STARTING POINT: Media are the World; Media Literacy is the Guidebook


This article originally appeared in Issue# 61

A reflection on media literacy, democracy and world peace.

A few years ago we edited an issue of Media&Values on “cultural imperialism,” defining it with the slogan, “The sun never sets on U.S. media influence.” Since then signficant changes in the world’s access and use of media and computer technology challenge us to broaden our view about the impact of communications media around the globe. Consider these recent developments:

  • Revolutions have been started by the FAX machine, wars have been fought in real time by satellite and empires have fallen because their economies failed to provide the material goods television presents in glittering abundance.
  • Because of economic forces, world culture has especially embraced the young, dressing as one commentator put it, the children of the Croats and the Serbs alike in the same “uniform” of jeans, T-shifts and sneakers and ensuring that “kids in Australia, Hong Kong and Sweden have more in common with each other than with their parents,” according to MTV’s Tom Freston.
  • English has become the language of cultural commerce, not just between English-speaking countries and the rest of the world, but even between non-English-speaking countries marketing cultural goods to one other. “If a Swedish group wants to sell its music in France, English is the language in which it must write its lyrics,” according to author and historian Mitchell Stephens.

Unlike a few years ago when the concern was the influence of U.S. media abroad, this traffic is no longer one way. Other countries are beginning to market their media products to the U.S. and to each other. But note the key word is “product.” Today the operative words for evaluating not only television but music and theater and films and dance are not “talent” or “creativity” or “inspiration” but “will it sell?”

Now more than ever, all media, whether they come from the U.S. or any other country, must be subjected to the scrutiny of media literacy, itself a worldwide movement with active participation in over 40 countries.

The owners of worldwide media know how to make money from their properties. And they transmit the values of Western, commercialized culture world wide, without, in most cases, asking for a two-way exchange of ideas or values. To challenge that seems an impossible task. And yet if we are to build a world culture that respects the multi-diversity of the world’s peoples, we must learn and teach others how to ask questions, challenge assumptions and seek out alternative views.

In a world that begs to be interconnected, our participation and understanding of worldwide media through media literacy is one exciting new way to contribute to the building of world peace, ethnic harmony and sustainability for all of humankind.