Reading the Media

As if to illustrate the fact that there is a greater-than-ever need to develop a media literacy in our young people today, the media have excelled themselves this week in presenting the curriculum review in Scotland as a revolutionary act aimed at undermining the establishment and bringing down the country. The TES started the ball rolling last Friday with a depressing call from some headteachers, justifying their resistance to change, telling us that there are some young people who are just not able to fit the curriculum and who should be allowed to leave school as soon as we can make it convenient for them to do so. Glasgow’s Herald Society picked up the theme on Tuesday, lining up a number of familiar faces to tell us that any attempts to make the curriculum more inclusive and learner-centred were doomed to failure, while  Newsnight Scotland on the same day was only too happy to reinforce the message of doom and gloom by inviting Edinburgh University’s Professor Lindsay Paterson, “one of Scotland’s foremost education experts”, to tell us what a mess we are in. It’s worth repeating verbatim some of Professor Lindsay’s unopposed attack on Curriculum for Excellence:-

“There’s a lot of change being proposed, but what is completely absent is any sense of a unifying educational philosophy. There is no sense at all that somebody has stood back and asked, What is education for? What do we want education in Scotland to do for us over the next two or three decades? And then, working back from these big goals, what would be the best curriculum and assessment that might reach these aims.”

Which is………er…………precisely what has been happening over the past four or five years! Am I missing something?


8 thoughts on “Reading the Media

  1. There is indeed a greater than ever need to develop media literacy in our young people (and our not so young people). The articles and ‘opinions’ mentioned above provide a salutary lesson in how the media works in the increasingly stage managed public landscape in Scotland. A press release or directive about what constitutes the latest ‘crisis’ is disseminated from a particular, politically motivated source. Compliant media outlets then recycle and modify these directives and dress them up as ‘news’, ‘issues’, ‘hot topics’ ‘deabting points’ etc. Quotes from readily available ‘spokespersons’ punctuate the articles in an attempt to create a veneer of lively and varied discourse (which would be fine if the spokespersons were not all saying the same thing). The Curriculum Review is in some sense merely the latest manufactured ‘crisis’ – another one will be along tomorrow. Incidentally, it would be interesting to discover, given the background to and provenance of the curriculum review, how long the doom-mongers have held their ‘views’ as expressed above.

    Media Literacy should be about asking one fundamental question – ‘why?’ – and, worryingly, that question needs to be couched increasingly in terms of the implications for democracy.

  2. As a former journalist (boo! hiss!) I can see both sides of the debate – if someone goes to the bother of writing a critical press release or making a comment they have a right to have their voice heard. I think the issue is to what extent and how much credence their views should be given. And by putting it in print the media automaticallly confers a certain status on those views.

    It’s more common that many people who distrust the media now turn to bloggers for other views and, sometimes rightly or sometimes wrongly, consider bloggers to be more more trustworthy sources.

    Media literacy should address this and consider whether professional journalist or media organisation, regardless of the occasional blunder, is a consistently more trustworthy source of information. Understanding the media and the way it works is crucial but continually blaming the media for being supine or manipulated could end up leaving us with nowhere to go for news.

    Or can we filter the internet for the first-hand information ourselves so we don’t need any intermediaries to interpret and select our news for us?


  3. Thanks Lucy,
    I assume you are using the word “critical” in “critical press release” in the sense of important or vital rather than its other meaning. The issue of “trustworthy sources” of information is of course at the heart of media literacy, as is the notion of “first-hand information” because as we all know two eye-witnesses to an event will tell two different stories depending on cultural differences, past experiences, inherited prejudices etc etc.

