Has Media Literacy Been Hijacked?

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

By Nolan Higdon and Ben Boyington

“What are they doing here?” The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) and NewsGuard were listed as exhibitors at the 2019 International Critical Media Literacy Conference (ICMLC) in Savannah, Georgia, last month. NewsGuard is a for-profit venture aimed at tackling fake news through a browser extension (already on Microsoft Edge and Google Chrome) that rates a news outlet’s trustworthiness based on crowd-sourcing. NAMLE is the largest media literacy organization in the United States. Both share a dependence on corporate funding. NAMLE is currently collaborating with Google and others on MediaWise, a “research-based curriculum to be taught in classrooms and a teen-led fact-checking initiative.” NewsGuard, a project started by Steven Brill, founder of the American Lawyer magazine, and Gordon Crovitz, a former publisher of the Wall Street Journal, relies on investment from corporations and foundations. Critical scholars are typically suspicious of the conflicts of interest that result from corporate funding. Thus, NAMLE and NewsGuard’s presence at ICMLC, which is partially due to the inclusive nature of ICMLC, was surprising as it was indicative of a larger effort to hijack media literacy in the United States.

NAMLE defines media literacy as “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act using all forms of communication.” Renee Hobbs, a founder and oft-cited media literacy authority, argues that those who oppose industry funding do so because they “believe that all funds come with strings attached,” such as a corporatist ideology that removes an “anti-media” perspective from the classroom. Conversely, Hobbs claims that those who receive such funding “are delighted” that media industries are helping to spread media literacy.

Critical scholars, in contrast, contend that to ignore the funding is to ignore how corporate co-optation impacts educator content. According to Steven Funk, Douglas Kellner, and Jeff Share, funding is a significant detail when analyzing “the ways media tend to position viewers, users, and audiences to read and negotiate meanings about race, class, gender, and the multiple identity markers that privilege dominant groups.” Media scholar Zoë Druick argues that “Media companies have aggressively sought out the classroom,” to implement a form of “media education [that] has long been associated with (neo)colonial[ism].” Historically, UNESCO and the Ford Foundation, the latter of which was funneling money for Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) programs at the time, have developed media literacy content to normalize the tools and technology of corporate donors under the auspices that they are a “solution to a pressing educational ‘state of emergency.’” Today, Facebook, Google, Nickelodeon, and other tech companies are vying for control over the American conception of media literacy. Critical scholars argue that such monies transform education from a public investment to a form of corporate hegemony.

Hobbs counters the critical perspective by arguing that to recognize, discuss, and analyze the power dynamics of identity and ideology while promoting democracy is tantamount to an educator pushing their “political agendas onto students, offering their critique of capitalism as gospel and orchestrating student ‘voice’ in a mandated form of ‘service learning,’ coercively enrolling students into a political action project, telling them what to think instead of encouraging them to think for themselves.”

Her argument feeds on prevalent anti-educator rhetoric, in which educators at all levels are accused of indoctrinating students. It is also intellectually bankrupt to assert that a fact-based analysis and discussion of capitalism’s impact on media is a political agenda; that analyzing power in media is tantamount to rejecting capitalism; or that having students participate in a project where they are given space to criticize media amounts to ideological hegemony. Nevertheless, Hobbs’s myopic assessment of critical pedagogy has become dogma among media literacy educators. A 2016 paper in the Journal of Children and Media lauded the media industry’s role in education, noting that “without industry collaboration, the work of media scholars presents a missed opportunity to ensure that children are better protected and empowered…” Sadly, scholars’ adherence to industry interests has become so normalized that adherents have conflated their ideology with objective truth. In fact, media scholar Bill Yousman demonstrated that media literacy educators are so fearful of engaging in or facing critical analysis that they dismiss and avoid the word “critical” when it appears in  media literacy discourses.

The debates between media scholars were largely missing from mainstream discourses until the 2016 US presidential election. Other countries, including Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and several Asian nations, began offering media education decades ago, but the United States still has no mandated national media education standards. After concern over fake news and voter manipulation exploded in 2016, US legislators began working on new laws. More than 40 bills in over half of the states have been passed, but most are vague and toothless, offering media literacy as an elective (read: optional) and presenting little to no specifics on what media literacy is or should be.

