Last year, I first ideated media literacy in India as a solution to a wide range of issues in democracy. In this article, I pitched it as a potential component of school curricula. Today, I am launching a volunteer-based movement. Please pitch in if this interests you.Children are often taught to respect information – both the written as well as the spoken word. To scribble on books is taboo, and to read newspapers and watch news channels is the most impressive habit you can develop. It’s not too surprising then, that we grow up to have a strange reverence towards the media. We start depending on the media we consume, and treating it as unquestionable. [For example, how often have you heard this sentence said with deep faith: “They showed it on the news.” We love sharing information with others, and attribute it to “the news”.]
It gets worse when the reverence grows into fantasy. Flashy news anchors and highly-connected journalists recording themselves with their feet deep in flood water seem like a world to be admired with wonder, not questioned with doubt. The news, in effect, becomes as glamorous as the cinema world for a significant part of the society.
What happens when the media begins to falter? The democracy cracks.
Democracy depends on its institutions. The top three institutions – our government, our lawmakers and our judges – hold each other to account, so that none of them ever becomes so powerful or incompetent that the essence of democracy crumbles. They are rightly called “checks and balances”.
The “fourth pillar”, the media, attempts to hold each of them to account. Who will hold the media to account when it starts to cave in to forces that do not have our best interests in mind?
The Media Literacy Project: What and Why
We do not get angry enough about our news media, because there is something dangerously godly about the media. It seems to carry with itself a fancy, irresistible lure.
We must be terribly ignorant people, if our anger is limited to wrong questions like: “Why does the media show only negative things?” or “Why does the media always criticise?” [Short answer, by the way: That is the media’s job. Instead, we need to be restless when it’s raining positivity on the news.]
And, we must be terribly weak people, if our anger over sensationalism and noisy TV fights does not lead to boycott and complaints. [Short answer, again: Sensationalism and noise work because we watch it.]
To make sure that the fourth pillar of democracy works, we need a large-scale media literacy movement in India.
Reverence and fantasy are not what the media is for.
The media, as the fourth pillar of democracy, is an arm of our civil society, with accountability and great responsibility. It is responsible for our minds – what we know, how we think, who we like and dislike, and what opinions we hold.
It is meant to inform us everything we need to know to form informed facts and opinion. It is supposed to protect us from misinformation, hold government to account [and hence pounce on their wrongdoings], hold ourselves to account [in our fight against gender inequality, caste and mutual injustice, as much as against political injustice] and mobilise us to make democracy work.
The news needs anger against it, when it starts
- feasting on our fears and insecurities,
- consistently praising the government,
- gets lazy,
- gets motivated in its selection and omission of news and views,
- gets biased.
Journalism is a pillar of democracy that we are exposed to much more than we are to the judges, the government and our leaders. Yet, our knowledge about it, our anger against it, and our demands for it are as good as non-existent.
We must talk about our relationship with the media. Everyone must – college students, professionals, high-income, low-income, daily wagers and top executives – because we all consume the media.
We need a movement that introduces media literacy in school curricula and trains young citizens and children on media consumption. This movement requires people from all walks of life, and not just journalists.
Examples of topics that media literacy covers: Fake news, understanding the psychology of propaganda, human insecurities, media ownership, the world of misinformation, advertising, political impact, press freedom and freedom of speech, gender in media, cinema, caste, political correctness, and much more.
Please write to me: email@example.com to help build this movement in India.