Emerson prof. emphasizes media literacy

A man sits in a room. He’s talking into a camera. There’s another camera filming that camera. The man’s face is obscured. He’s talking to his film crew. Now he’s talking to you. Or is he simply talking, and you’ve happened to overhear? 

This man’s image is flashed across the screen in the Bill Bordy theater, and roughly 80 Emerson students are watching him. He’s narrating the short documentary film called Eyes Wide Open: This is Media and the bizarre cinematography, he explains, is supposed to represent the way we communicate over the internet. 

The documentary was brought to Emerson by marketing communications professor Paul Mihailidis as part of his ongoing efforts to emphasize media literacy on campus. Mihailidis teaches several courses on media literacy and digital culture, and is a co-founder of eLEEP, the Emerson Literacy Education Empowerment Project. 

“We were very lucky to get chosen to do this screening,” said Mihailidis. “It was a competitive process, and only 10 universities in the country got chosen.” 

Mihailidis, who submitted Emerson’s application for the screening, said he thought it was a perfect fit for the campus.

“Emerson students are really interested in creating with media, and being expressive with media,” he said. “They’re very savvy.” 

The documentary includes interviews with Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and pop-culture blogger Maria Popova, among others. It tackles issues of digital fact-checking and the evolution of media as a collaborative effort, rather than a one-way presentation.

It also presents some rather startling facts about young adult media usage. According to the documentary, teenagers spend an average of 7.5 hours a day on their smartphone, tablet, or laptop, not including time spent talking or texting. When the lights came back on, half the audience looked down sheepishly at the smartphones in their laps. 

“Media is just a part of how we think,” said senior writing, literature and publishing major Marissa Koors, who was also the student representative at the panel discussion that followed the screening. “Now it’s such a part of our culture that’s it’s really hard to separate media from real life.” 

Koors’ sentiments were echoed by others on the panel. Sara Morgan, a marketing communications professor at Emerson, and an executive producer at Greater Media Boston, discussed the way social media is a way of presenting ourselves. 

“When we retweet something, we’re not just sharing the information,” Morgan said during the panel discussion. “We’re saying something about ourselves by sharing it.” 

Other panelists warned against condemning media and the way it is used by young people. Angela Cook Jackson, another Emerson professor who co-founded eLEEP with Mihailidis, runs a summer workshop on media literacy for high schoolers in the summer.

“We can’t be antagonizing and dismissive of the way young people interact with the internet,” said Jackson. “That ‘young-people-these-days’ mentality is something I really try to avoid.” 

Panelist Eric Gordon, an associate professor at Emerson and the director of the Engagement Lab, added that “misinformation was not invented by the internet.”

He referenced an earlier example from Jackson about how the internet could spread harmful information about sexual health. 

“I grew up in the seventies,” he said. I didn’t know everything about sex — and I still don’t.”

It’s a complex subject, as demonstrated by the heated discussion of the panelists and the number of audience members raising their hands to offer questions or comments.

There may not be a succinct answer to the questions raised by the man on the Bill Bordy screen, but there are plenty of Emerson students willing to talk about it.    “All I can really say is that you have more opportunity to make a change now than at any point in history, because now you have a voice,” said Mihailidis in his closing remarks. “Media literacy is how you use that voice.”