Building Citizenship Skills through Media Literacy Education

Hobbs, R. (1998). Building citizenship skills through media literacy education. In M. Salvador and P. Sias, (Eds.) The Public Voice in a Democracy at Risk. Westport, CT: Praeger Press, pps. 57 -76.

A thirteen year old is studying the cover of a Time magazine issue featuring the furrowed face of Bob Dole. "This photo," he says, "seems to suggest a negative attitude toward the candidate. It's in black-and-white, and this makes Dole look older, and meaner, and notice how his face has deep lines and his eyes are not looking at the camera. This image was chosen to cast doubt on the candidate." Jeremy England, a freshman at Oyster River High School, has been part of "View Smart to Vote Smart," a media literacy program developed by Continental Cablevision that features lesson plans, print and video resources designed for use in the classroom (Splaine, 1996). With his classmates, Jeremy has explored the ways in which political advertising shapes the campaign process, and identified the techniques which are used to attract audiences' attention and manipulate their emotions. He has tracked a candidate's slogan and sound bites and looked at how the media has picked up on these messages. He has monitored the enormous amount of time that the media spends telling us who's ahead in the polls as opposed to information on the issues. He's looked at differences between different media in the way they cover politics, and examined how television production techniques can alter images and evoke powerful feelings without the public even knowing it. Jeremy England is deeply engaged in politics, and was selected to write a newspaper column sharing the teen perspective on the political campaign. He recognizes the power of the democratic process and the power of the individual to communicate a point of view. He is deeply sensitive to the media's role in shaping the public's perception of politicians and politics. Jeremy England has discovered the power of being literate in a media age.

How can citizens be best prepared to participate in a democracy? The complaints about spectator democracy have emerged in potent form during the 1996 election. More and more citizens are alienated from the political process. Recent studies suggest that many Americans are confused by politics because they simply don't know enough basic facts to follow a substantive political debate. The evidence is startling: 46% of Americans can't identify Newt Gingrich as the Speaker of the House, and fewer than one-third can identify the name of their representative in Congress (Morin, 1995). Today's conflict-oriented coverage of politics makes it possible to tune in to the fireworks and miss the substance, and the media circus around political campaigns is especially distracting to less educated citizens. "[Voters] see and hear the conflict but miss the content," as reporters are "increasingly drawn to reporting strategy and partisan skirmishes surrounding major policy debates but not their substance" (Morin, 1995). According to political scientists, the information gap -- differences between the most well-informed citizens and the least well-informed-- is affecting how politics is practiced, dumbing down democracy and making political campaigns increasingly negative, simplistic and character-based. What kinds of knowledge, attitudes and skills are essential for being a citizen in a media age? How do we create opportunities for young people to develop their interests in democracy? What role can the media, teachers and parents play? In more and more classrooms in the United States, educators are beginning to help students acquire the skills they need to manage in a media-saturated environment, recognizing that in its broadest sense, literacy must include the ability to skillfully 'read' and 'write' in a wide range of message forms, especially considering the dominance of image-based electronic media.

In fact, the powerful concept of literacy was the driving force that led leaders in the media literacy movement to adopt a comprehensive definition of media literacy as "the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and produce communication in a variety of forms" in a conference sponsored by the Aspen Institute (Aufderheide, 1992). Put simply, media literacy includes the skills of literacy extended the wide variety of messages that we are exposed to in contemporary society. Media literacy includes reading and writing, speaking and listening, accessing new technologies, critical viewing, and the ability to make your own messages using a wide range of technologies, including cameras, camcorders, and computers. Media literacy is not a new subject area and it's not just about television: it's literacy for the information age. Proponents and practitioners of media literacy often fail to identify the distinct components of media literacy, and as a result, media literacy practices often vary widely, as many different approaches to building media literacy skills are proliferating. But these different practices can be conceptualized along a continuum with four phases, as articulated by Elizabeth Thoman (l996):

    1. Awareness of time and choice in media consumption.
    This phase of media literacy involves gaining consciousness and sensitivity regarding the extent and magnitude of individuals' exposure to different kinds of media messages, from billboards to tee shirts, from newspapers and television to videogames and the internet. Activities often involve counting and measuring one's use of media, exploring different pleasures and satisfactions people receive from a range of media messages, and learning strategies for managing media use in the home.

