Media Literacy in Action: An Interview with Belinha De Abreu and Paul Mihailidis (Part One)

Earlier this term, I ran a lengthy conversation with Tessa Jolls, the the President and CEO of the Center for Media Literacy. We discussed some of the core, underlying concepts behind the Media Literacy movement and considered their potential relationship to the work being done by the MacArthur Foundation's Digital Media and Learning initiative. Today, I am happy to be sharing with you some reflections on many of those same issues from two of the Next Generation leaders of the Media Literacy Movement. Belinha S. De Abreu, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Technology at Fairfield University, currently serves as the Vice President for the National Telemedia Council. Paul Mihailidis, an assistant professor in the school of communication at Emerson College, is the Associate Director of the Engagement Lab at Emerson College, and Director of the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change. Mihailidis sits on the board of directors for the National Association of Media Literacy Education. Together, they have edited an important new anthology, Media Literacy Education in Action: Theoretical and Pedagogical Approaches, which offers us a snap shot of Today's media literacy movement.

The table of content reads like a who's who of the most important doers and thinkers around the world, including Julian McDougall, Tessa Jolls, Neil Anderson, David Buckingham, Erin Reilly, Eric Gordon, Sonia Livingstone, Frank Gallagher, David M. Considine, and many others. The book shares cutting edge research and words of wisdom from founding figures, offering us insights into the struggle to get media literacy in the curriculum and what happens when we do.

I am just getting to know Abreu and Mihailidis, but what I've seen so far impresses me greatly, including the thoughtful and substantive responses they offered to my interview questions here. Enjoy.

In his opening chapter, Julian McDougall describes media literacy as an “unfinished project,” while David Buckingham’s foreword suggests that “we are unlikely ever to arrive at a point where we can all sign up to a single definition and prescription for media literacy education.” What are some of the reasons why media literacy as a field seems so unsettled and unresolved -- is it simply that the media landscape itself has changed so rapidly over the past few decades? Is it that media literacy advocates see the movement as addressing very different problems that stem from their own rather different perceptions of the role which media plays in our lives?

Paul: I think there are a confluence of reasons for the continued struggle of media literacy to find a cohesive foundation and concrete direction. Firstly, media literacy education has cast a wide net, perhaps intentionally but also because the movement and it’s core principles advocate for outcomes like critical thinking and critical engagement. These mirror outcomes for a lot of pedagogy. And while useful, they often lack direction or application. So we see spaces like digital media and learning, news literacy, civic literacy, science literacy, information literacy, and more, all find more coherent and concrete homes, funding, and support. At the same time, media literacy tries to claim a part of all these spaces. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing. But rather it makes it difficult to grow in a cohesive way. I think of it as: If media literacy tries to be everything related to literacies, it will at the same time be nothing.

Stemming from this, I do see media literacy advocates, scholars, and educators using the term to advocate for their projects and approaches to how they understand media’s role in daily life. Many apply the term to their work in discipline-specific areas, while at the same time, others come into media literacy with their own perceptions of what it should do, and because media literacy has such a broad purview, there isn’t a conceptual grounding from which such uses of the term can be sorted, sifted, and understood.

Perhaps, however, what McDougal and Buckingham are alluding to is something that they may think of as positive. That media literacy can be an agile and adaptable movement provides greater space to engage in pedagogical and scholarly dialog where it is meaningful and related.

I think personally media literacy will continue to struggle as a cohesive disciplinary space without more conceptual agreement, directional engagement, and scholarly recognition.

In the late 1990s, Bob McCannon, a teacher at Albuquerque Academy in New Mexico and leader of the New Mexico Media Literacy Project, noted that "Whenever media literacy educators get together, they always circle the wagons-- and shoot in!" Is this still the case? Have we found better ways to work through differences between competing visions of media literacy?

