History of Media Literacy, part 1: Crash Course Media Literacy #2


Questions of media literacy – what it means,
who should have it, and how they should get it –
are as old as media itself. Technologies like smartphones and the internet
have made media literacy more important than ever. But concerns about media and their effects
have been around a long, long time. Many of the arguments for and against media
have shaped how new technologies, industries, and
cultures have developed throughout history. Media literacy as a term or a field didn’t
become “a thing” until around the 1960’s. Before it became the work of communications
scholars and media professionals, thinking about
communication was (and often still is) led by philosophers, psychologists, sociologists,
linguists, and critical theorists. It’s an ancient problem that even Plato,
the classical Greek philosopher, thought a
lot about. [Theme Music] In the Phaedrus, a dialogue he wrote around 370
BCE, Plato imagines a conversation between his teacher,
Socrates, and one of their friends, Phaedrus. Socrates and Phaedrus start off talking about love
and end up debating the best way to give a speech. But you know what was really bugging Socrates, what
he thought was the biggest problem in Greek society? Writing things down. He writes, “If men learn this,
it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory
because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from
within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for
memory, but for reminder. That’s right.
Plato was dark. He thought leaving your words on paper, just
lying around, would encourage others to use
them out of context. If you were there in person, though, you
could defend your thoughts and talk them out
with the listener. And if you’ve ever said something dumb on
the internet, you know the man’s got a point. So the root of media literacy concerns is really
just straight up literacy, learning to read and write. In Plato’s day, and for centuries after, information
was often shared by word of mouth and, for most
people, education was informal. If you were lucky and rich, you might’ve
shared info through hand-written media like letters
and codices (a type of pre-book book). Or you might’ve studied alongside a master or
scholar and learned from handmade manuscripts. These were very expensive and time
consuming to make, so very few people had the
means to become educated and literate. But all that changed when Johannes Gutenberg
invented the movable type printing press in 1452. Suddenly, print media was easier to produce, and
books and pamphlets could be shared crazy fast – well, as fast as your fastest horse could go,
this was the 15th century. As media became cheaper, more people had the
means to become literate. For people in power, this was a huge problem. It’s much easier for a government to control
or persuade their subjects with the word of
law when most of them can’t read. Organized religion had a similar problem. Before the printing press was invented, most of
the church-going public couldn’t even read the Bible;
they relied on the clergy to interpret it. In 1517, German theologian Martin Luther started
pushing the buttons of the Roman Catholic Church
by publishing his 95 Theses. He claimed the church didn’t and shouldn’t
have the only power to interpret scripture. He even translated the Bible from Latin to
German to grant access to everyday people. The idea that suddenly parishioners could interpret
the Bible for themselves was a major shake-up. His revelations eventually led to the Protestant
Reformation and a democratization of religion
in the West. (Though, Luther’s impact wasn’t all roses
– today his more antisemitic views are pretty
hard to stomach.) The history of media literacy closely follows
the history of media technology – with each
new invention, discussions and fears follow. Just as Plato was wary of the written word,
government and religious leaders were very
wary of the printed word. Those in power wanted to be gatekeepers for
information – and prohibiting access to media,
of course, makes media literacy impossible. Media literacy really becomes important three
centuries later, with a new medium – the world’s
first MASS media: the newspaper. Publications of local news date back to Plato’s
era. But the type we think of today – a regularly published
document quickly and cheaply covering major events for
the masses – didn’t really form until the 17th century. And at first, no surprise, most of them were
government-controlled. But as the print media industry began to take
shape, people fought for a free press. This was especially true in the American colonies,
where the struggle for an independent press was tied
up with their struggle for freedom from British control. By the early 1800’s the newspaper begins
to become a democratizing force. This is the era of the Penny Press. Called the Penny Press because they cost
– you guessed it – a penny, these papers were
incredibly popular. They spread like wildfire, especially among
the middle and lower classes. Suddenly, anyone, even an unlikely street kid
without two pennies to rub together could be in the
know and feel like they were King of the World! Newspapers weren’t just about educating
the masses. They were also about making lots of money. Penny paper owner Benjamin H. Day, printed
this motto atop every issue of The New York Sun: “The object of this paper is to lay before the public,