    2. Critical reading/viewing skills and media production activities.
    This phase of media literacy involves developing skills for analyzing and producing media messages, explicitly extending the traditional skills of literacy to include 'critical reading' and 'writing' for the mass media. Producing media messages has long been understood as one of the most valuable methods to gain insight on how messages are constructed. Critical analysis examines specific techniques involved in constructing messages by looking inside the frame of media messages to study specific patterns in the representation of social reality in a range of genres-- books, magazines, sitcoms, ads, public service announcements, web sites, documentaries, films, newsletters, comics and editorial columns. 'Looking inside the frame' includes examining the range of choices made by the author about the 'text,' including asking questions about the author's motives, purpose and point of view, the techniques used to attract attention, the use of image, sound and language to convey meaning, and the range of different interpretations which are likely for different individuals.

    3. Analysis of political, economic, social and cultural contexts of the media environment.
    This phase of media literacy involves gaining knowledge about the ways in which media institutions are shaped by the historical, political, economic and social forces. For example, students can learn about the historical and economic conditions which, during the 19th and early part of the 20th century, led to the concept of "journalistic objectivity." They can examine the economic relationships between advertising and a consumer culture; study the patterns of representation of masculinity, power and violence in sports reporting; examine how advertiser preferences shape TV programming; understand government's role in subsidizing the technologies which comprise the internet; or learn about the historical dimensions of broadcast de-regulation and reform and advocacy initiatives.

    4. Media advocacy, media action and social change.
    This phase of media literacy involves active participation in 1) efforts to mobilize public opinion towards a specific policy of media reform, or in 2) using specific media strategies to attract press interest, build coalitions, shape policy decision-making, and change offensive or problematic practices on a number of social issues. For example, students can write letters to advertisers about programs they dislike; they can support campaigns which raise awareness of the need to protect First Amendment rights in cyberspace. They can create their own media campaigns to promote a particular social health issue, like violence, alcohol abuse or smoking. For example, 2500 teachers and students in the community of Billerica, Massachusetts organized a comprehensive anti-smoking media campaign as part of their school-wide "Ad Lab" project in 1994.

What determines how educators come to enter into one or more of these practices? In my own interaction with teachers, I've found that a teacher's concerns about the intersection of youth, media and culture shape their practices in the classroom. Why are some teachers attracted to media literacy? Some see media literacy as a tool to build relevance into contemporary education, building links between the classroom and the culture, so that students see how themes and issues resonate in popular culture as they do in the study of literature, history or social studies. Some see media literacy as a citizenship survival skill, necessary to be an thoughtful consumer and an effective citizen in a superhighway-driven media age. Some see media literacy as a kind of protection for children against the dangers and evils engendered by the excesses of television, and see media literacy as an antidote to manipulation and propaganda. Some see media literacy as a new kind of English education, learning to appreciate and analyze ads and sitcoms and films -- some of which are destined to become the "classics" of the next century -- with the same tools used to study the traditional genres of poetry, short story and the novel.

Some see media literacy as a way to give children the opportunity to tell their own stories and better understand the power of those who shape the stories of our culture and our times. But there are other visions of media literacy, more narrow and more problematic. Unfortunately, some see media literacy as option for low-performing, underachieving students whose interest can be piqued by TV and nothing else. Some see it as a kind of vocational education, where kids can learn to make web sites or TV shows and head for careers like the grownups. Some see it as a chance to play with sophisticated electronic tools, like servers, graphics packages, scanners, character generators, video toasters and wave-form monitors. Still others see media literacy as a way to make children aware of the web of "false consciousness" that capitalism has woven into our psyches, moving them to advocate for revolutionary change. Some think media literacy is just about making "good choices" about what to watch or read. And many simply think the curriculum is already too crowded and teachers already too incompetent, burned-out or overburdened to make room for media literacy.

It is because American educators have so many diverse perspectives on the benefits and value of media literacy and the best strategies for implementation that its practitioners and advocates often fail to distinguish among the four distinct phases sketched above. Such a wide range of divergent motives can be a sign of the media literacy movement's vitality, but can also generate confused, inarticulate and occasionally adversarial positions relative to the varying practices which fall under the umbrella term, 'media literacy.' In Europe, media literacy has gained some measure of official status within Great Britain, Canada, Australia, Scotland, Spain and other nations, where media literacy is required as part of the language arts program in grades 7 through 12.

