Imagine: A Media of Meaning


This article originally appeared in Issue# 63

At the beginning of the 20th Century, about the time the movies were invented, our visions of the future were transformed from utopian dreams into urban nightmares.

Many factors were at work. But it's likely that the new visual media played an important role in this shift. Film and later television producers found it easier to visualize a world of surrealistic decay than to laboriously shape entertainment that, as Gloria de Gaetano, media literacy author from Redmond, Washington, puts it, "shows people negotiating conflict and resolving it through communication, understanding and empathy."

It's time we all put our imaginations to work again.

The challenge of creating a world of peace and opportunity for all involves a massive struggle for educational opportunity, ethnic understanding and alternatives to aggression. It won't happen overnight. But we must begin.

The effort will take place on many fronts. But we can ignore neither the media's part in creating the ideas that shape us nor our responsibility for demanding the kind of media we need.

Media creators must also face up to their own responsibility for molding our hopes and dreams. But it's up to all of us – as teachers, parents and caring citizens – to demand and work for a culture in which "blood and gore, horror and the basest of human instincts are not the driving storyline of prime-time entertainment and talk shows," DeGaetano continues.

That's why the work of the Center for Media Literacy is so important. Publication of "Media and Violence: Making the Connections" and its follow-up issue, "Searching for Solutions" was only the beginning. Even our comprehensive, five-part Media Literacy Workshop KitTM, Beyond Blame: Challenging Violence in the Media was one of a continuing stream of media literacy teaching resources for schools, churches and community groups.

More important is the media literacy movement growing out of these efforts. The Center represents the strongest voice for media literacy as violence prevention in the United States. We've been interviewed by the Atlantic Monthly, 60 Minutes, Newhouse News Service, Family Therapy Networker, the Washington Post and even Sesame Street magazine. Bill Moyers sent a producer and foundations are calling.

In 1993, I attended a federal conference in Washington convened by Attorney General Janet Reno, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala and Education Secretary Richard Riley. Called to explore "Violence Prevention for our Nation's Children," my working group on the media (with a bit of lobbying) unanimously included a provision that "broad-based media literacy education needs to become a priority in the U.S." and recommended federal support for "the research and development of comprehensive media literacy curriculum programs."

At the time, I had hoped that this would plant a seed that would bear fruit in funding legislation to support media education on the violence issue, as well as major collaborations with representatives of the medical and mental health community, religious leaders and a coalition of women's public service groups. While only the medical and public health collaborations have occured, I am confident that a strong national campaign of media literacy awareness and action around media violence is now closer to reality than it's ever been.

I am been impressed with the number of resources on interpersonal conflict resolution now available for schools and youth centers. But I continue to be amazed that teachers send their students home to be reprogrammed with the message that "violence is fun," the minute they turn on the television set or pick up a video game! Hopefully, media literacy can also be made available to children in schools everywhere.

Psychologists and social critics are beginning to understand that traditional therapy breaks down when it tells people to "adjust" to a pathological society. In the same way, media that merely "reflect" a troubled society are not providing the hope and new ideas we need. We need not just the "politics of meaning," but a "media of meaning."

The late physicist, Frank Oppenheimer once said that "We don't live in the real world. We live in a world we made up." How media construct our reality is the first principle of media literacy. We can choose to make up a world that glorifies violence – or reinforces peace.

The word imagine is based on the word "image." The effort to change our images is the first step in the creation of a caring culture. We invite your participation in the media literacy movement.

It is time to begin.