Shashidhar Nanjundaiah: Institutionalised media illiteracy: The deeper worry in the EC’s plea

14 May,2021

By Shashidhar Nanjundaiah

 

The first serious attempt at embedding media literacy in academic curricula in the United States was in 1992. The purpose of the National Leadership Conference on Media Literacy, as it was called, was to shape a national framework for media literacy to achieve common objectives. The 25-member expert committee, comprised of educationists, professors, communication practitioners, researchers, and public media debated to arrive at why, how, and in what form media literacy should be framed.

 

The single most contentious issue in that debate was the very definition of media literacy. The basic definition spelled out media literacy as the ability of a citizen to access, analyse, and produce information for specific outcomes. As one would expect in hindsight, the debatable phrase in the definition was for specific outcomes.

 

The report on that meeting describes the need for a “movement to expand notions of literacy” to include the understanding, production and negotiation of meanings in a culture made up of powerful images, words and sounds. Even with such an explosion of technological change since the beginning of the 21st century in the way we communicate, not much has changed in that objective with the single and most powerful exception of what we may describe as “mass interactivity”, including exchange of ideas on social media.

 

Apart from technological changes, politics has changed drastically this century from a blind faith in liberalism in the post-globalisation era to a sharp scepticism of it, thanks to the global financial collapse in 2008. But the phrase “for specific outcomes” remains problematic. The idea that mediated communication reflects constructed realities, and that they have commercial, ideological and political implications, is indisputable. But if the narrator of messages deliberately controls meanings while addressing her audiences, what ideological, political, commercial implications does that control have?

 

This is so especially in the case of news. Indeed, it is possible to propose that bracketing news as outcome-driven changes the entire media model that has been operational in post-liberalisation India. Although most news platforms strategise which stories go in and out, where or when stories are published, and what approaches to take within each story, it is possible to reject the idea that news itself is strategic—i.e., driven by specific outcomes—because that would, arguably, make news by definition both a tool of manipulation and itself subject to manipulation. So, while media literacy is needed precisely to understand the manipulation of news in practice, this problematic nature of the definition must be called out.

 

Last week, the Supreme Court (SC) rejected an Election Commission’s (EC) claim early this month. The EC was reacting to an earlier oral remark by judges of Madras High Court (HC) that the Commission reneged on its duty to protect voters from the pandemic. Most of us would empathise with the court’s anguish at the EC’s inaction over the massive, unfettered super-spreader events. The Madras HC went on to orally remark that the EC should be “probably put up for murder charges” for its “wanton abuse of Covid-19 protocol” during election rallies.

 

The EC pleaded with the SC that the media should not be allowed to report oral remarks of a court. In their verdict, the judges suggested that the High Court’s clickbaity remarks were harsh and highly avoidable. On the other hand, the SC quashed the prayer that the EC raised—that of seeking a restraint on the media on reporting court proceedings. The apex court ruled that an open court proceeding ensures that the judicial process is subject to public scrutiny. The judges went on to cite larger public interest as a justification of the Madras HC’s observations.

 

To a student of communication, this reminder of constitutional democracy in the age of intrusion is a sharp reminder of whom the institutions should be truly serving. That interest is as wide an outcome as ever of the actions of an institution. The use of the term “for specific outcomes” became a point for much debate around the interest of media literacy in its nascence.

 

In the SC’s judgment, the judges remarked that the media should be enabled to help create accountability. But if it all boils down to which individual judges preside over these proceedings, institutions will keep pushing the envelope, sometimes seeking to taking away freedoms and to reduce their own accountability to the public. So, notwithstanding the SC’s scathing verdict, the EC’s plea should worry any real communication professional. The very idea that people should not know the opinion of a public court when a constitutional authority’s wrongdoing is spotlighted is nothing short of appalling. At best, the EC’s plea in the Supreme Court reflects institutionalised media illiteracy. At worst, it could lead to an impression that the EC is being dictated by expediency. The institution’s concern for its own image does not provide a convincing impression of a belief in constitutional freedoms.

 

More broadly, it tells us in what direction assumed privilege can lead a constitutional institution in a democracy. News of all hues provides us the well-rounded worldview we need, and we already have a political party at the helm that routinely seeks to thwart it. That is why an institution that seeks to censor information is exactly an example of why the term for specific outcomes is dangerous: It could legitimise the act of nudging citizens towards specific political, ideological or commercial goals that can be very different from those that a nation is supposed to follow.

 

In the current environment where fake news can actually aid governments to push their political agenda, it is increasingly doubtful whether governments such as ours will seek to build media literacy in academic curricula. If that inaction means that our constitutional institutions will also seek to wall themselves into a media-protected enclosure, we are looking an institutional display of media illiteracy that can lead to the institutionalisation of media illiteracy.

As Founder of BeingResponsible, the author, Shashidhar Nanjundaiah, is attempting to build awareness via Responsible Media Literacy. Prof Nanjundaiah has led media institutes to positions of repute and leadership. His views here are personal. He can be reached at shashi.nanjundaiah@hotmail.com

 

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