Most of the training American teachers now receive is strongly patterned after models provided by British scholars, including Len Masterman, David Buckingham, David Lusted, Cary Bazalgette as well as British and Canadian teachers who have written about their experiences teaching media analysis and media production to young people. With this nation's renewed interest in children and education in the 1990s, there have been significant signs of recent growth in the media literacy movement emerging in the United States. Support from the education establishment is emerging as the drive to re-write curriculum and develop standards and framework for K -12 education expands; at least 15 states have language in their state curriculum frameworks that support media literacy. In the State of North Carolina, for example, media literacy is included in both the Communication Skills (English) curriculum and in the Information Skills curriculum. In Massachusetts, media literacy is explicitly emphasized in all of the curriculum frameworks recently developed by the state education department. The State of New Mexico requires students to take a media literacy course in order to graduate from high school. In Texas, the language arts curriculum is being re-written to include media analysis and production activities (Considine, 1995). In many communities, educators have begun the process of thinking seriously about expanding the concept of literacy to more systematically include media and technology. While there was only one teacher-training program in media literacy in 1993 at the program I developed at Harvard Graduate School of Education, in 1994 there were 12 different programs held across the United States, and by 1995, many communities were developing their own staff development programs for groups of educators.

However, in most communities, media literacy exists due to the energy and initiative of a single teacher, not because of a coordinated, community-wide programmatic plan of implementation. At present, only a few communities are aiming towards district-wide implementation of media literacy concepts where all students in the school system are expected to engage in a coordinated set of media literacy activities, including Billerica, Massachusetts, Cold Spring, Minnesota, Dennis Yarmouth Public Schools in Massachusetts. More long-term investment in teacher education, site-based coordination of innovative, district-level programs and support for evaluation and assessment will be needed if media literacy skills are to be recognized, not as an enrichment experience for a privileged few, but a basic skill that all students must master.

Media Literacy And Building Citizenship Skills
Elihu Katz (1992, 37) reminds us of the organic connection between communication, education and democracy: "democracy is meaningless without multiple is simply impossible to talk about citizenship training in modern society without reference to mass communication." There are three major ways in which media literacy can contribute to strengthening the future of American democracy through outreach to the 45 million students in our nation's schools. First, media literacy practices help strengthen students' information access, analysis and communication skills and build an appreciation for why monitoring the world is important. Media literacy can inform students about how the press functions in a democracy, why it matters that citizens gain information and exposure to diverse opinions, and who people need to participate in policy decision-making at the community, state and federal levels. Secondly, media literacy can support and foster educational environments in which students can practice the skills of leadership, free and responsible self-expression, conflict resolution and consensus-building, because without these skills, young people will not be able to effectively engage with others in the challenges of cooperative problem-solving that participation in a democratic society demands. Third, media literacy skills can inspire young people to become more interested in increasing their access to diverse sources of information.

The trend towards increased centralization of ownership of mass media and technologies industries may promote an 'illusion of diversity' that limits people's access to ideas which are different from their own. In a multicultural society, people need to increase their comfort levels and tolerance with a wide range of different people. Media literacy can raise awareness of the vital role of being exposed to a rich array of diverse opinions and ideas. In the following pages, I examine more closely the challenges and opportunities that accompany the pragmatic incorporation of these skills as they relate to the lives of contemporary American teachers, students and school administrators.

Strengthening Information Skills
One of the most potent crises which face the future of American public schools is a problem that few educators address, the power relationship that Neil Postman (1985) has called the struggle between "first curriculum" of the mass media and the "second curriculum" of the schools. When Ted Sizer (l995, 83) recently identified this issue as one of the great "silences" in public education, he addressed an issue that media literacy educators hold dear: All of us know that the minds and heart of our children are influenced in ever increasing ways by information and attitudes gathered far outside the schoolhouse walls, from an insistent media and the commerce that depends on it. In our policy discussions, we barely mention that fact, much less address it... How the schools do, do not, or should connect with the newly insistent media world is rarely mentioned. We live in an information-rich culture, one controlled by commerce, but we plan the reform of our educational system as though the schoolhouses were still wholly encapsulated units..... These are some of the silences. They need to be filled.

Students come to class with plenty of ideas and information about how the world works, about lifestyles, relationships and social norms, and most of the information they receive does not originate from the students' family or neighbors, their pastors or community leaders. As George Gerbner (1990) has put it, most of the stories we tell our children are told by a few global conglomerates who have something to sell. Yet in many classrooms, the practices of American educators are guided by the assumption that information primarily flows in one direction-- from teacher to student, and from textbook to student. Teachers' control over access to information has been the defining quality of their authority, at all levels from kindergarten to graduate school. According to Paulo Freire and Henry Giroux (1989, 8), "[T]he language of educational theory and practice is organized around a claim to authority that is primarily procedural and technical... a language that in its quest for control, certainty and objectivity.... removes schools from their most vital connections to public life."