Belinha: I don’t think we are circling the wagon any longer, but I do think we still suffer from a bit of a complex regarding who we are in the field. We are still somewhat confused about the term that we use to describe ourselves ---Certainly there continues to be a discussion about whether we are a field or a movement, but frankly does it matter? What it comes down to is that we are talking and we are talking to each other. More and more, I see conversations that push the limit of what we do and question approaches. You had one of those such conversations in your blog recently with Tessa Jolls which really tried to go through the layers of conversations from the DML perspective and the media literacy perspective. I appreciated the line that you used about “people talking past each other.” Your blog and other conversations, I believe brings about more dialog as long as we can keep egos out of the way. They happen at conferences all the time -- all over the world. The best conversations seems to happen at the most unexpected times with people who you didn’t think you had a common language when in fact it is there. Media literacy is an active engagement of thinking and if it happens from various groups then it is growing the dialogue.

My one concern which actually takes us a step back from Bob McCannon’s statement is that those who lay claim to media literacy as a body of work tend to not have a history of what that means. They don’t seem to know the Len Masterman’s, David Considine’s, and even David Buckingham’s who have generated some of the best thinking and most in depth work in the field whether it is through their research or through their development of future educators at the school or academic level. Even to the wider audience of people who have been in media literacy whether through their different organizations such as the Alliance for Media Literacy in Canada or Cary Bazelgette out of the UK, these people and organizations have had longevity in the field, yet they tend to go unnoticed at times.

Renee Hobbs’ “Seven Great Debates in the Media Literacy Movement” sought to map some of the core fault lines in the field. You are coming in more than a decade later to similarly lay out some of the core strands in the media literacy movement. Which of Renee’s debates are still active? Which if any have been resolved?

Belinha: Fault lines is a very good depiction of some of the cracks in the media literacy movement. Perhaps, we could even say that those cracks have been broken into factions although this may be where the argument starts to go adrift. My point is that if we keep bringing up the same issues or problems over and over again, we tend to not generate any movement past these ideas. The debates of the past could still be held up and do. People who are protectionists in the movement are still there, but there are just as many who are saying that teaching and learning are more important. Banning and censorship don’t seem to resolve what worries parents or other protectionists groups which is how to make the media less important in children’s lives.

Our mediated worlds have shifted drastically since the time that Renee Hobbs wrote that piece. Producing media which was conceptually thought to be a part of media literacy education has shifted with the fact that many students are already media-makers because technology has made it accessible. Is that media literacy? Are children/teens being critical, conscious producers of media? In most cases, the answers would be “no.” Does that mean that they fall away from the ideals of media literacy? I would say they miss the mark in some points especially when it comes to evaluation or discernment. However, they may argue that they did evaluate and did discern. We just don’t like their conclusions. What I value most in the debated questions that Hobbs proposes is the commentary that “all points of view are heard, respected, and accommodated.” I think here is where we are starting to see some headway. As a group of individuals who are interested in media literacy we do disagree, we do challenge, but we also like the engagement. Whether one method is better than the other will always be its own debate, but we can still find a middle ground to work together which makes those fault lines just a bit smoother.

Belinha S. De Abreu, Ph.D., is a Media Literacy Educator and Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Technology at Fairfield University. Her research interests include media literacy education, new media, visual and information literacy, global perspectives, critical thinking, young adults, and teacher training. Dr. De Abreu’s work has been featured in Cable in the Classroom and The Journal of Media Literacy. She is the author of Media Literacy, Social Networking and the Web 2.0 World for the K–12 Educator (Peter Lang Publishers, 2011) and the co-editor and author of Media Literacy in Action: Theoretical and Pedagogical Perspectives (Routledge 2014). She currently serves as the Vice President for the National Telemedia Council.

Paul Mihailidis is an assistant professor in the school of communication at Emerson College in Boston, MA, where he teaches media literacy and interactive media. He is also the Associate Director of the Engagement Lab at Emerson College, and Director of the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change. His research focuses on the nexus of media, education, and civic voices. His new book, Media Literacy and the Emerging Citizen (2014, Peter Lang), outline effective practices for participatory citizenship and engagement in digital culture. Under his direction, the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change, a global media literacy incubator program, annually gathers 70 students and a dozen faculty to build networks for media innovation, civic voices and global change. Mihailidis sits on the board of directors for the National Association of Media Literacy Education. He has authored numerous books and papers exploring media education and citizenship, and traveled to around the world speaking about media literacy and engagement in digital culture. He earned his PhD from the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.