at a price within the means of every one, all the news of the day, and at the same time
offer an advantageous medium for advertisements.” By the mid 1800’s, the penny presses were making
so much money from ads that people worried about
publishers choosing profit over truth. The more publishers relied on advertising revenue
to pay the bills, the more sensational papers became. This trend came to a head around the turn
of the 20th century. In the late 1890’s, Joseph Pulitzer (Pulitzer
like the Prize), a self-made, traditional newspaper
man who owned the New York World, and William Randolph Hearst, a young mining
heir who wanted to emulate Pulitzer and owned
the New York Journal, went head to head. They both wanted their papers in as many
hands as humanly possible to attract bigger
and better advertisers. The two papers began ramping up their stories,
focusing less on getting the facts straight and more
on getting more readers and more cash. This became known as Yellow Journalism. Yellow journalists used bold, scary or misleading
headlines; faked interviews and exaggerated stories; and used lots of splashy pictures and
illustrations, and did anything else they
could do to sell a paper. They prioritized sensationalism over professionalism
and journalistic ethics. They thrived on scandals, sports, crime, and
self-promotion. Good thing we don’t have to worry about
that kind of thing today. Let’s head into the Thought Bubble for a
closer look. Here we have a classic example from the peak
of yellow journalism. This article is from Pulitzer’s The New
York World, published in February 1898. The main front page story is about the sinking
of a U.S. battleship, the Maine, in Havana Harbor
a few days earlier. Cuba, which was colonised by Spain, was in
the middle of a revolution. The U.S.S. Maine was there as a show of power to
protect U.S. interests in Cuban independence. But it was also a gesture to ease tensions
that were growing between the U.S. and Spain. Then suddenly, in the middle of the night
February 15, an explosion tore apart the Maine. It sunk, killing 260 men. Let’s take a look at this headline about
the sinking. “Maine Explosion Caused By Bomb or Torpedo?”
question mark Well that’s not a suspicious use of punctuation
or anything. Even today, the cause of the Maine’s sinking
is unclear. A naval inquiry held in 1898 concluded a mine
laid in the harbor had exploded. But today, some experts believe the explosion
was internal, caused by a coal bunker fire. EIther way, two days later in 1898, no one
knew what happened. But Pulitzer’s paper didn’t hesitate before
taking a guess. During their stand-off, both Pulitzer and
Hearst stoked tensions between the U.S. and
Spain to sell papers. With this headline the New York World
helped to spread rumors about enemy
involvement in the sinking. Notice the huge, ginormous illustration. It takes up nearly the whole page! This visual re-telling of the explosion – complete
with bodies strewn around and flames shooting
into the air – is so dramatic. Since the paper didn’t have a photograph
of the event, they dramatized it with a gory
graphic to grab your attention. Finally, take a look at the subheadlines (often
called the “deck” of a story). They’re full of equally dramatic tales from
the scene of the supposed crime. But if you look closely, the writing signals
they’re just feeding the rumor mill. The “facts” the article claims are really
just suggestions and overheard talk, with
no solid confirmed information. Thanks Thought Bubble. You can see from this example that yellow
journalism isn’t trying to sell truth and facts. It sells a story. By taking a closer look, we discover strategies
publishers use to entertain or distract us – like staying
away from the facts and leaning into drama. The race to sell as many papers as possible
was – and still is – a race to the bottom. And publishers know all too well how to make
a buck from a good story. (And in case you’re wondering: They called it Yellow Journalism because Pulitzer
and Hearst’s papers fought over which one would print
a popular comic called The Yellow Kid. It was a strange time.) Yellow Journalism, then and now, helps remind
us of those ancient questions – what happens
when we rely on media? Should everyone have access to it? What happens if that access is exploited? Media literacy is nothing new, but it’s
adapting and changing all the time. Where media literacy once required a
mastery of language and a quill, the age of the penny press required the
ability to analyze headlines at a glance and
tell truth from sensationalism. With every new medium, a new set of skills
is needed to navigate it all – and we haven’t
even gotten to TV. That’s for next time, during The History
of Media Literacy Part II. For now, I’m Jay Smooth.
We’ll see you next week. Crash Course Media Literacy is filmed in the
Dr. Cheryl C. Kinney Studio in Missoula, MT. It’s made with the help of all of these nice
people, and our animation team is Thought Cafe. Crash Course is a Complexly production. If you want to imagining the world complexly
with us, check out some of our other channels
like Eons, Animal Wonders, and SciShow Psych. If you’d like to keep Crash Course free for everyone,
forever, you can support the series at Patreon, a crowdfunding platform that allows
you to support the content you love. Thank you to all of our patrons for making Crash
Course possible with their continued support.

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