Ceding the role of information provider to institutions outside the classroom threatens the role of the teacher and usurps the dominance of the academy-defined canon of things worth learning about. Many teachers are still in denial about this already well-entrenched shift and, as a result, they may reject media and information technology as a tool for teaching and learning precisely because it alters the authority relationship between teachers and students. When educational leaders do come together to talk about strengthening information skills, the conversation inevitably comes around to computer technology, since educators are well aware of the role that information technology plays in the workplace and regularly exposed to the marketing messages which equate computers with superior learning and teaching.

Since the early 1980s, school administrators have been eager to 'bring schools into the 21st century' by giving students' access to CD-ROMs, on-line databases, computer applications, and internet access. While computers can be found in almost every American school, most are so old that there is limited software which can run on them, and in most communities, students have very limited opportunities to use them at all. As predicted, the pattern of access to technology has reproduced the inequalities in the larger social framework of public education, with huge discrepancies between schools, where 'information-poor' schools have teachers and students with no technology access at all and in some troubled urban schools, it is routine to see hopelessly inadequate access to even the media of books and periodicals. By contrast, in 'information-rich' schools students have access to a well-stocked library with books, periodical and audio-visual resources, computers for word processing, art and graphic design, and science activities, plus computers to support library research and information retrieval.

"Whether schools or public or private, the social class of the students has been and continues to be the single most significant factor in determining how a school works and the intellectual values it promotes" (Meier, 1995, 97). The media hype about the internet has energized the frenzy once again, as the State of California recently mandated that there will be a computer internet connection in every school in the state, yet devoted no attention to the challenge of providing teachers with the on-going training and support needed if they are to develop effective uses of the technology within the curriculum. Such efforts to put technology in schools will do little to strengthen the information skills of students.

This phenomenon merely reflects the classic American myth of 'technology as savior,' a belief which is deeply embedded in the culture and is particularly troublesome in education, where limited funding and the competitive upgrading of technology has led to a "Catch 22" for educators, where they can never be 'saved' by the technology because they don't have the latest, fastest, and most powerful tools that are necessary for 'redemption'. To build students' information skills, many education reformers recognize that the idea of teaching as "delivering content" needs to be challenged and replaced with the idea of teaching as cultivating "habits of mind," approaches to dealing with new information in ways that promote active engagement from the learner. Deborah Meier identifies this pedagogy in terms of five questions which should be at the heart of all learning:

  • The Question of Evidence: How do we know what we know?


  • The Question of Viewpoint: Who's speaking?


  • The Search for Connections and Patterns: What causes what?


  • The Act of Supposition: How might things have been different?


  • The Determination of Relevance: Who cares?


Compare these "habits of mind" as they relate to some of the "key questions" developed by the author to analyze mass media messages:


  • Who is the author and what is the purpose of the message?


  • What values/lifestyles/point of view are represented by this message?


  • What techniques are used to attract your attention?


  • What techniques are used to enhance the authority/authenticity of this message?


  • How might different people interpret this message differently?


  • What was omitted from this message?


  • Who makes money from this message?


Questions like those found on these two lists invite the learner to take an active stance towards information. One example of the application of these skills in the secondary grades can be found in the curriculum resource, KNOW-TV, developed by the author in collaboration with The Learning Channel. This program consists of a three-hour workshop for teachers of language arts, social studies and science in grades 7 - 12. KNOW-TV build media literacy skills within a collection of activities, videotape and print support materials which introduce nine critical questions for analyzing non-fiction or documentary television. Instead of simply using a documentary to 'deliver' content, teachers can use the documentary in a more active, engaged fashion by inviting students to analyze the choices made by the producer in deciding what information to include and what to omit, what techniques to keep and hold viewer attention, and how information was shaped to seem most believable.

By learning to "ask questions about what you watch, see and read," the fundamental premise of media literacy is about "questioning authority," and as such, can be recognized as empowering student autonomy (Hobbs, 1994). Another critically important dimension of media literacy for citizenship is in helping students understand the crucial role of the press in a democracy. Few public school teachers are prepared to teach any meaningful analysis of the functions of journalism as a result of their own limited education. Research on the way television is used in political education classes reveals that when teachers use newspapers and TV news in the classroom, they do encourage students to be critical of the issues and events depicted, but tend to treat the media's depiction of those issues and events as unproblematic (Masterman, 1985).

When teachers do demonstrate to students the constructed nature of the media message, they sometimes bring their own cynicism and distrust of journalists into the classroom, risking the possibility that students become even further alienated and disenfranchised from the political process. In a media literacy program designed to strengthen students understanding of the legitimacy of opposing voices within a democracy designed in Israel by Tamar Liebes, students spend three full days in a series of activities, simulations and discussions which introduce them to the problem of reliable observations and the psychology of selective perception. Students work in groups to document a school issue, are forced to select only a limited number of items as a result of time and deadline pressure, and some groups of students receive informal pressure from the school principal to 'present the school in a good light.'

