Media Literacy Pioneer Challenges San Luis Obispo Area Teachers

From the San Luis Obispo Tribune, May 1, 2001; posted with permission.

The founder of the Center for Media Literacy told local educators Monday that there are many benefits to living in the electronic age.

"My father is all of a sudden connected with all of his World War II buddies," said Elizabeth Thoman, president of the Los Angeles-based organization.

Of course, there is a however. "At the same time, that's problematic," she said. "With the accessibility, we're inundated with a lot of information that's irrelevant."

The challenge for parents in such an environment is to create a healthy balance from an onslaught of media messages. "Kids need skills to navigate the culture they'll be living in all their lives," she said. "It's a normal part of parenting in the 21st century."

Thoman spoke Monday during a day-long workshop on media literacy attended by 21 adults representing local school districts and countywide agencies. The class was co-sponsored by the County Office of Education and San Luis Obispo County Tobacco Control.

Susan Johnson, a middle-school intervention and prevention coordinator for San Luis Coastal schools, said she would be sharing Thoman's message with teachers. Organizers hope to bring Thoman back again sometime to deliver a workshop just for parents.

Monday's event comes a few weeks after members of a media panel held at Cal Poly suggested media literacy should be a required class in public schools. But Johnson and Thoman said it would not require a new course. "We're not throwing out geography to teach media literacy," she explained. "Teachers already teach critical thinking and analytical skills," she said, adding that they could be taught using television advertising just as easily -- and certainly more relevantly to kids today -- as 17th century essays.

To illustrate her point, Thoman used several examples from television and print advertising. One was a short television ad that initially appeared to look like it was part of a television program. The scene was a car pulling over to the side of a dark road with no other cars in sight. The woman driver turns on her hazard lights and waits for someone to stop and help.

Through the use of quick cuts, heart-pounding music and close ups of the woman's worried facial expressions, the tension mounts. Eventually, another car pulls over, a man gets out and walks up to the side of the woman's car and shines a light into her surprised face. But the commercial does not reveal if he is a police officer or not.

It ends with soothing music and the picture of a cellular telephone. It never specifically tells viewers that getting a cell phone could save their lives, but that's certainly the message. Even deeper than the surface message, however, is the message that "the world is a dangerous place; you can't trust anyone."

That, said Thoman, runs directly counter to core principles of democracy which are built on the idea of the common good, of neighbors helping one another build a society for all to live in and fluorish. "How can we be effective citizens of a democracy unless we understand these subtle visual clues?" she asked.

Although certainly less insidious than ads for cigarettes, Thoman said, being able to interpret such messages is an important skill that children must have in order to make healthy decisions based on needs instead of wants. "Our visual culture uses visual language. We all need to know how to ‘read' it."

Three Steps to Success
From Elizabeth Thoman, founder and president of the Center for Media Literacy in Los Angeles
  1. Manage your child's media diet:
  2. Set limits on the amount of time spent with television, videos, electronic games, films and various print media.

  3. Critical viewing:
  4. Help your child learn how to analyze and question what is in the frame, how it is constructed, and what may have been left out. These skills are best learned through inquiry-based classes, interactive group or classroom activities, and by creating and producing one's own media messages.

  5. Analysis:
  6. This goes behind the frame to explore deeper issues of who produces what is seen and for what purpose. Through inquiry, discussion and projects, young people and adults can look at how individually, and as a society, we take and make meaning of media messages.

There are many helpful books, articles, and Web sites on the subject. For more information.

Author Bio: 

Jeff Ballinger covers K-12 education for The Tribune.