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Teaching Media Literacy in Times of Protest: A Conversation with Professor Greg Downey

February 24, 2011 by Doug Worsham

Last week, while scanning through updates by UW-Madison faculty, staff, and students on Twitter, our social media team noticed a particularly compelling update from Professor Greg Downey:

Twitter Status update by Greg Downey @gjdowney: "Threw out my video games lecture; instead used J201 this morning to talk about critical media literacy in times of protest. #wiunion"

Not able to attend this Journalism 201 class ourselves, we interviewed Professor Downey to find out how the discussion went, and to get his tips on critical media literacy at a crucial time in Wisconsin history.

@UWLSS: We were really intrigued by your discussion topic last week. How did the discussion go? How did your students react?

Prof. Greg Downey Well, it’s always hard to hold a discussion in a lecture hall of nearly 400 students, but I think they appreciated the fact that I was taking the time to put together a “just in time” classroom performance for them that really connected the themes we were discussing in the course — like, “does the mass media in its current configuration serve our many needs as consumers and citizens?” — to the events swirling around their lives.  I had a general idea of the kinds of themes I wanted to raise, but my teaching strategy in a situation like this is to begin by asking the students to do some structured brainstorming and self-reflection about their own practices.  So, for example, I asked them what news source they would turn to first to try to figure out what was going on with the budget repair bill — the answer I got was, “The New York Times” — so we brought that day’s NYT web page up on the big screen and started dissecting the coverage.  Asking the students, “Why would you trust the Times?” got us into the issues of reporter experience, loyalty to a brand, and accusations of both “liberal bias” and “conservative bias” in the media.  From there we moved on to a discussion of the pros and cons of other information options: relying on local news reporting, where journalists have built up relationships with local sources and officials for years; looking critically at press releases from the political or economic players in a debate; or trusting firsthand evidence like going to a rally yourself.  I probably raised more questions than I answered, but that’s OK because we will spend the whole rest of the semester coming back to these issues again and again.

@UWLSS: Sounds like an amazing class! Were there any surprises along the way?

Prof. Greg Downey I was surprised that many of my students — especially considering that they had self-selected to take a class on mass communication — hadn’t really been following the issue very closely.  I got the sense that many of them weren’t talking about it in any other classes except mine.  Initially, I offered a place on our course weblog for them to discuss the events of the week, but I only received two responses.  After my impromptu lecture on media strategies, though, I offered an extra incentive for them to enter into the conversation (one point to replace a missed or failed quiz grade) and many more students spoke up online.  I hope our discussion spilled over into other courses they were taking that week.

@UWLSS: Do you have any tips for students that are either feeling overwhelmed by the news or just getting started with social media?

Prof. Greg Downey I’d say, don’t get distracted by every single Google News headline or cable news crawl or smartphone tweet or Facebook status update — it’s a never-ending flood.  Rather, find one or two longer, in-depth, summarizing, news analysis pieces and really read them carefully.  We have to get away from the idea that “knowing the latest little thing that’s happened” is the same as “being informed about an issue.”

@UWLSS: What aspect of Critical Media Literacy do you think is often forgotten? Do you have any tips for consciously developing a critical eye in a social-media world?

Prof. Greg Downey I think we forget how insulated our media environments are —  how the media that we choose to follow often reinforce our preexisting knowledge and worldview about a situation — and so we have to take steps to ensure that our social media use doesn’t just contribute to this isolation, but can help us escape it as well.  For example, several of my faculty colleagues on Facebook (I’m thinking particularly of Professor Kris Olds in the Geography department) have started using their status feeds as windows into their own diverse media diets; by following the links they posted, I found out a lot more about the context of the budget repair bill from sources I don’t normally read.  Another example has been playing out in Twitter all week.  Many of the student activists currently occupying the State Capitol Rotunda were tweeting to each other, and to wider audiences, using the shared “#wiunion” tag to organize their comments.  However, soon opponents of the protests (that is, supporters of the budget repair bill) started using the same tag on their posts, to try to disrupt the protest narrative.  I’m not sure if either side learned anything from the co-mingling of their “Tweets” in this way, but it definitely helped expose each side to its own counter-argument and counter-assumptions.

@UWLSS: That brings to mind the old debate about the “Wisdom of the Crowds” versus “The Echo Chamber Effect.” How do you think this debate is currently playing out over social media on campus? What impact do you think social media has had on the debate?

Prof. Greg Downey I don’t think about it in that kind of a continuum — that media audiences who engage in “productive consumption” of information, both reading it and recirculating it all at once, either exhibit “wisdom” because of the hidden hand of their aggregate judgment, or function as an “echo chamber” that merely amplifies the worst biases and stereotypes without leaving any room for rational debate or dissent.  Rather, I think we have to look at the ways that events like political-economic protests illuminate the ongoing connections between different kinds of media — the ways ideas might circulate through minds and media in new patterns.  For example, in the events of this week, we’ve seen news made by individual bodies and voices who have gathered at the same place at the same time (the oldest form of mass communication, really).  Certainly a lot of the coordination that made such gatherings possible has happened over Facebook, email, Twitter, instant messaging, texting, and the like.  But what’s the point of a mass protest?  To get your issue, framed in your way, portrayed in a sympathetic and emotional light, into the news agenda of more mainstream (widely-consumed and influential) print, online and broadcast news sources.  And that kind of exposure and investigation can then influence powerful decision-makers, or broad voting publics, or key financial supporters.  We saw the same pattern play out in the presidential campaign of 2008: financial donations and television commercials in swing states still mattered.  (It was the most expensive campaign in history!)  But the fundraising efforts for that advertising now had an additional online location, and the consequences of that advertising now reverberated in new online ways, thanks to social media networks.  Building multi-faceted support for political-economic change — or against such change — works on all of these levels simultaneously.  Social media is a tool that serves to connect individuals in both body and mind, news organizations both new and old, and financial backers both large and small, in innovative ways.

@UWLSS: Thanks for the interview! We’ll keep watching you on Twitter! And we hope you get a chance to return to that video game lecture some time soon!

Prof. Greg Downey Oh, the video games lecture will be back.  I can’t resist having my students play “Pac Man” on the big screen in 3650 Humanities.


For more of Professor Downey’s thoughts on media literacy and the debates and protests in Wisconsin, see his blog post: Helpful hints for deciding “What is happening?” and “Where do I stand?”

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