After experiencing the ways in which news is shaped, students explore national television news and learn to identify the patterns of coverage. Such activities can promote students' understanding of education for democracy, and the importance of turn-taking, rules of order, and rational discourse which supports the legitimacy of oppositional voices in a public space (Katz, 1993, 41). A number of similar programs have been implemented in the United States, including as notable program designed by Karen Webster and Joshua Meyrowitz to introduce 4th graders to newsmaking in a Durham, New Hampshire school. If one of the fundamental purposes of schools is to teach students the responsibility of living in a democratic society, then building students' tolerance for diverse opinions and the ability to critically analyze information is essential. Schools should not be in the business of preparing "docile, unquestioning workers who will go blindly into the roles assigned them in the great struggle to dominate the world economy. To be human in a democratic society is to be free and to be capable of making conscious, responsible choices. A democratic society requires that the people shall judge; schools must teach them to judge wisely" (Soder, 1995, 168).

Providing The Opportunity To Practice Leadership And Self Expression

The institution of public schooling works in powerful ways to reproduce the existing power relations in society, and as a result, schools can be among the most repressive and anti-democratic of social institutions. Deborah Meier (1995, 8) writes of a dramatic example of the "petty humiliations imposed to remind teachers and children of who's the boss," remembering her first to a New York City school where she witnessed the principal scolding students for crossing over a line painted down the middle of the corridor. The unprofessional working conditions teachers experience, where they have little control or influence over their work, often encourages teachers to withdraw intellectually and emotionally from the enterprise. Schools can promote the kind of apathy and alienation that "are not only one of the main agencies of distributing an effective dominant culture... they help create people...who see no other serious possibility to the economic and cultural assemblage now extant" (Apple, 1990, 6). What does it take to create a environment where democratic values are built into the culture of the school? Deborah Meier describes her efforts to invent a school environment which would make it possible for teachers and students to have high expectations of themselves, "where all kids can experience the power of their ideas" (Meier, 1995, 4).

Central Park East is considered one of the most remarkable public schools in the nation, where 90% of the students graduate from high school and 90% of those go on to college, in a city where the average graduation rate is 50%. Meier's commitment to reforming public schools is fueled by her understanding of the relationship between public education and democracy. "Public schools can train us for ...political conversations across divisions of race, class, religion and ideology....[D]ealing with the complicated is what training for good citizenship is all about" (Meier, 1995, 7,22). Her perspective on the possibility that schools can be re-shaped by democratic principles reflects the complexity of this issue: "We also saw schools as examples of the possibilities of democratic community, and what we meant by this was continuously under debate and review. It wasn't simply a question of governance structures, and certainly not a matter of extending the vote to four-year-olds. Although classroom life could certainly include more participation by children in decisions that traditional schools allowed, we saw it as even more critical that the school life of adults be democratic. It seemed unlikely that we could foster values of community in our classrooms unless the adults in the school had significant rights over their own workplace. For us, democracy implied that people should have a voice not only in their own individual work ,but in the work of others as well. Finally, we saw collaboration and mutual respect among staff, parents, students and the larger community as part of what we mean by calling our experience democratic."

Meier and her colleagues created a school environment based on breaking up huge schools into small schools; for choice within the public school system; for respect between teachers, parents and students; for teaching that connects learning to real-world activities; for a new ideal of being "well-educated," based on the development of the skills of keen observation, playfulness and the possession of a skeptical and open mind, the habit of imagining how others think, feel, and see the world, the ability to be respectful of evidence, to be able to evaluate the quality of information, to value hard work, and to know how to communicate effectively. Why focus on skills and not subject matter? "[A]cademia has no monopoly on the habits of mind that underlie good practice in all vocations of a democratic society, including the first and foremost of vocations, that of citizen" (Meier, 1995, 171).

Broadening the definition of an educated person beyond the mastery of specific facts to promote strong intellectual habits of mind has at its consequence the promotion of curiosity, creativity, theory-building. How best should educators promote student leadership skills and responsible self expression? When Captive Voices was published in 1974, it identified the range of powerful opportunities that scholastic journalism could provide to students, as the school newspaper can create a public voice to share perspectives and viewpoints, to build coalitions and change policies through engaging the community in issues of public concern. Commissioned by the Robert Kennedy Memorial Foundation, Captive Voices also identified the problems which limited the effectiveness of student journalism. The report was the single largest national inquiry into American high school journalism, and at the time, the findings represented a formidable indictment of the public schools. "Censorship and systematic lack of freedom to engage in open, responsible journalism" were routine practices by administrators and teachers. According to the report, most high school publications were "bland" and often served as a public relations tool for the school. Yet, according to the report, where a free, vigorous student press did exist, there was a healthy ferment of ideas and opinions with no indication of disruption or negative side effects on the educational experience of the school.

