This article examines how Ofcom has developed its role in promoting Media Literacy in the UK. It summarizes the key findings of Ofcom’s Media Literacy research, describes some of its current projects to promote Media Literacy and highlights key priorities for the future.
Ten years ago who would have thought that promoting media literacy would be a key priority in 2008 for the UK’s influential media regulator? Promoting media literacy is at the top of the ‘stuff to do list’ for Ofcom the UK’s converged media regulator along with big issues such as digital switchover, next generation networks and the future of public service broadcasting. This really is a tipping point in putting media literacy on the UK’s agenda. So how did the promotion of media literacy achieve this stellar status? The Communications Act 2003, which saw the bringing together of five separate media and telecommunications regulators into one body – the Office of Communications (Ofcom) – also contained a new duty. The duty to promote media literacy requires Ofcom to bring about a better understanding of the nature, selection and management of content that is either broadcast or distributed on mobiles and the internet. Clearly a massive job! Thankfully, the Act doesn’t require Ofcom to do this on its own. We can encourage others to deliver a better understanding too. But why give this duty to Ofcom? The Secretary of State made it clear when she said:
"I believe that in the modern world media literacy will become as important a skill as maths or science. Decoding our media will be as important to our lives as citizens as understanding great literature is to our cultural lives."
The Rt Hon Tessa Jowell MP, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (2004).
And she’s recently been joined in her enthusiasm for media literacy by politicians in Europe. Speaking at the launch of the European Commission’s Communication on Media Literacy in December 2007, Information Society and Media Commissioner Viviane Reding said:
"In a digital era, media literacy is crucial for achieving full and active citizenship. The ability to read and write – or traditional literacy – is no longer sufficient in this day and age. People need a greater awareness of how to express themselves effectively, and how to interpret what others are saying, especially on blogs, via search engines or in advertising. Everyone (old and young) needs to get to grips with the new digital world in which we live. For this, continuous information and education is more important than regulation."
In 2004, when Ofcom began its work to promote media literacy we recognised that we were starting a long journey. We had to build on the foundations of a long tradition of academic debate and research and bring the issue into the mainstream if we were to make an impact. Literature reviews told us what was already known while a full public consultation gave an insight into what our stakeholders thought we should do and helped us define what we thought media literacy actually was. We see media literacy as a combination of skills, knowledge and understanding of the media.
A media literate person can access, understand and create communications in a variety of contexts. In an increasingly converged communications world, people face greater media choice; media literacy provides some of the tools people need to make full use of the opportunities offered, to manage their expectations and to protect themselves and their families from the risks involved. Through a thoughtful reading of the media and confident use of communications technologies people will gain a clearer understanding of the world around them and be better able to engage with it. Once we had established what we meant by media literacy we needed to go out and measure it. We undertook the first ever ‘audit’ of media literacy in the UK (and perhaps anywhere) so we could identify the skills gaps and, over time, measure changes and identify new issues.
The first Media Literacy Audit was published in 2006 and we’ve just completed the second wave of fieldwork which will be published in Spring 2008. Copies of the reports, questionnaires and tables for this large scale quantitative research and much more are available on the Ofcom website. We’ve also drilled down into some of the findings with targeted qualitative research (also available on the website). Findings from the Media Literacy Audit show that measures of interest, awareness and competence vary, most significantly by age. Generally those over 65 and those from low income groups (and under 65) have lower levels of media literacy compared to the UK general population, particularly regarding interest, understanding and take up of services and equipment. While those aged 16-24 generally exhibit higher levels of interest, awareness, and volume and breadth of use, they show lower than average levels of critical understanding. Ofcom recognises that it can’t deliver the required increase in media literacy on its own.
There are many stakeholders better able to address the issues identified by our research. So, whilst we’ve been setting the agenda and promoting the findings of our research we’ve been encouraging stakeholders to consider the needs of their audiences and their customers. Many stakeholders – broadcasters, internet and mobile service providers, voluntary and commercial organisations and in education – have stepped forward and begun to support people by raising awareness, providing information and offering advice. Through its partnerships Ofcom has supported the needs of particular sections of society likely to be left behind. For example, in Silver Surfers Day, a nationwide media literacy campaign for the over 50s, we were able to help thousands take their first steps on the internet. In partnership with the Community Media Association we helped community radio stations produce programmes and announcements about media literacy issues aimed at hard to reach sections of society. And we do much more.
In early 2008 we will launch an online database of activity and projects intended to promote media literacy throughout the UK. This database will help identify what’s going on in addition to highlighting the gaps in provision. The site will make it easy for partners to promote their work, share best practice and undertake collaborative ventures. We’ve made a good start, but we need to continue to build on this work. We’ve been reviewing our priorities for the promotion of media literacy in the UK for the next three years. In the early years of our work, we focused our efforts where we could make the most impact and where we considered the greatest risk to lie for citizens and consumers. Most of our work focused on issues of awareness, access to and control of content. Empowering people with the information and the tools they need to manage their media will remain a priority for Ofcom. However, we recognise it is important for people to be critical, discerning consumers and creators of content. As more content is available online and as people contribute their own thoughts and ideas, they need to better understand the context of the media they see and hear and be aware of their responsibilities as contributors. And in recognition of the global nature of the media and telecommunications sector we are reaching out to our international partners.
In May 2008 we will host an international media literacy conference in London so that researchers and policy makers can come together to share and support each other in what has become a key priority area. And for me, the best sign that we’ve made significant progress is that people have stopped asking me ‘what is media literacy?’ and have started to say ‘we need more of it’.
Head of Media Literacy, Ofcom
 The Media Literacy Audit and supplementary reports were published in Spring 2006. Over 3,200 adults (aged 16+) and 1500 children (8 to 11 and 12 to 15) were interviewed from 8 June to 5 August 2005.