What is literacy?

It’s time for new definitions of literacy just as we need new definitions of media.

I’ve been talking with lots of people lately – academics, foundation and government folks – about the need for more media literacy training today as media is becoming more expansive and thus confusing.

But I emphasize that media literacy today must encompass not just the consumption but the creation of media. Media literacy means being able to find and discriminate among sources of information and being able to create content and understand how it fits into the larger sphere of information and identity.

But now break media literacy down into its component definitions. What does literacy itself mean today: reading, finding, discriminating, what else?

An annual survey of literacy out of Central Connecticut State University frets that declining newspaper readership is a sign of reduced literacy. No surprise: I’ll argue with that.

Jack Miller, author of the survey, says: “This study attempts to capture one critical index of our nation’s well-being — the literacy of its major cities–by focusing on six key indicators of literacy: newspaper circulation, number of bookstores, library resources, periodical publishing resources, educational attainment, and Internet resources.” But, of course, the last of those has an impact on and even redefines all the other indicators.

And the problem is that even in its definition of the internet, the study still relies on views of media in pre-internet terms: “1. Number of Internet book orders per capita; 2. Number of unique visitors per capita to a city’s internet version newspaper; 3. Number of webpage views per capita to a city’s internet version newspaper.” What about reading – and interacting with and creating – new media not related to the old?

I don’t want to mischaracterize Miller’s work. He is trying to connect various activities associated with literacy. The story about his survey says:

That concern was that declining newspaper readership was caused by increasing online newspaper readers. This was the same assumption that having a book available online meant fewer local booksellers and less use of libraries.

However, what Miller found was just the opposite.

Examining the data for this and his past surveys, Miller found that top ranking cities for library use also have more booksellers, and that cities with more booksellers also have more people buying books online, and that cities with higher per capita newspaper circulation rates also had a higher proportion of people reading newspapers online.

“Cities that rank highly in one form of literate behavior are likely to rank highly in the other forms and practices of literacy,” Miller said.

He noted that a literate society tends to practice many forms of literacy not just one or another.

Good. But we still need to redefine literacy – as we also understand that the internet is not a medium. To quote Doc Searls, the internet is a place. It’s a means of making connections and creating. I went around this track a few times with Howard Weaver in a different discussion. He said that “the internet is NOT a source of news; it’s a delivery system.” I argued that the internet is not just a means of delivery for one-way distribution of media as a product; the internet is a means of collaboration, creation, and curation (alliteration unintentional). Paper is a medium; the internet is not. Jay Rosen also pointed to the problem of trying to view these overlapping structures as if they were separate when he tweeted regarding Pew’s latest: “‘Net Overtakes Newspapers As News Source’ is a weird headline because newspapers are the main ‘source’ of the Net’s news.” (For now, I’ll add.) And what’s a newspaper when a newspaper goes online? 140 characters later, Jay added: “People had organized their media headsets like so: print, radio, TV, now Internet! Re-organizing is so painful they’d rather not make sense.” The dictionary’s behind, too: “Media – the main means of mass communication (esp. television, radio, newspapers, and the Internet).” Except it’s not just mass now and it’s not just communication and the internet isn’t a medium; other than that….

So back to the start: We must redefine media as we redefine literacy.

Media is no longer broken into separate means of presentation and delivery; they are all mixed in together online (as I tell journalism students, while hacks in my era had to decide among media once for a career, now they must make that decision each time they go to gather and tell a story). The internet, as a replacement for media, brings in so much more functionality: the ability to search, create, analyze, curate, track, interact, follow….

Media literacy, then, must embrace all those activities and skills, not just reading but:
* knowing how to focus on a need for information and express that by crafting a query to find an answer;
* knowing how to judge the relevance and reliability of sources – including the PageRank-like skill of judging sources on sources;
* knowing how to create (and remix) content across all media types;
* knowing how to collaborate;
* understanding the impact of facts on perspective and perspective on opinion;
* understanding the impact of identity and anonymity;
* understanding the relationship of pieces of information that make up a larger story via links;
* understanding how to make and find corrections…

And on and on. There’s a lot of good thinking on the topic: Here’s Dan Gillmor’s list of principles of media literacy. Howard Schneider is running a Knight-backed curriculum in news literacy at Stony Brook; here’s a list of Schneider’s key skills. Here’s an article on Ofcom’s efforts in media literacy in the UK, which says: “A media literate person can access, understand and create communications in a variety of contexts.”

I’d like to see more discussion of new definitions of media, literacy, and media literacy. What do you think? What are the new definitions and new skills?