In the 1970's, high school journalism was given second-class status in the school's curriculum, reflected in the elective nature of journalism courses, since journalism courses did not fulfill academic requirements needed for graduation. Twenty years later, this phenomenon is largely unchanged, and the legal landscape which had protected students' First Amendment rights has deteriorated even further. When the Supreme Court ruled on Hazelwood v Kuhlmeier in 1988 in a 5-3 decision, the status of high school journalism was changed significantly, by giving school administrators the power to censor student newspapers. In the case, a principal censored a high school student newspaper in Hazelwood, Missouri because of two stories produced by students about teen pregnancy and the effects of divorce on teenagers. In this decision, the court limited the scope of an earlier ruling, Tinker v DesMoines, which made the basic argument that "students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." The Supreme Court called upon a 1986 decision, Bethel v Fraser, that stated that schools do not need to tolerate student speech that is "inconsistent with its basic educational mission." In the Hazelwood case, the Court concluded: "Educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns." In his dissent, Justice William Brennan wrote that a high school newspaper was a public forum, "established to give students an opportunity to express their views," and he recognized that the loose phrasing of 'legitimate pedagogical concerns' could easily serve as a smoke screen for administrators to void student newspapers of unwanted controversy.

The Hazelwood decision "aptly illustrates how readily school officials (and courts) can camouflage viewpoint discrimination as the 'mere' protection of students from sensitive topics." More importantly, Brennan noted the hypocrisy of a decision that allows school officials to censor controversial ideas while purporting to teach students how to live in a democratic society, where government officials cannot legally engage in such practices. In response to the ruling, the professional press almost seemed to mock the students for their arrogance in believing they should be allowed to cover what was important to them. A principal is no different from an editor, went the claim in newspaper editorials. Most newspapers avoided noting the role of public school principals as public officials and indirect agents of the government (Freedom Forum, 1994). The Hazelwood decision had an effect on high schools across the nation and the examples of how school administrators have applied the ruling are chilling.

In Manchester, New Hampshire, a principal shut down the student newspaper after an editorial criticized a teacher for withholding the vote totals in a school election. In Fort Wayne, Indiana, a principal censored a report that documented how a tennis coach improperly charged students for court time. In Ohio, paramedics were called to the school when a student, who had been drinking alcohol that morning, passed out from alcohol poisoning. The school newspaper was forbidden to write about the event. In Nashville, Tennessee, 19 students were arrested on the first day of school in 1990. The principal refused to let students report the incident and the journalism advisor was replaced by someone with no previous newspaper experience. According to Paul McMasters of the First Amendment Center, self-censorship is on the rise, with student journalists trying to avoid conflicts and reprisals from school administrators and their peers. "Sometimes the biggest proponents of censorship are fellow students harassing students journalists. [These students] haven't been taught in their classrooms the benefits and the absolute necessity of a free and open debate and dialogue in our society" (Freedom Forum, 1994, 100). Robert Trager and Joseph Russomanno make a powerful point about the long-term impact of Hazelwood on students' socialization: "When free expression is limited in order to instill majoritarian societal values in their schools, this turns the First Amendment on its head. Rather...students' expressive rights should be at the core of the societal values that public schools teach-- and that should allow students to practice... A school environment devoid of free expression is not likely to produce an adult ready to support the sentiment attributed to Voltaire: 'I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it'" (cited in Freedom Forum, 1994, 101). When video technology is available, the pattern of practices involving student communication becomes more complex.

Edwin Posey teaches a video production class at Paul Robeson High School on the south side of Chicago. Students there produce documentaries, public service announcements, a morning news show, and tape football games and school plays. Student-produced television programs often operate without an organized curriculum and are of widely uneven quality and in most schools, television and print journalism programs operate separately with little overlap between the two. Because of the instantaneous and non-permanent character of video messages, they seem to be less subject to oversight and scrutiny from school officials. In many schools, administrators do not regard student video productions as the official voice of the school, At Educational Video Center (EVC) in New York City, young people gain the skills to make their own media messages and are able to gain extensive training working with media professionals. Steve Goodman, the director of EVC, believes that video documentaries present rich possibilities for learning because they involve research, reporting, writing, using a camera and editing.

