The question of media literacy
A massive teaching programme on media literacy is highly needed at the moment
By Muhammad Aftab Alam
Citizens for Free and Responsible Media, Pakistan (CFRM-Pakistan), an online group of not more than 164 assertive citizens, has developed a “guide to anchoring and reporting on news channels”. The guide provides a basic checklist of what a viewer should be aware of while watching news channels.
The checklist, which is in English and consists of twenty 20 points, attempts to provide a distinction between a good anchor/reporter and a bad one. It is, in fact, a nice compilation of internationally accepted and practised norms and ethics for anchors and reporters on electronic media in the world. Shared through a facebook page — having more than 1100 fans — the checklist is in English and can be accessed by only those who are part of the online community.
The development of the checklist and sharing through social media is a welcome step. However, according to statistics, not more than 20 million Pakistanis i.e. 11pc of the total population have access to Internet and only 5 million Pakistanis are part of social media i.e., facebook, twitter, wordpress, etc.
Since the checklist is in English and shared online, what about 90pc of population who have no access to Internet and cannot read/understand English? Similarly, the checklist is about anchoring and news reporting, therefore, what about the other categories of the media programmes such as sitcom, drama, sports, and educational media, etc. Advertisements are also among the critical media content, which has strong bearing on the viewers and require skillful audience to understand the ‘messages’ therein.
Nadeem Iqbal, Coordinator of the Network for Consumer Protection — civil society group working on consumer protection for the last many years — argues whatever is being run on media has some apparent and some less apparent or hidden messages. In many of the cases, the media seem to mislead the audiences, avert their attentions from a particular issue, or divert them towards a non-issue. He further says that media in Pakistan is advertising-based and not viewers-based. Since there are no specific advertisement regulations in the country, everyone — literate, semi-literate, and illiterate — is now exposed to all kinds of messages on media through programmes and advertisements.
The code of conduct of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) for programmes and advertisement is least enforced regulation. Due to absence of any regulatory check, he believes, the advertisements are now being presented in the shape documentaries and songs, which is deceptive and misleading. Most dangerous is the situation when media do not inform the audience about viewers’ suitability for the programmes, he says.
Adnan Rehmat, a well-known media development expert and member of the core committee of the CFRM-Pakistan, believes that “a very sophisticated knowledge and skill is required for viewers to deal with the situation. CFRM-Pakistan is a first and foremost initiative in the country to develop understanding of the viewers about the media and media ethics.”
With its limited capacity and outreach, Mr. Rehmat notes, the forum is endeavoring to introduce a culture of media watch and citizens’ education about media in the country. Nevertheless, he agrees that the “forum cannot by any mean cater for needs of entire viewers’ community of the country. A massive nation-wide ‘media literacy’ campaign, however, is required to satisfy the needs of millions of television viewers in the country.”
But, what is ‘media literacy?’ Is it different from existing media education, being provided at the mass communication departments?
What is media literacy?
The research shows that media literacy is quite different from media education. It is all about education of media consumers and least about media practitioners. The term ‘media literacy’ was first defined by the participants of the National Leadership Conference on Media Literacy in Maryland USA in 1992.
According to the definition, media literacy is “the ability of a citizen to access, analyse, and produce information for specific outcome.” Elizabeth Thoman, founder of Media and Value — a premier magazine on media literacy, which emerged in 1977 — defined media literacy as the ability to choose and select, the ability to challenge and question, the ability to be conscious about what’s going on around us — and not be passive and vulnerable.
Patricia Aufderheide, a professor of communication studies in the School of Communication at American University in Washington, wrote that the images and sounds being relayed through the media, including Internet contain a variety of messages and information. Media literacy empowers the citizens to decode, evaluate, and analyse such constructed and politically, ideologically, and commercially implicated media messages, she believes.
State of media and media literacy in Pakistan
In the developed world, media literacy is a well-researched concept and part of mainstream academic discourse. In Pakistan, however, the concept seems to be at a very primitive stage. Though the electronic media landscape in the country has expanded and from one state-run television channel to more than eighty Pakistani satellite channels, including more than thirty-five news and current affairs channels are operating accessible at the moment.
Newspapers circulation, according to sources at federal ministry of information and broadcast, has doubled over the period of past ten years — from two million to four million. The number of universities with mass communications or journalism department has increased from six public sector universities to over 30 of universities during the past ten years.
Advertising market has expanded manifold. However, except for a few limited initiatives — CFRM-Pakistan, UKS Foundation, and Society for Alternative Media and Research (SAMAR) — nowhere in the academics or in civil society any substantive effort has been made toward the promotion of media literacy. PEMRA, which is supposed to be custodian of rights of media consumers, seems to be completely indifferent to the issue.
Media literacy: whose responsibility?
In view of the above, the semi-literate Pakistani society seems to be at the mercy of the television channels and other media outlets for all their vague, misleading, and least regulated programmes and promotions. Worldwide best practices show that in the United Kingdom (UK), the Office of Communication or Ofcom — the communications regulator in the UK — has duty to promote media literacy.
In the United State of America (USA), a variety of governmental and non-governmental organisations have been embarking on the promotion of media literacy. In Australia, New Zealand and Canada, media literacy is part of school curricula. In China and Hong Kong, partnerships among the market, regulator, and interest groups to promote such initiatives have proved to be quite effective and workable.
How to promote media literacy in Pakistan?
Pakistan is a semi-literate society, where people have limited understanding of their rights. No doubt, over the years, media have played a vital role in sensitisation about the rights among citizens. Nevertheless, media have its own interests and cannot necessarily ensure protection of media consumers’ rights. Therefore, Rehmat is of the view that there is a need to institutionalise media literacy within the existing education system.
A massive teaching programme on media literacy is highly needed at the moment. He suggests that the academia should move forward and join hands with the concerned citizens’ groups to undertake thorough research on media literacy from local perspective. Nadeem Iqbal, on the other hand, suggests introducing orientation session for marketing staff advertiser to educate them about ethics. Most importantly, as a primary protector of the citizens’ rights, the role of government and the media regulator is highly important for promotion of media literacy among the audiences. A comprehensive media policy, which should holistically cover all aspects of media, advertisements and media literacy, is also highly needed, Iqbal says.
Source: The News