The fabric of democracy: Media freedom and media awareness

The freedom of the media is more than just a matter of regulation. It also boils down to how much importance people attribute to free press, whether the demand for objective, diverse, and accurate information comes from the broad masses rather than small groups of society, and how we think about the role and mission of the press in the culture of democracy. 


Standards undertook a survey to gauge people’s opinion about the state of freedom of the press in Hungary today and the criteria they use in arriving at that opinion. We have reported on the details of overall survey results before. This time, we recall one specific aspect of the survey. Half of the respondents did not take either a negative or positive view, returning a neutral answer to the question of how they would rate the level of freedom of the press on a scale of one to ten. Interestingly however, and contrary to this wishy-washy general response, one third of the subjects sensed a worsening situation in terms of every specific indicator of freedom of the press that we named, including public media programming, diversity, and undue political and economic pressure. About 80% believe that some issues are swept under the carpet or hushed up in the press. The only conclusion we can draw from the lukewarm overall assessment and the depth of tangible criticism is that people assign but a limited significance to the freedom of the press. The majority does not seem to be particularly concerned about the issue, and many people remain unaware in their daily lives of the deeper correlation between the standards of reporting and the operation of democracy.


It has become somewhat of a commonplace to say democracy is something that must be learned. Indeed, the culture of democracy emerges gradually like a skill that one masters step by step. In this way, democracy is also a question of education — a question of passing on and interiorizing democratic values in the process of training citizens for active participation in the affairs of society. This raises a dilemma: When the daily exercise of democracy is not an automatic, visceral reaction for many adults, how can we expect children and the young to comprehend and master the basic principles of democracy? Perhaps the most self-evident of these principles is that we cannot talk about free elections if the freedom of the press is absent.


Approaching the problem from the perspective of psychology rather than simply as a matter of education, we will find that the democratic organization of any community depends on the maturity of the personalities of its members. This maturity can be described by a number of criteria such as the ability of cooperating with others, the tolerance of otherness and difference, and the recognition that life is always to be protected first and above anything else. None of this is possible unless the individual has a capacity for empathy, for recognizing the other as a feeling and thinking entity akin to himself, for controlling aggression and anxiety; and if he is just as capable of self-reliance as of trusting others in his narrower and broader environment.


In the network society, the interiorization of democratic values increasingly depends on media awareness, media erudition, and media education. The introduction of Web 2.0 deeply transformed the structure of publicity to the point where user-generated content and community media, with their power to shape opinion, represent a decisive slice of the publicity pie. How and to what end the community exploits these new channels makes all the difference. Equally crucial is whether the users — the citizens — are able to pick and interpret the information important to them from the vast amount of knowledge dumped upon them daily. Do they know how to judge the authenticity and reliability of the information? Do they find their way around the multitude of media genres? Are they aware of the basic principles of operation that characterize media?


The kind of education able to meet the challenges of the new media environment will teach the competence to gain and extract information along with problem-solving skills. By the same token, the passing on of democratic values presupposes teaching methods emphasizing cooperative techniques, social competencies, as well as role modeling by adults and educators.


Although the new National Core Curriculum makes an attempt to respond to these changes, the execution seems rather doubtful judging from information available in the public domain and from professional experts. Media studies as a field is definitely relegated to the background in the Core Curriculum. Contrary to earlier optimistic expectations, media studies have been integrated with drawing in the lower elementary classes instead of being taught as a separate subject in its own right. Similarly, in the upper elementary years — where it has been a separate subject in the past — been media is now lumped together with visual education. What emerges from the surprisingly low weekly number of hours devoted to the subject is the easily decoded message that it is not worth wasting too much attention on. Once can hardly expect competence development from this attitude, which seems to regard media studies as no more than an annual teaching load quota to be met. In short, the situation is not exactly roses and sunshine.


So much for the panoramic view. If we zoom in for a close-up shot, we will find a few positive things on a much smaller scale, such as the civil initiative MOPED, funded by the Open Society Institute, which is a program package linking the development of media awareness to teaching core democratic values. MOPED is expressly aimed at the youngest generations, offering  kindergarten and elementary school children and their teachers free-access classes. This fulfills a vital function, as these generations have been left out of the traditional forms of media education, and also because acquainting children with the ways of media use is something worth undertaking at a very young age.


The MOPED package consists of narrative and audiovisual materials as well as a variety of downloadable teaching aid and methodology guides. The purpose behind designing the program was to provide teachers with practical and tangible assistance with teaching media awareness and media use in their classes. The democratic values are principally embodied in cooperative learning techniques, group work, and role modeling by the teacher. The high-priority topics of the package include the role and importance of news and information in our daily lives, as well as the social functions of media, particularly in informing the general public.


Thematically, the package is structured like a spiral, whereby each topic covered reappears in every age group, albeit representing a different ratio and a with a different depth of study each time. These modules include the development of reflective media utilization skills, the analysis of the pupils’ own media experiences, the tools of expression characteristic of media texts, the various functions of media, and the uses of the Internet. Instead of focusing on lexical knowledge, the program offers a playful and creative approach to foster the cognitive process and the mastering of skills needed to process information and place it in its proper context.


The program pays special attention to parents, without whom the children would never reach the desirable level of media awareness. Concurrently with the children’s classes, sessions are offered to parent groups to discuss their daily experiences, conflicts and solutions concerning the ways in which their children use various media. While the program obviously concentrates on child development, it makes no secret of its objective to get the parents involved, and to shape their own attitudes and media awareness in the process.


It seems that the government, including education policy makers, has a hard time properly conceiving its role and duty in enhancing media awareness. This leaves civil initiatives and programs such a MOPED to fill the gaps in media education, provided they are lucky enough to connect with an open-minded headmaster or kindergarten principal and, through them, with enthusiastic educators.