At EVC, young people have produced a range of documentaries on issues in their own communities, from AIDS to homelessness, stereotypes in the media, and gangs. One of the most well-known works produced by youth involved in Educational Video Center's outreach program was entitled, Unequal Education: Failing our Children, and it was broadcast as part of Bill Moyers' Listening to America on public television. The program profiled two 7th grade students in two different schools in New York City, showing the broad differences between rich schools and poor schools in the community. Goodman sees video production as one central dimension to building students' media literacy skills. Electronic journalism holds out the hope that large numbers of young people can develop a different relationship with television. Transforming the nature of young people's relationship with media messages is at the heart of media literacy.

Promoting Access To Diverse Sources Of Information
A major challenge which faces citizens and their access to diverse sources of information revolves around an inherent structural characteristic of the mass media: its reliance on advertising. The advertising subsidy serves as the most powerful limit on the content of information we receive from news and entertainment, since as C. Edwin Baker (1994) notes that the incentive of advertising revenue encourages the media to tailor their message content by treating advertisers' products and their broader interests charitably in both news reports and editorials, by reducing partisanship and often reducing controversial elements in order to increase the size of the audience, and by favoring younger and middle- to high-income audiences who are considered more desirable by advertisers. Notes Baker (1994, 66-67), "Advertisers 'pay' the media to obtain the audience they desire, providing strong incentive for the media to shape content to appeal to the 'desired' audience... Since newspapers are under particular pressure to sell more affluent audiences to advertisers, newspapers sometimes purposefully limit or reduce circulation in areas or among groups of people that advertisers do not value."

Efforts on the part of independent producers and notable production companies including Children's Television Workshop to create a television news program for children have been stymied by the lack of interest in 'buying' advertising time in a serious news program for children aged 8 to 15 (Lesser, 1994). The only contemporary news program for children, Nick News, produced by Lucky Duck Productions, does not take as its goal the task of providing information to children about local, national or world events, but consists exclusively of "soft" news stories which flatter the child audience with an assortment of feature stories which revolve around children's creative and community accomplishments. Many newspapers have spearheaded efforts to create a "children's section" for their younger readers aged 9 to 17, and most of these efforts have failed to survive past an initial trial because of the difficulty in attracting audiences who want to 'buy' children via the newspaper (Blum, 1996). One resource used by some teachers to introduce the issue of the advertising subsidy and its impact on the commodification of culture to students at the high school level has been the quarterly magazine, Adbusters. Produced by the Media Foundation in Vancouver, British Columbia, Adbusters has a special section designed for teens aged 12 to 19, with articles and reviews designed to introduce the spirit of media advocacy around a challenge to consumer culture.

Because the magazine is only available through large news retailers in urban centers who maintain a healthy collection of independent distributors, possession of an Adbusters is often viewed as a prized commodity itself among teachers, who typically have had little access to non-mainstream or alternative information sources. Since its inception, public broadcasting has served to offer citizens access to a wide range of messages than available via commercial media, but they have faced renewed political challenges from conservative congressmen with easy access to the talk radio airwaves who reject the argument that public television requires federal subsidies. Such congressmen argue that "the federal government has 'no mandate' to keep funding public broadcasting; that non commercial educational broadcasting is 'not essential' to he nation...that public broadcasting is elitist, a 'sandbox for the rich' " (Duggan, 1995, 25).

Leaders in public television generally reference the numbers which show their audiences are small but diverse and point to icons like "Big Bird" as proof of public television's vitality and worthiness. Proposals to support public television via a tax on advertising revenues or by eliminating the exemption from state sales tax generally given to advertising have uniformly received such little attention in the press that the public is largely unaware of either the problem of the corrosive censorship which results from advertising or some of the potential corrections which are available to improve the freedom of the press. The power of large, vertically integrated companies to control the content of the mass media has been clearly evident in the shifting patterns of entertainment available for children and young people.

The last bastion of diversity in children's media has been in the area of children's literature, which has been rapidly fading as a result of 'Disneyfication.' As Joshua Meyrowitz (1987) has explained, because of the new patterns of information access available to both children and adults, children's access to a wide range of 'adult' content has blurred some of the distinctions between children and adults. Adult discomfort with children's changing status is a theme that is widely found in contemporary film and television programming. Disney merchandising has served to smooth over this tension in our culture, as Richard De Cordova (1994, 213) has noted, "[T]he merchandising of Mickey Mouse toys was important in making sacred Disney's address to children... because that merchandising worked more assuredly than the movies to push the image of the child back into traditional categories of childhood."

