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Media literacy must become an essential part of school curricula

The news media’s importance and indispensability is not too widely acknowledged or understood, even though most people may accept its utility and inevitability – understanding which is not enough.

Imagine a government that runs a television network and then distributes free televisions and set-top boxes to its people. The basic, cheapest plan the state-owned satellite TV subscription offers just one news channel; you know which one. To watch any other news channel, you have to buy additional plans.

For many, this is not imaginary but an everyday reality. However, even for most educated citizens I know, the example above doesn’t strike as a “big” problem immediately. For the actual beneficiaries, they get what they want: a news channel.

Last month, when the government said it would ban a news channel for a day, the discourse that followed had a lot of hints that the news media’s importance and indispensability is not too widely acknowledged or understood, even though most people may accept its utility and inevitability – understanding which is not enough.

The news media is mostly seen as a source of information and entertainment, like any other product, not as an institution fundamental to a civilised society. How deep and certain is our understanding of the media as the fourth pillar of democracy, as it is often called?

As a society, discussing freedom of the press and censorship is not just the media’s business; it’s our business. And so is the objectivity of the media: a participative democracy is as much about demanding a free, unbiased media, as it is about seeking honest lawmakers and ministers.

Today, the media and its role in the society is discussed mostly at the level of the intelligentsia, and not by the common voter. This shows poor awareness about the field of journalism, and about why it is “crucial” to your and my well-being as citizens.

Unlike a legislator, who even for all his ills, is still seen as the representative of a constituency, the media, even for all its good things, does not still find place as our “representative” in the psyche of the commonest man. The media has the image of the “other”, a fantasy world of people and institutions with a power and glamour of their own.

Can schools help?

This alienation of the media from the citizen and society is an issue that can be addressed through proper intervention at school. While the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary are introduced to us in history and civics lessons, the media, the essential fourth major branch of a democracy, is not discussed in as much detail.

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We must create enough understanding of how the media works, should work, and what it can do, because we all are part of the media. Media is, in many ways, democracy in action.

A school course in media literacy is required to enable us to acknowledge that reporters are from among us who put our issues into the public domain. If we had such an intervention at school, it would help us understand that the media is not as a mere source of entertainment or news. Awareness would help us recognize when the media is being biased. We’d understand better that an attack on the press freedom is an attack on our freedom. We’d demand diversity in media organisations, and we’d know why state-owned media is a problem. We’d understand what the Indian Express editor Raj Kamal Jha meant when he said recently that a government’s criticism is a badge of honour for a reporter. We’d know why it’s important for a journalist to break news without nationalistic, political, or religious interests.

News deserves to be dissected just like we are able to comfortably dissect political propaganda: “My MP talks about communal issues because he is from this particular party.” Citizens must be empowered enough to be able to see through news the way they can see through politicians.

An intervention on media literacy at school would also cover issues such as political correctness and the larger impact of how our local discourse affects the society at large. These are issues with intangible and very gradual social impact, and hence are difficult to realise and deeply understand for most of us without training.

A huge component of the feminist and caste movements is based in discourse – the way we talk, and the media we consume. Sexist advertisements, common abuses targeted at the feminine, casteist slurs, and xenophobic stereotypes survive because we use them without realising how the usage not only propagates itself, but also builds an inadvertent lack of respect for the vulnerable groups in question.

At a time when the media is entering our lives deeper and deeper, learning how to consume it and be part of it would be an essential addition to school curricula. It would not save us from the populism and taboidisation in the news media, but it would definitely give us a media that feels more accountable to the commonest of citizens than just Twitter critics.

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