Time to promote Visual Literacy

Ashok Ogra
Nowadays we are confronted with deluge of information – lending validity to what the noted historian John Naisbitt remarked in his critically acclaimed book Megatrends that in the long run ‘visual narrative will overwhelm the literary narrative.’ That is why if we ever choke, it will perhaps be on a surfeit of information – more in audio-visual format – since we have much more by way of both news and views everyday than we can make sense of. And if we ever lose contact with the world we live in it will be because of an over-exposure to seductive images and unaccountable Whatsapp University.
It is true the new technologies make for easier dissemination of news and entertainment. At the same time, it turns both into commodities and facilitates wider distribution of ‘garbage information’.
We all know that media is everywhere but is often a poor source of unbiased and objective information. That is why what we are witnessing is new technology platforms/ tools being used to inform as well as disinform.
The audience is hoodwinked into believing whatever the TV networks/ social media dish out – not knowing that creators use a multitude of techniques to grab viewer attention, and they will often craft the text to appeal to a specific audience. Audience is unable to see if the news presentation contains actual substance or if it’s all smoke and mirrors. Ads, news, movies, TV shows, social media and many other types of media- all want us to accept their messages at face value.
We fail to look beneath the surface and ask questions to decode what these media messages are really saying. In order to have an informed opinion on a given subject, it’s essential to have a basic media literacy education. If we teach children how to read and write, it is high time we also prepare them how to read images, negotiate information available on social media.
It is against this background that Media Literacy initiatives have gained traction. UNESCO organizes Global Media and Information Week every year to review the progress achieved towards ‘Media and Information Literacy for All’. The National Telemedia Council defines media literacy as ‘the ability to choose, to understand- within the context of content, form/style, impact, industry and production – to question, to evaluate, to create and or produce and to respond thoughtfully to the media we consume. It is mindful viewing, reflective judgment.”
The key aim is to promote the critical thinking skills that enable people to make independent choices- particularly with regard to interpreting the information that they receive through various mass media vehicles. Media study at once opens the doors to perception.
In this regard the book titled Media Literacy: Keys to Interpreting Media Messages authored by Prof Art Silverblatt, Professor Emeritus of Media Communications at WebsterUniversity, St. Louis, Missouri, Prof. Anubhuti Yadav, Professor of New Media at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, India and DrVedabhyasKundu, Programme Officer at Gandhi Smriti and DarshanSamiti – assumes significance as it makes solid contribution towards appreciating the need for promoting media literacy.
According to the authors Media literacy is the ability to identify different types of media and understand the messages they’re sending. There are text messages, memes, viral videos, social media, video games, advertising, and more. But all media shares one thing: someone created it and it was created for a reason and understanding that reason is the basis of media literacy.
The book covers print, photography, film, radio, television, and new media, and instructs readers on how to take a critical approach to media and interpret the information overload that is disseminated via mass communication.
The current pandemic has been marked by widespread misinformation and rumours, especially through social media, that many, including the United Nations Secretary-General, have termed an ‘infodemic’. However, these challenges should not have been unexpected. They are the result of the massive technological shifts in recent decades that have completely upended the ways in which we communicate and interact and inform ourselves.
The digital age has made it easy for anyone to create media. We don’t always know who created something, why they made it, and whether it’s credible. The authors have illustrated how messages can be manipulated by referring to the Pakistan’s UN envoy Maleeha Lodhi who made an embarrassing gaffe when she tried to pass off a photograph of a girl wounded in an Israeli airstrike in Gaza as that of a Kashmiri youth wounded by a pellet gun fired by the Indian army in Kashmir.
What ails radio and television is far more elegantly summed up in the words of an American writer who says that “the media mediates between us and raw reality and the mediation more and more replaces reality for us ?”
The authors offer detailed reasoning how media literacy allows one to identify the influences and meaning behind media messages, whether one is involved in media production or media consumption. Whether ones is reading a newspaper, watching TV, using a social media platform, playing video games, or engaging with any other forms of media, media literacy skills allow one to assess the author’s credibility and intent.
Put simply, media literacy aims to enable individuals to think critically about the media and the information they consume by engaging in a process of inquiry.
The book is divided into three parts: Part I presents a theoretical framework for critical analysis of media text; Part II gives students the opportunity to apply this methodological framework to a variety of media formats; and Part III consists of brief consideration of mass media issues (violence in the media, media and children, media and social change, and the global communication.) The authors have taken pains to present a summary at the end of each chapter for easy recapitulation.
Media literacy initiatives must be treated as a public good, in the same way as the water we drink and the air we breathe. Almost seventy percent of the world’s young people are now online. Every day, people watch more than a billion hours of video on YouTube2, and almost two billion of us connect to Facebook, with many using these platforms as their primary source of news and information about the world.
The TV News networks often resort to packaging news with entertainment and or sensational elements so as to attract greater eyeballs. And yet it is no coincidence that we are seeing trust in information falling to record lows globally, most dramatically for information found online. The authors have provided with a fine blue print for strengthening media literacy initiatives. The topics covered remain under focus. Brought out by Kanishka Publishers, the book is a valuable addition to our understanding the media literacy and its importance. Even if we agree with the Canadian media Guru Marshall McLuhan who saw the advent of television as a means to ‘skip the stage of literacy and walk straight into post-literate society,’ high volume of information now at our fingertips thanks to smartphones and search engines, today’s students will need to become more efficient at filtering what they read, see and hear. In other words, it is more important now than ever before to teach media literacy. Therefore, deconstructing media messages is a critical skill in our media-saturated culture, as it helps you cut through the noise and reach your own conclusions.
(The author works for reputed Apeejay Education Society)