A conversation with Kristina Hristova from the Coalition for Media Literacy and Factcheck.bg about the importance of understanding where, what and how to read
We often talk about how literate (or not) other people are, but in fact all forms of education currently available to us fail to develop a very important literacy skill for our contemporary life, a skill that we obviously desperately need given today's information wars, fake news, misleading publications, media funded and written by unknown figures, just like we need that endangered species called investigative journalism. The existence of the Coalition for Media Literacy is an important step toward filling these gaps. It brings together organizations working in the fields of education, journalism and civic participation, representatives from academic institutions and experts in media literacy, whose goal is to support and develop this shared mission, and to actively work toward the inclusion of media literacy in the educational process as well as society more generally. The goal of the Coalition is to develop critical thinking and creative skills, above all, in children and young people exploring the digital media world, but also in all other age groups in Bulgaria.
In June of this year, the Coalition presented the concerning results of the first national survey of digital media skills of high school students in Bulgaria, carried out in partnership with the Ministry of Education. Meanwhile, they have also been conducting dozens of trainings on media literacy for adults in large and small cities throughout the country, led by prominent journalists and media professionals, including Miroljuba Benatova, Mariana Alexandrova, Angel Georgiev and Georgi Marchev.
We spoke to the chairwoman of the coalition, Kristina Hristova, who is also a project manager at the only Bulgarian platform exclusively devoted to fact-checking – Factcheck.bg. She has many years of experience in the field. She was the director of the Center for Culture and Debate Red House until September 2018, she is one of the founding members of AEJ-Bulgaria, which she chaired between 2010 and 2016, and before that she was in charge of the European section (“Evropa.Dnevnik”) of the online edition of the newspaper Dnevnik.
When, how and why did the need to study and improve media literacy arise in our country?
I realized the need for the development of media literacy skills perhaps 12 years ago, when we started working actively to improve the media environment in Bulgaria at the Association of European Journalists-Bulgaria. Then I realized that this would be very difficult without support from the public, and in order to gain their support, they would have to be media literate. Later, in 2017, I found many like-minded people through the various meetings with civil organizations that we organized at the Red House Center for Culture and Debate. We decided that since disinformation and propaganda work in a concerted manner, we must also get organized and act to improve media literacy in order to counter their impact. That's why we created the Coalition for Media Literacy – to create a synchronized strategy on what media literacy is and how we can improve it.
You conducted a study among teenagers that showed troubling results about their ability to work with new media. Which results did you expect and which surprised you the most?
Nothing about this research was surprising. Its purpose was to confirm our understanding of the situation in Bulgaria. The main thing it confirmed for us is that there is a need for educational reforms to foster learning with a deeper understanding and critical thinking. These foundational deficits have been proven by many other studies, such as the regular PISA study for example.
One of the conclusions of this study is that underestimating the role that schools can play in this process poses a great risk to civil society in Bulgaria. Why is this the case?
A good education is the foundation of a healthy civil society. When I say good, I don't mean an education that prepares children to excel at worldwide science olympiads, but an education that prepares them for real life – how to understand the information that surrounds us, how to analyze it, how to take a stance and defend it using arguments, learning the mechanisms of democracy, how to cooperate with others in order to achieve shared goals. That is, not an education that forces children to memorize paper textbooks, but one that recognizes the fact that our children are surrounded by sources of information from all sides and it is more important to teach them how to orient themselves in it and how to use it. Otherwise, misinformation will take them in a direction that is dangerous for our society.
Do you think that the educational system in Bulgaria is ready to take on this responsibility, while also trying to combat the rise of functional illiteracy? What are the first steps that can be taken in this direction?
The main thing that needs to change is the way children are taught. And the first small steps are to train teachers to teach in a way that builds children's media literacy skills. Because this can be done using any school subject.
Employees of the Lyuben Karavelov Regional Library in Ruse participated in the training program for mentors in media literacy organized by the CML.
Today, most kids use electronic devices starting from a very early age, but it turns out that they lack basic knowledge of how to protect their personal data and how to sift through information online with a critical eye. Why is that the case?
These are skills that can be taught through any subject. This is the approach we proposed to the Ministry of Education. These skills are simply not consistently or sustainably included in preschool and elementary school curricula. Individual elements are introduced through some subjects, but it really should be a line that runs through each subject and teaches kids sustainable media literacy habits.
At what age is it most appropriate to take the first steps towards building a child’s media literacy skills and why?
Critical thinking skills should be developed starting as early as preschool. And this process should continue as the child grows up.
You run workshops in developing media literacy skills at cities large and small across the country. What are the main difficulties that older people face when dealing with media?
The main problem with many adults and older people is that they trust everything they read on the Internet, because for them it is analogous of the media they used to consume. In recent years, older generations have started using smartphones, which are a gateway to social networks where they become easy targets for all kinds of conspiracy theories and misinformation. Since they are politically active people, most often it is political propaganda that reaches them. It is very difficult for them to leave their social media bubbles and access other perspectives.
Much of the older generation grew up with traditional media and the belief that anything published in print or broadcast on radio or television is the verified truth. Do these trainings manage to challenge this perception and how is that accomplished?
Yes, this is exactly the purpose of our trainings. We show them how to look for the signs of misinformation, we try to awaken in them an instinct for reading things critically and the understanding that there are different sources of information, and that anyone can create a website and publish whatever they want. A large part of our trainings is aimed at creating basic habits to protect your personal data so that you do not become a victim of fraudsters on social networks.
What are some Bulgarian initiatives, projects and organizations that are also working to improve media literacy in our country?
Most of the members of the Coalition for Media Literacy are working on important projects in this field. For example, the Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria with their Scoolmedia.com project, which gives students the chance to develop their journalistic skills. Another very successful project is Teenstation.net, a youth media producing podcasts and texts. The association Roditeli (“Parents") works a lot with parents on building media literacy skills. The Center for a Safer Internet has played a fundamental role in the development of media literacy in Bulgaria, it was the first organization to create guidelines for the development of media literacy skills through every single subject in school.
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