  4. I think you raise some interesting issues, Lucy. When I referred to press releases in my initial contribution above, I was suggesting that many of these came from a particular, readily identifiable source (the words ‘Scotland’ and Office’ are involved!). That’s fair enough, that source is entitled to express its views. But, from my perspective, what’s disturbing is that our media outlets in Scotland increasingly present these and other such partial views as the objective ‘news’ agenda. It’s a fact that there are no major media outlets in Scotland (including those Bill mentions in his initial piece) which support the party currently forming the Scottish Government (and it’s worth asking ourselves where else in the world that situation obtains). I don’t think this uniformity of public discourse can constitute a healthy state of affairs, and I’d contend that this homogeneity must of itself debase the quality of information that we receive. It’s common practice for articles sharing the same basic standpoint to be recycled across various media outlets (there are examples of written articles being reprinted verbatim on different days in supposedly ‘different’ newspapers like the Herald and the Scotsman). We’ve seen two examples of this tendency this week: first the Sunday Times printed a ‘survey’ (a survey commissioned, it turned out, by that bastion of impartiality, the … er… Sunday Times) which ‘showed’ that Scotland had levels of public sector spending comparable with only Cuba and Iraq. The gist of this article was faithfully reprinted the next day in The Scotsman and even in the Metro, and doubtless in other outlets too. A clear message underpins the articles – Scots are dependent, monolithic, lacking entrepreneurship and vigour and Scotland is akin to (to employ the jargon) ‘failed states’ such as Cuba and Iraq. A couple of days later on STV we heard the story about the woman being attacked in Aberdeen by a drunken thug on the basis that she had an English accent. Next day, BBC Radio Scotland had a phone-in in which they invited contributions from anyone else in Scotland who’d been attacked on the basis that they were English, and the Aberdeen story was given significant prominence in the likes of the Scotsman. The incident is inexcusable, but since it’s been given so much coverage what are we intended to conclude? That this was an isolated attack carried out by a drunken moron? Or that a nationalist government somehow fosters increased racism/bigotry on the part of Scots? In the context of this kind of public discourse, we’re not presented with an intelligent debate about such issues as the Curriculum review – rather, the issues themsleves, whether it be CfE or the banking crisis or local government funding, merely become, in the hands of Scottish media outlets, convenient sticks with which to beat the current Scottish Government.

    I haven’t even touched upon what we are to make of journalists ’embedded with coalition forces’ bringing us the news, or people standing on the Israel/Gaza border giving us the news with the minor proviso that they’re not actually allowed to report on it! In circumstances like these and the ones in the Scottish context, ‘journalism’ is reduced to ventriloquism – although it’s open to question whether the media are the dummies, or we are for accepting this!

  5. Actually, I meant crictical in the sense of ‘criticising’ or being negative!

    I suppose what I consider to be media literacy is exactly what you’ve described Alan – understanding that no media outlet is without bias of some sort; that journalists are embedded so that necessarily affects their reporting; that newpapers manufacture stories by doing surveys; that journalism can be lazy, recycled and completely dependent on what resources the media outlet has. Also that bad news is ‘better’ than good news because it sells; As I was taught in journalism school ‘If it bleeds, it leads’.

    People can, and in fact I believe they already do, distinguish between what they consider ‘ real’ news and what they consider to be fluff. But this is where the internet can perhaps help, because if in doubt people can seek out the original comments/statistics/video footage for themselves. Which is of course what professional journalists are supposed to do, and the best of them still do.

    The issue of homogenity of viewpoint in Scotland is very interesting, also the issue of whether just because the media present a certain viewpoint whether that means it determines people’s views – I haven’t time, I’m afraid, to find the survey but I’m fairly sure that a piece of research in the 1980s into the views of Sun readers found that despite the paper’s virulent anti-Labour stance at that time, the majority of its readers voted Labour. The Sun claimed influence over its readers but the closer analysis suggested that in actuallity the Sun (and other papers) actually reflect the tides of change rather than determine them.

    So yes, currently there is no major media outlet in Scotland calling for independence but at the same time, neither is the nationalist government… In fact it can easily be argued it was their avoidance of that issue that enabled them to win the election so homogenity of view may actually represent a general, broad-brush consensus.


  6. I agree the jury’s still out on whether it was ‘the Sun wot won it’ (or wins it) Lucy – I think you’re right in that increasingly people are being turned off by biased saturation coverage and beginning to pick holes in this. Let’s hope that continues.

    As for the nationalist government avoiding the issue of independence.. well, there’s a commitment to holding a referendum on that very subject in 2010 in their manifesto from 2007. They may be accused of many things (and are again in today’s media!) but, for the moment, that referendum remains a firm commitment..

  7. One thing your discussion proves I think is my contention that a “media literacy” is more critical than ever, so that individuals are at least able to form an opinion on the efficacy of what they are reading, hearing or watching. And I think you guys need to be writing a blog of your own if you aren’t doing so already!


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