Just a generation ago, the way in which we absorbed the news, critiqued it, put a fence around the perimeters of truth and measured opinion now seems so quaint.
Imagine what it's like for young people.
Being media literate now also means wading through constant waves of junk, sometimes malicious junk, but often simple thoughtlessness, most of it awash on the Web and social media.
Young people must find their way to trusted sources of news and spend the necessary time with them in a rushed society. But then, by engaging with the news, say, on social media, they can easily find themselves again wading through a sea of others, who "like" or "friend" or curse them. And while traditional media is struggling, the tech companies are thriving with their media floodgates open.
Young people are typically resilient. Many understand all this. But attention to media literacy "is essential, because we are consuming media all the time. We are surrounded by it," says Matthew Johnson, director of education at MediaSmarts, an Ottawa organization which focuses on media literacy initiatives.
An understanding, if not an education, in media literacy "was essential a generation ago. It's even more essential today because we spend more time consuming media than anything else we do nowadays."
And, "if you count when we are pursuing multiple media at the same time, which is particularly common among young people, it's not unusual for kids to consume more media in the day than there are hours in the day," he noted.
The question, then, is not simply the importance of media literacy. The question is how we can help children sift through the junk and yet not become jaded to actual journalism. It's hard enough for people in any age group.
One way is to package news as discussion topics for young people. Along these lines, The Globe and Mail has formed a partnership with the We organization, a group which promotes acts of charity with its non-profit We Charity arm and its for-profit Me to We social enterprise.
The partnership will provide online learning and discussion aids on media literacy for families later this month and then, rolling out in the fall, teaching resources for educators, such as lesson packages on media literacy and other curriculum ideas for the classroom.
The program also plans to link to Globe and Mail stories online and have reporters talk to students about the work that went into their reporting.
Media literacy curricula already exist in all provinces and territories across Canada, Mr. Johnson notes. The We and Globe partnership aims to supplement what's being taught and to demonstrate that, in understanding the news, "we're not just looking for one source of information. Is there another way of looking at this type of issue?" says Catherine McCauley, head of We Schools, the We organization's school-focused initiative.
"It's meant to help kids and their parents get a better understanding of the news, how to comprehend the news, how to be critical of it down the road, but right now how to look at current topics in context and ask questions," says Sandra Martin, who heads We Families, another arm aimed at family participation.
Teaching media literacy, though, goes beyond simply questioning individual sources of information. It's about understanding their commercial function and construction. Mr. Johnson at MediaSmarts notes five key concepts which, even from an adult perspective, can be difficult to fully detect and know how to handle.
The first concept is the understanding that media are constructs. "We tend to take instinctively, when we see something, when we hear it, we take it as reality, even when we're seeing it through a screen. Our brains have not evolved with media," he said. "Even when we're seeing something that purports to represent reality, whether it's news or a documentary, even if it was made with the best of intentions, we're seeing something that was selected by the creators."
Other concepts include media having social and political implications, sometimes unconsciously, such as aiming different kinds of cartoons at boys or girls. Also, media are driven to attract audiences and profit. However, to empower users, the remaining concepts revolve around audiences playing a role in attaching meaning to what is read and watched; it's not just one-way information. Also there's the concept that we can better learn how a specific medium makes money, such as online services which tend to hide that from users.
All of these concepts can be tailored for young people. An easy exercise for very young children would be to walk down the cereal aisle in the supermarket. Ask a child about the cereals aimed at them. Why are the boxes so brightly coloured, why the cartoon characters? Replace cereal boxes with sensationalist websites and you have the same exercise, but for adults.