Maria Murumaa-Mengel – How Does MIL Affect Our Daily Life?

Year of production: 2023

I met Maria Murumaa-Mengel in Estonia’s second largest city, Tartu, where she teaches Media and Information Literacy (MIL) at the University of Tartu. MIL is an umbrella term that covers almost all types of media and the skills to deal with them, and even more so – all aspects of our lives today. So, it’s a great honour to meet with someone who can talk about MIL on such a broad level. Even when Maria says that some MIL areas are not her field of expertise, I find myself impressed by how she always gives wonderful matter-of-fact answers based on her knowledge and experience.

MIL as a survival skill

Walking on Toome Hill on a beautiful Estonian autumn day, where the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Tartu is located, Maria explains that her connection with MIL is strong. She was only 21 when she started teaching media studies in a high school. Today, 17 years later, she thinks that media education is now more crucial than ever. She firmly believes that people must have the basic knowledge of media literacy and skills to survive and make good decisions in the modern world.

“Media is everywhere and in that sense it’s crucial that we have a certain set of skills and knowledge on how media works,” Maria explains. “Because if we don’t, we make bad choices. Perhaps we unintentionally harm ourselves or others. We miss out on opportunities. We make poorly informed decisions about life, health, love, everything. And that’s why I truly believe that media and information literacy are very important.”

Young people need support in the wake of crisis

Maria thinks that people these days are living in a very information-rich environment, which means that they have to have the resilience to grow into healthy human beings.

“Because, if we think about the information, the kind of ecosystems of today, then they are not nice places. If you think about the average experience on social media, it’s not just, you know, ponies and rainbows; it’s also bullying, harmful content and a lot of nasty stuff,” she explains.

To build resilience, she finds that young people deserve to be supported. “I can’t imagine growing up having to navigate so many different norms and spaces and, you know, just like these expectations of where you must be and how you must behave, and how you have to speak in codes. It’s so difficult. So, I think that they deserve some support. It’s not fair to leave them alone there.”

She also describes that study findings on how young people follow the news have pointed out that over the course of the past three years in particular, news avoidance has become a very strong media pattern. “It’s overwhelming to deal with the emerging climate catastrophe, COVID-19 crisis, wars, hunger, hurricanes, everything. So, it has become too much for many people. I think that there is this very fragile balance that the media industry must follow, but it is not motivated to do so right now. Because fear, conflict and things that go beyond the normal level of life are the core principles that make the attention economy work. It has rightly been called a war over our eyeballs.”

When I ask how an ordinary person could navigate this media-rich world in a balanced way, Maria does not give a simple answer; the truth is much more complex. “It would be rather uptight and snobbish of me to say that there are three principles to follow, and three people to trust,” she says. “Because that might be very different for people and their informational needs. But I do think that for a healthy media balance or as a baseline, one must choose a media channel where news is the main format and genre, and where journalistic standards are followed.”

NGOs bring silenced voices to the fore

A month or so after we conduct the interview, Maria will go on the Media and Information Literacy study visit to Barcelona, Spain, organised by SALTO Participation and Information Resource Centre. There she will meet with several representatives of NGOs who tackle different kinds of social problems like migration, racism, the spread of misinformation, social polarisation and many more such topics. I am very interested in how this kind of social youth work in non-profit organisations contributes to media and information literacy in her opinion?

“I think it’s important to talk about social problems, the dark side of social life, because that’s life,” says Maria. “We cannot turn away from a certain set of problems just because we are not bothered by it, and it doesn’t affect us personally. I think it’s really important for the media to look beyond the dominant voices and to see what else is there.” That’s exactly why she thinks that a lot of NGOs are doing a great job. “Because they are presenting these stories that are often missing to the larger media frame.”

She also points out the evidence-based reality that NGOs deal with and the depth of investigation that traditional media, by its very nature, can never reach.

“We have people working in NGOs, who are extremely interested in certain topics, and they are well educated and experienced in these areas; obviously then, their voices hold value. And it’s extremely important to receive this knowledge, this kind of niche or very focused perspective. We can all read a couple of articles or do a few interviews and learn something about a topic. However, you can imagine how if you have worked for 10 years on a very specific topic or with a very specific group you will have knowledge that none of us has, and it would be a crime not to use it.”

Good decisions can be made through conscious learning

At the beginning of our interview, Maria emphasised that media literacy means that a person must be able to make good decisions. At the end of our interview, she offers one very specific solution, yet still general enough, to help us make better choices. It is a broad view of the world, a way of thinking that must be consciously and continuously learned.

“It is not a habit that comes easily,” she finds. “It is something that you must train within yourself: that I will take an interest in society and care about what’s going on. It’s something that you have to do in the same way as we would learn maths in school; it’s not super easy but you must do this to understand these following steps and processes that you are interested in. So, I think it’s a matter of disciplining yourself.”

Can youth educators help here, I ask. “They certainly can,” she adds before going back to teach social digital competencies at the university. “Educators, youth workers, parents, peers, journalists – we’re all meant to pitch in. Not just lecture and offer familiar media patterns, but also listen, debate, learn and expand with the help of young people.”


Photo of Piret Jaaks
Piret Jaaks

Piret works as a freelance writer, journalist and public relations professional. She holds a PhD in Performing Arts and strives to weave ethnographic perspectives into all of her writing about people in our diverse world. Having worked for quite a while in the international civic movement World Cleanup Day, which focuses on promoting waste clean-ups around the globe, Piret knows well that the dark side of life must be talked about without embellishing it.  That’s why she believes that in today's fragmented world it is very important that all people have Media and Information Literacy skills in order to make the right decisions on important life issues.