Which kind of media literacy will be implemented? One that teaches students to adopt, normalize, and accept the power dynamics and ubiquity of digital media as a part of some exercise in empowerment? Or one that teaches students to recognize and analyze power dynamics in media as a way to create a more equitable society? Major issues such as brain hacking, massive data collection, micro-targeting, screen addiction, and privacy will be addressed or ignored based on how we answer. The results can be catastrophic for democracy, decorum, and truth. Right now, it appears that NAMLE and NewsGuard’s corporatist ideology is leading the way.

NewsGuard has brought together former employees of media heavyweights such as Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, and Huffington Post with members of the political class and intelligence community on their advisory board, creating a corporate entity that serves as a government proxy to shape media literacy. They offer colored emblems for users on their browser: green for true and red for false. Ironically, even shamefully, while their platform derides and red-labels some smaller news sites, it leaves Fox News with a green light, meaning that in their opinion it “maintains basic standards of credibility and transparency.” In fact, the only news they guard is the fake news from Fox. Educators should proceed with caution in regard to these seemingly simple solutions.

NAMLE’s mission statement promises “empowered media participation,” but its actions empower the tech-industry and surveillance state. They collaborate with Google, which works with the federal government to collect and analyze user data, serving the enormous government surveillance apparatus. It is naïve to think that Google can empower users, while simultaneously exploiting them as part of a 1984-style dystopia. Corporate funding of scholars and educational institutions and organizations results in the hijacking of academia: fearing loss of funding and prestige, many scholars laud rather than challenge the status quo. Consider Hobbs’s assertion that “the media industry has been a significant player in advancing the media literacy competencies.” But the infiltration goes beyond funding: in 2015, NAMLE hosted Brooke Oberwetter, a manager of external affairs at Facebook, at its annual conference, where she informed “parents, teachers, and young people about the tools, settings, and resources available on Facebook [to] help keep people safe.” This rings especially false in light of recent reports that Facebook actively targeted online game-playing children and their parents in a scheme to collect thousands of dollars.

Educators are busy, and NAMLE and NewsGuard offer what appears to be a quick fix. However, magic-bullet thinking does not provide meaningful or lasting solutions. Too often, educators buy “canned curriculum” without deep vetting; we even design curriculum to address mandated standards without considering that the goal should be to foster student agency, not just prepare them for higher education or a job. This is backwards: Students’ “college and career readiness” will follow from lessons that promote their agency. Educators ranging from administrators and curriculum designers to classroom teachers can “unpack” and deconstruct standards critically even as they work to meet them. The acritical approach is exactly the wrong tack because it leaves students accepting rather than addressing power inequities.

The 2019 ICMLC proudly offered a platform for critically-minded media scholars to connect with one another and grow efforts to empower mediated citizens, but the presence of NAMLE and NewsGuard was unsettling. NAMLE offered free content in the exhibitors area for educators, but did not send an official representative. NewsGuard, for its part, had emailed several attendees in advance, asking for meetings to “inform” educators of their content and design. These meetings turned out to be a form of direct marketing, rather than an instance of critical discourse in keeping with the purpose of the event.

The presence of these organizations at ICMLC and their increased profile in national media literacy discourse signifies the hijacking of media literacy by corporatist ideologues. We can perhaps agree that there is a problem presented by contemporary technology, education, and media, but a remedy created with the same technology and by the very media companies that are at the core of the problem is indistinguishable from offering free Budweisers at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Critical media literacy offers a much more robust and promising pedagogy to preserve democratic values and mitigate or eliminate the anti-democratic forces threatening them than anything that corporate ideology and its acolytes can offer.

Nolan Higdon, Ed.D., is a lecturer of Media Studies and History at California State University, East Bay and University of San Francisco. He is co-author with Mickey Huff of United States of Distraction: Media Manipulation in Post-Truth America (City Lights, 2019). He sits on the boards of the Media Freedom Foundation, Action Coalition for Media Education, and Northwest Alliance For Alternative Media And Education. He is a co-founding member of the Global Critical Media Literacy Project and co-host of the Along The Line Podcast.

Ben Boyington, M.Ed., teaches media, English, film, and history at the high school and college levels, emphasizing student agency and empowerment. He is vice president of the Action Coalition for Media Education and coordinator of the Global Critical Media Literacy Project; he also sits on the board of the Media Freedom Foundation. His research into the 1:1 screen initiative is published in Media Education for a Digital Generation (Routledge, 2016).