At the same time that children and young people have more and more easy access to the complexities of adult relationships via prime-time television, sports programming and the surrounding celebrity culture, the Disney mythology has served to frame childhood in ways which provide a sense of comforting tradition to parents. The huge global reach of Disney has served to displace the wider, more diverse and authentic works of literature and art produced by authors and illustrators working the genre of children's literature. The dominance of a few, widely distributed and ubiquitous types of entertainment and information creates an appetite, as young people's expectations are shaped by the range (or lack of range) of messages available to them. Some teachers have been frustrated by students' lack of interest in non-commercial, alternative messages produced in literature, music and the arts, available on video and in computer software. I had the opportunity to meet a teacher at the 1995 National Media Literacy Conference in Boone, North Carolina who had just moved from teaching at a private school to teaching at a public school, and was struggling with students' lack of interest as she used of a wide range of alternative media in the classroom.

These materials worked well, she noted, among the children of the well-educated and affluent, who were accustomed to a wider range of information and entertainment. She complained about her new students' impatience and resistance to messages that did not fit their expectations of what storytelling or video "should" be. How can educators build their students' capacity to manage messages that do not fit comfortably within the existing commercial paradigms? The growing community of media literacy educators has as its explicit aim the nurturance and the support for the alternative media arts. In 1990 when the media literacy movement was in its initial emergence in the United States after a prolonged hiatus, independent artists and educators met at a conference in Austin, Texas, in an event supported by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture (NAMAC). By exploring the intersections of independent media arts and public education, participants recognized a critical mutual goal: to stretch young people's appreciation and understanding of the wide range of forms available for self-expression and communication.

It is an explicit goal of education for democracy: to build students' tolerance for complexity. But such work is challenging when teachers perceive that they are engaging in the task alone, without the support of the culture, and often as an act of resistance against the culture. In the face of the isolation of the classroom, alone with one hundred or more children and teenagers for six hours a day, the task is daunting. Andy Garrison is an independent filmmaker and a high school teacher who produces materials that help teachers incorporate the study of alternative media in the classroom. His film, Night Ride provides a rich, multilayered visual and auditory dramatic experience, and the creative array of activities, discussion formats and writing assignments which accompany the film permit a teacher to engage in the kind of close analysis that builds critical thinking skills. There is a serious need for initiatives that provide teachers with the opportunity to access, screen and evaluate non-commercial "texts" and to provide teachers with experiences that build their own awareness, knowledge and skills of the values of independent, non-commercial media arts. One example of this is the program, "Diverse Images and Perspectives," a workshop designed by Karon Sherarts, in which teachers learn methods of integrating the work of alternative media artists into the existing curriculum.

ALIVE-TV, a national public television series produced at KTCA-Minneapolis sponsored the workshop in collaboration with the Minnesota Film Board and Independent Television Service (ITVS), an organization created by Congress to address the needs of underserved audiences, particularly minorities and children. Teachers, of course, are the ones who shape the 1000 hours of instruction received by the 45 million children in our nation's schools. Treated for too long as factory workers and not as professionals, it is clear that a critical focus of the media literacy movement aims to enhance the knowledge, skills and practices of the 2.1 million teachers in the United States, better preparing them to create opportunities that stretch and enrich their students ability to access, analyze and communicate information, engage with their students in practices that promote leadership and problem-solving, and increase students' exposure to a diverse array of opinions and ideas.


It is impossible to have a healthy democracy unless there are healthy, competent, engaged citizens. American youth, however, are using drugs and alcohol at earlier ages, engaging in sexual behavior and getting pregnant earlier, and causing pain and being hurt by the dramatically increased levels of violence among 12 - 17 year olds (Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1995). The shifting knowledge economy now requires that people acquire sophisticated reasoning, communication and problem-solving skills, and yet 44 million adults in the U.S. lack even basic literacy skills (National Center for Education Statistics, 1993).

In order for adolescents to thrive, it is essential to improve the quality of our nation's communities, schools and families if we are to take on the task of improving the health of American democracy. Within this broad context, media literacy has an important role to play. As Umberto Eco (l979, p. 15) claims: "A democratic civilization will save itself only if it makes the language of the image into a stimulus for critical reflection, not an invitation to hypnosis." As a result of modern communication technology, we have become so thoroughly enmeshed in a sign system that the very system has become invisible to us. As media literacy techniques help refresh our vision, we are invited to 're-vision' ourselves, our families, our neighbors, our communities and all our social institutions in ways that reflect the spirit of democratic problem-solving through mutual respect, rational discourse and critical inquiry.

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Author Bio: 

Renee Hobbs, EdD, a prolific writer, speaker, researcher and curriculum designer in the field of media literacy education, is the director of the Media Education Lab at Temple University in Philadelphia. She is a founding Board director of the Alliance for a Media Literate America (AMLA). Her website is