National Conference on Media Reform Presentation: Being Media Competent

This is part of a panel on Digital Literacies for the 2013 Media Reform Conference in Denver.

The best activists are impressively media competent people and communication innovators.  It’s my feeling, after years spent researching digital-era media and activist movements, that media literacy makes activists of everyday people. Being media competent in the digital era translates to a new sense of engagement. It changes how you exist in the world.

I didn’t come up with these ideas. It’s more like I was won over to them.  Or that, with each interview I conducted with an activist or a journalist and with each research paper I concluded, I became easier to convert.

Henry Jenkins, in this white paper, writes about new literacies that include appropriation, repurposing, multi-media multitasking, leveraging collective intelligence and the ability to effectively evaluate the quality of information you’re receiving.

“We call them ‘literacies,’” he wrote, “but they change the focus of literacy from one of individual expression to one of community involvement. They build on the foundation of traditional literacy, research skills, technical skills, and critical analysis skills taught in the classroom.”

Digital literacy is not about learning a set of skills. It’s about learning to understand a new set of social practices and approaches to meaning making.

One of my colleagues at the University of Denver, Lynn Schofield Clark, has established an after-school Digital Media Club at South High School, which serves a large number of refugee, migrant, and low income students. Club members work with Lynn and university of Denver students to create media related to issues in their communities. The South students learn to shoot and edit video and produced stories, some of which are aired on the schools weekly news program Rebel Report. This media training and production is part of a larger effort to encourage the students to see themselves as interpreters and commentators on issues relevant to their community. In the club they also spend time considering and critiquing commercial media. Here’s an image of a recent field trip they took to Denver’s 9 News.

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Another local example comes from the Open Media Foundation, which runs public-access television stations, provides new media and video training workshops, loans out equipment to the public and has designed an open-source platform that automates programming for three public-access stations around the country.

Open Media Foundation has won support from the Knight News Foundations for open-source projects, most recently for an “open government” project that provides direct access to government video and documents from a non-commercial media platform.

These kinds of projects, I think, suggest how merely engaging in media production helps people better understand and critique media. How choices related to sourcing, editing, representing, for example, shape content and control messaging. Notable is that these projects work to improve participation. They don’t just celebrate any kind of participation. They also demonstrate the significance, the real democratic need, to work hard to level access to digital tools and networks—across regions, classes, ethnicities—and doing so, in part, by extending so-called net neutrality and reforming intellectual property law.

That’s why I’m happy to be contributing to this conference and why I celebrate organizations like Free Press.

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