site during this podcast, I wonder if you could just give us the URL and sort of, from a navigation standpoint, point us to some of the resources we’ve discussed?
A. [Media Network, Matthew Johnson]
Sure. Well it’s media-awareness.ca. The .ca ending is the Canada code, obviously. And when you first encounter the site you’re given the choice between English and French because we are a bilingual organization; as much as possible we create our resources in French and English. And if you go to the English side of the site you’ll see on the front page links to some of our permanent resources. So for instance our blog is on the right hand side, links to a number of our other resources, and in the main column you’ll see a number of resources that we’re choosing to highlight. So I believe at the moment we have our resources for fighting cyber-bullying highlighted and we usually have a number of resources of that kind that we choose to highlight due to some event, either in the news or an international month, or day, or what have you.
Up at the top of this home page you have a choice between the teachers’ section or the parents’ section. The teachers’ section leads to the lesson library, which is searchable either by topic or by grade, or both. And the parents’ section covers a wide variety of topics that are of interest to parents, things again such as media stereotyping, violence in media, and so on. I believe on the left side (I don’t have it in front of me at the moment), down the left side of the home page I have links to our educational games and also links to our research. So young Canadians In A Wired World is downloadable for free, both parts from the site, and it’s, as I say, unfortunately a couple of years out of date, but it still provides our best information on what young Canadians are doing online.
Q. [Leshem]
Excellent. I have another question; perhaps it’s speculative. It can be our final question. I wonder, first of all, to what extent are you guys an online-only organization? I’ve noticed that it seems like you co-sponsor a couple events in the real world, but I wonder to what extent the choice to be online primarily or solely was intentional, and how important do you think it is for you to be online as opposed to distributing pamphlets in schools, and stuff like that?
A. [Media Network, Matthew Johnson]
Well, our online presence really is sort of a measure of how we’ve evolved. We’ve found that it really is the easiest way for us to get our materials into schools and into the hands of parents. We do have a physical presence. I, and a number of other people here, travel fairly extensively, bringing our materials to particularly teacher conferences, and some other conferences around the world; particularly around Canada, but also in other countries. So for instance one of our Co-Executive Directors, Jane Tallim, recently testified in front of U.S. Congress last month for the Federal Online Safety Institute, I think it was (I forget what the 'I’ stands for).
So we do have a significant offline presence, but it primarily consists of Mnet staff. In terms of reaching the most people possible we do find that the benefits of online distribution really outweigh any of the drawbacks. We have produced some material in print; particularly we have a pamphlet called Media Education, Make It Happen, which is an introduction to media education for teachers, parents, and school administrators. And indeed we were involved in getting media education made part of the official curricula of all the Canadian provinces and territories. So Media Education, Make It Happen was an outreach program following that. And we’ve done a few other printed materials.
And, as you say, we do sponsor a few events. Once a year we sponsor, or we organize, an event, which is called Media Literacy Week. And that’s an event where we partner with a wide variety of other organizations. Some are organizations from the media industry, some are parent organizations, community organizations, governments, and so on, to bring a focus onto media literacy.
Q. [Leshem]
Excellent. Well, I want to thank you very much for the time you spent with us.
A. [Media Network, Matthew Johnson]
Thank you.
Q. [Leshem]
And, keep up the good work on the site.
A. [Media Network, Matthew Johnson]
Thanks very much.
Q. [Leshem]
Bye.
A. [Media Network, Matthew Johnson]
Bye.