Tools for Teaching Media Literacy in Faith Settings

From Forming Values in the Media Age, A Sourcebook for Media Literacy Education in Catholic Schools and Parishes, 1992.

Process, not content, is the key to success

Media literacy education provides a perfect opportunity for leaders to teach as Jesus did. Teaching media literacy is a partnership, a journey of joint exploration by leader and participant, a co-learning. The model is not a hierarchical one where segments of information are expected to be memorized and regurgitated at the appropriate times. Rather, it is recognizing the "teachable moments" and capitalizing on participants' own knowledge and involvement in the media world that envelops them.

Indeed, even the youngest students will probably know more than an adult teacher about current movies or popular music or the latest advertising campaign. Teachers and leaders should see themselves as facilitators rather than fact-givers. Thus, you don't have to watch a lot of television or be familiar with movie classics to lead a media literacy session. Nor do you need to have a degree in communications or journalism. You merely need to recognize the challenge, have some tools to work with, possess some enthusiasm and have a desire to help people grow. Along the way, you'll learn a lot yourself.

The Pastoral Circle: Making the Values Connection

A proven approach to process learning has been used in Catholic Connections To Media Literacy. Known under various names but primarily as the Empowerment Circle or the Pastoral Circle, its history goes back to the Observe/Judge/Act approach of the Catholic Family Movement of the 1950s. Refined in the work of educator Paulo Freire, the process has fueled the consciencisization movement in Latin America beginning with early literacy education to today's Christian base communities. In the religious education field, similar models have been introduced by James and Evelyn Whitehead and Tom Groome, and in the Peace and Justice community through the work of Joe Holland and Peter Henriot, SJ.

The Pastoral Circle consists of four steps: Awareness, Analysis, Reflection and Action. Together they provide a methodology to transform experience into information and information into understanding to create personal ownership of actions, whether personal, local, national or global. It is a particularly useful model for exploring social issues, such as homelessness or racial discrimination, where the issues seem so large and complex that we feel powerless to effect any real change.

Using the Pastoral Circle framework, we soon identify steps we can take in the short term that can build toward long term impact. Applied to the world of mass media where we too often have felt powerless against the forces of networks, Hollywood and media conglomerates, the Pastoral Circle provides a blueprint, a framework, to confront, challenge and change the way that television and all mass media touch our lives and those of our children. Rooted always in individual and group Personal Experience, the steps of the Pastoral Circle flow in an upward spiral — awareness and analysis leading to reflection and action which leads again to newer and deeper awareness, analysis, reflection and action.

In the Awareness step, participants explore a theme or principle, discovering points of tension where media connects with cultural and personal values. For example, youngsters might compare whether their action toys perform like the ones in the commercials; teens might break apart the "Top 40" list to become aware of how many hits are made by males and how many by females; a parents group might compare notes on the various ways their children of different ages respond to violent images. The Awareness step ideally creates the "ah-ha!" moment that opens the door to learning, growth and change.

In the Analysis step we search for the political, economic, social and cultural factors that influence the problem and through which we have to work to come to some solutions. Discussion about how advertising segments the public into audience "targets" can help us understand how commercial interests determine much of the content and appeal of programming. Learning how the nightly news is gathered and edited can alert us to the limitations of broadcast news, what is not covered and where we can go to find the missing pieces.

Reflection is the step where we interface our faith and personal value system with the media experience we've named and the realities we've analyzed. In this step we search our ethical and philosophical traditions, the scriptures or contemporary Catholic thought - from Dorothy Day to John Paul II to discover what values we can call on to inform our future choices in similar situations. The story of the marriage feast of Cana may give some insight about how to approach the portrayal of marriage and family life on television or the U.S. Bishops' Peace Pastoral may guide us in evaluating news reports of violence and war.

Finally, Action! This should be much more than just calling or writing about what we don't like in the media. Appropriate action might be something we do positively in our own lives— always consulting a TV guide before turning television on or making an effort to supplement TV news with longer stories in print or on public radio. It could be something we do locally— helping to start a parish video library or becoming involved in the citizen review of a local public access cable channel.

Above all, actions need to be specific and do-able. Personal media behaviors are often deeply ingrained and do not change overnight, even with the best of intentions. Systemic changes in the media industry or in the government policies that regulate the field certainly do not happen quickly. We best accomplish long-term change by practical intermediate steps.

Simply put, we can approach the field of media literacy with four words: "Oh!" (Awareness);"How?" (Analysis); "So?" (Reflection); "Go!" (Action). Becoming aware of the media culture, examining product and process, questioning the "fit" with our values and beliefs and taking appropriate action - these are the steps to active engagement with our media world. Awareness, Analysis, Reflection and Action weave in and out of each other like threads in a Navajo cloth.

Coupled with the Core Concepts and Key Questions of Media Literacy, the Pastoral Circle provides a potent tool to address the challenge of forming values in a media age.

"Like fish in water, we are seldom aware of the media environment that continually shapes our lives, values and attitudes. But today's mass media are creating a social environment that is radically different from the society of 25 or even 10 years ago."
— Elizabeth Thoman, CHM

Media Literacy and the Question of Production

When teachers and leaders hear the word "media" they often think "dollars"— and then dismiss the idea of media literacy classes or programs because "we can't afford the equipment." Sure, high tech television programs do cost millions of dollars, but that doesn't mean that the opportunity to learn about media production is out of reach for schools and parishes with even the most meager budgets. Good equipment is often available at minimal or no cost, it's just a question of being creative. In some of the sample sessions and learning modules, you don't need any hardware at all. Indeed, media literacy means not only to be able to analyze and evaluate the media that surrounds us but also to be able to create media in a variety of forms, to express oneself in sound and image as well as writing and speaking.

According to media literacy specialists, 30% of a class or course should be spent in production or in creating with media. Analysis and production work together: by producing a parish newsletter or videotaping a non-sexist commercial, students gain insight into how professional media is created. By putting media together ourselves we become better equipped to deconstruct, or take apart, the media presented to us everyday. Our ability to discern production techniques is heightened. Very often, production activities flow logically as "Action" steps in the Pastoral Circle process. You might not be able to record a song in a fancy recording studio, but you can purchase a CD single (most of which feature an instrumental version of the hit song) and develop your own lyrics. You can't make a feature film, but you can storyboard a short scene for a film. You can't make the news at five, but you can create with any camcorder a 2-minute feature story on a topic your group would like to see on the news. You might not be able to get an article on the front page of the local newspaper, but you can choose which stories will make the front page of your own desktop-published newsletter.

Just as a media literacy program is not complete without some production experience; neither is it complete with only production experience. That's what distinguishes media literacy education from career-oriented broadcast or journalism training. The goal of media literacy education is not to become amateur producers but rather to engage the media in our lives, to interrogate and evaluate its messages and techniques and then to choose, ultimately, whether to accept or reject the values conveyed. Production-oriented activities are an important, but not a dominating, educational tool.


Author Bio: 

Kevin O'Brien, religious educator, youth minister and media producer, was principal author of Forming Values in a Media Age, a Sourcebook for Media Literacy Education in Catholic Schools and Parishes.