Media Literacy: Education for a Technological Age

Media literacy has come of age. In a society as mass mediated and media saturated as our own, communication technologies are at the core of the political, economic and cultural environments.

Yet, how many of us - or our students - are taught to "read" the media? How many of us know who makes the decisions about the programs that the rest of us see or don't see? What will happen to those of us who don't have access to the latest information technology - to our students who can't afford personal computers? To our fellow citizens who can't afford computer-generated searches and costly information resources? To our global citizens who are still print illiterate in an age where competency is based on graphic read-outs fed across the world through instantaneous integrated digital networks?

Media, their messages and their structures, must be taken seriously. But, while communications systems and information flows become increasingly central components of social, economic and political activity at all levels, media education, or media literacy as it is often called, remains fairly marginal. Fortunately, that marginality is changing. Parents, community, educators, religious organizations, special interest groups and others, are taking on the task of media literacy.

Well-known communications scholar Todd Gitlin writes, "Television bears special watching. It needs criticism and understanding which cuts beneath annoyance or apologia. To be seen properly, it has to be seen as the play where force fields interact — economic imperatives, cultural traditions and political impositions." Some of the reasons for the urgency of this task are:


  1. The high rate of media consumption and the saturation of our society by the media. The average American household has the television on more than seven and a half hours a day. The average urban dweller is exposed to more than 1500 ads a DAY! Just like the air and water around us, and about which we are increasingly concerned, media education takes our media environment seriously.


  2. The media's influence on shaping the perceptions, beliefs and attitudes. While research disagrees on the extent and type of influence, it is unquestionable that mass media, particularly television, exert a significant impact on the way we understand, interpret and act on our world. By helping us understand those influences, media education can delink us from our dependencies on them.


  3. The growth in media industries and the importance of information in our society. This refers not only to the degree to which information processing and information services are at the core of the nation's productivity, but also the degree to which media and information industries are increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer corporate giants. Media education can help teachers and students understand who owns and controls media and information, and to challenge the great inequalities which exist between the manufacturers of information and the consumers.


  4. The importance of media in our central democratic processes. Elections have become media events and photo-opportunities. Personalities are packaged over issues. Media education is an essential if citizens are to make rational decisions, become effective change agents and have an active involvement in their system of governance.


  5. The increasing importance of visual communication and information. While schools continue to be dominated by print, our lives are increasingly dominated by visual images, from the nightly news to MTV. Learning how to "read" the meanings of these images is a necessary adjunct to print literacy.


Knowing that media are important in our lives - and that educators must address these technologies and their impact - doesn't help teachers, parents or communities figure out HOW to approach this task. Several media scholars have suggested different approaches and complementary pedagogies. Len Masterman, suggests one approach: to define core concepts; to analyze economic, political, technological and cultural determinants of media production; to explore the nature of media's symbolic world and rhetoric; and to apply theoretical models to the study of rhetoric, ideology and audience.

The Center for Media Literacy (Los Angeles, California), which for years has been publishing the excellent magazine, Media&Values has recently taken on the formidable task of developing a U.S. model for media literacy using a four-step method of Awareness - Analysis - Reflection - Action.

Awareness is the exploration step. Participants explore a theme, discovering points of tension between personal values and mass media. A parent group studying video violence might compare notes on the various ways their children of different ages respond to different types of violent images.

Analysis is the process of searching for political, economic, social, cultural and personal context in which to think about the theme. Participants might read an article that explains how advertising segments the public into audience "targets," watch a video that documents how the nightly news is gathered and edited or look for patterns in the way males and females are depicted in magazine ads.

Reflection addresses the question "So what?" The goal is identification of what's right or wrong in light of one's personal values, imagining what ought to be. Participants might become headline editors, rewriting headlines to reflect the point of view of women or minorities rather than the typical white or male perspective.

Action is something done as a result of the first three steps. This may range from simply learning to "talk back" while watching television to becoming involved in a citizen review of local cable channel.

New approaches are required when teaching media literacy. It is as important for teachers as for students to become aware of the media's power and influence; to analyze and reflect on the profound political and personal issues associated with media consumption; and to become "active audiences" engaged in creating a fair and balanced media environment.


Reprinted from Global Pages, Summer/Fall, 1990