Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Interview with Adam Chiara on Media Literacy

Adam Chiara

Adam Chiara, assistant professor of communication at the University of Hartford, teaches courses in social media, public relations, and digital media. His experience in politics includes managing political campaigns and working at the Connecticut General Assembly.

Dr. Gramma Karen: Professor Chiara, in your recent online lecture, “What is the Future of Social of Media?”, I was particularly struck by your emphasis on how many of us, as media consumers being barraged with misinformation, need to assume responsibility for our own media literacy. Let’s start with how you define media literacy.

Professor Chiara: Traditionally, media literacy has meant the ability to access, analyze, and evaluate different forms of media (such as printed materials, television programming, and radio broadcasts). In other words, being able to interpret and think critically about the media you are seeking and consuming. In the modern age, however, it has become so much more.

There has been a major shift from the media that dominated our lives in the 20th century. Then, those who held power of printing presses, radio broadcast towers, or TV networks were called gatekeepers — they decided what content the public largely consumed. If you wanted to participate in publishing your own media content, such as songs, poetry, movies, and news, your only path went through them.

The Internet, and specifically social media, has greatly disrupted that model, though. The majority of us are no longer just passive media consumers; we are active media creators, too. When you post that video of your child on Facebook, in a sense you just aired another episode in the sitcom called, “Your Life.”

This may only be seen by a few dozen people in your circle, but it does have the potential to be seen by millions on the Internet. When you comment on social media or write a blog post, you are essentially writing an opinion piece for mass public consumption. As explained in this Tedx Talk, presented by Dan Carlin, we all now essentially have the opportunity to create media and have access to a massive audience.

So, when we talk about media literacy today, we’re really talking about not only the ability to access, analyze, and evaluate media that we consume, but also to have an awareness of how the media we create and participate in contributes to society.

Dr. Gramma Karen: This expansion to being not only media consumers, but also to media creators, increases the importance of and need for media literacy. Specifically, how is a lack of media literacy impacting society and our everyday lives?

Professor Chiara: We require math, English, history, and other subjects to be taught in grade school, but we’re lucky if there’s even one week dedicated to media literacy. Most of my students were not exposed to any training when it comes to social media, and the few that were admit it was limited to some ad hoc lessons.

This is not meant to disparage teachers, or argue against Common Core, or place blame on some other entity. It’s just an observation of the current climate and a call-to-action to change it.

Dr. Gramma Karen: Okay, a call to action! Please explain.

Professor Chiara: Sure. We spend hours on the Internet, yet we have virtually no training in it. For many of us, including digital natives, like my college students, we understand how to use the functions of a platform, but we don’t reflect on what’s happening on the other end.

Why are we seeing the posts that we see on a platform? Why does it seem like Facebook is “listening” to us and shows us ads about things we were talking about to my friends? How is someone able to create a fake video that looks so real? Questions like these are often a mystery to us.

Is our inability to answer these kinds questions hurting our everyday lives? If it hasn’t already, at some point it most likely will. Misinformation and disinformation have polluted public discourse, and some believe they have even influenced an U.S. election. Anxiety, depression, and suicide rates among teenagers are at an all-time high (even before COVID-19) and there are researchers who attribute the driving factor to social media. Our privacy and data are being eroded and stolen regularly. And these are just the current challenges we’re facing. Some of the inevitable threats we’re running toward look even bleaker.

Even if you don’t feel as if it has impacted you yet personally, you can only win Russian Roulette so many times. While having a society with a high-level of media literacy won’t prevent every hazard, it sure can prevent some unnecessary hardships.

Dr. Gramma Karen: Very convincing. So, for openers, how does one self-assess his/her current level of media literacy?

Professor Chiara: First, evaluate your mindset. That said, there is no dispositive quiz that will determine your level of media literacy. Instead, it’s a mindset you must adapt and constantly cultivate.

Let me give you an analogy using our eating habits. Some people never think twice about what they are eating. French fries, ice cream, broccoli — it’s all the same and it doesn’t matter as long as it tastes good. That’s a poor mindset if you care about your health, but it’s easy to do. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the person who knows the origin of every morsel that goes into their body. That’s way better for your health, but that’s harder to do. The rest of us are somewhere in the middle and fluctuate between the two ends.

I’d say that’s the case for most of us when it comes to our media literacy, too. Sometimes we’re conscious of what we’re informationally consuming and producing. We may even consider how it affects our “health” and the well-being of others, but most times we’re not.

So, take a little time and reflect on how conscious you are of your media literacy. Start taking an inventory of the media you’re consuming, creating, and contributing to on a daily basis. Determine what its effect could be on you and on others.

Just by adapting this mindset and developing a keen awareness, you’ll arrive at conclusions about what your media literacy level is and how you can improve it.

Dr. Gramma Karen: Sounds a lot like utilizing critical thinking skills, right? Do you see a relationship between critical thinking skills and media literacy?

Professor Chiara: Absolutely. Just take a look at this key part from our definition: “the ability to access, analyze, and evaluate.”

That’s all part of critical thinking, and many of us out there are critical thinkers. But I believe sometimes the problem is that we’re just not actively applying our critical thinking skills when we share something on Facebook or look at the search results on Google (don’t always trust the first link to medical advice when you check what your ailment is!). We use the Internet so often and in so many ways, that it’s easy to become complacent about applying the level of critical thinking that is needed.

This is difficult for experts, too. I face the same challenges that we all do. Sometimes I fail, but I’m aware when I do. This only strengthens my media literacy mindset. Again, the theme here is that I’m always working on developing awareness.

Dr. Gramma Karen: How can my readers, e.g., parents and grandparents, develop their media literacy? Can you suggest specific resources?

Professor Chiara: Well, the process has already started by reading to the end of this article! It all goes back to developing an awareness and forming a mindset. When you see a credible article or video about a media-related topic, absorb it and learn from it. Read a book on the topic. Listen to someone who gives a lecture on the subject. Make it part of your consciousness like you do with other aspects of your life.

Here’s an actionable step you could do right now: Visit the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE). It has resources for all ages and levels to help sharpen your media literacy.

I’ll close with this thought: What’s key to remember is that like your food diet, media literacy is not something you focus on for one week and then are set for life. To have strong eating habits, you must constantly put in the effort.

Where my analogy diverges, however, is that unlike your food diet, which only affects your own personal health, adapting a mindset for media literacy will be beneficial for the health of society, too.

Dr. Gramma Karen: To stay with your analogy, you certainly have given us much food for thought, including the idea of civic responsibility going hand in had in developing one’s own media literacy. Many thanks, Professor Chiara.

Note: Professor Chiara is the author of the opinion piece, “The Future of Social Media? Maybe Not As Bad As You Think.”

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.

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