Voices of Media Literacy: International Pioneers Speak
Voices of Media Literacy is a collection of interviews that were conducted in 2010-2011 with 20+ media literacy pioneers who were active in the field prior to 1990. These pioneers represent the English-speaking countries of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and the United States. Their views not only shed light on the development of media literacy, but also on where they see the field evolving and their hopes for the future. Update 2015 - Newly added interview of pioneer Dorothy Singer. Update 2016 - Newly added interview of pioneer Victor Strasburger. Update 2017 - Newly added interview with pioneer Lesley Farmer. Update 2019 - Newly added interview with pioneer Guillermo Orozco Gómez.
These 20+ transcripts may be found as follows (in alphabetical order):
See Presentation from NAMLE Conference 2011
Introduction/Perspective/Credits and Methods
By Tessa Jolls, Publisher and Executive Editor
Friends, Colleagues, and Advocates,
It is my special privilege and delight to present you with the opportunity to enjoy the voices of 20+ pioneers in media literacy – those who talked the talk and walked the walk when media literacy was merely an infant, prior to the 1990s.
The Concepts of media literacy apply to this published project and information as they do to all others. Undoubtedly and sadly, some of these pre-1990 pioneers have been left out – some are deceased; some are lost to the field and now untraceable; some are unknown to us; some do not speak English and due to our resource constraints, we chose not to include them; and yes, some are more equal than others – given that we set out to interview 20+ people, we focused on choosing those recommended to us by other pioneers, those who are outstanding contributors with strongly recognized track records amongst their contemporaries. Only one person whom we invited, John Puengente, declined to participate.
Although media literacy is universally applicable and practiced globally, all of these 20+ pioneers now reside in the English-speaking countries of England, Canada, Australia or the U.S. All of them have devoted significant portions (if not all) of their careers and yes, their lives, to media literacy, even before the term media literacy was invented. Without exception, each recognized – very early – that although media is a fascinating subject, it is teaching about media, not just teaching with media, that distinguishes media literacy education. In the end, we made our choices of whom to include and we gratefully and proudly stand by them.
We set out to ask the following questions of each pioneer:
1. Why did you become involved in media education?
2. What were your goals?
3. What has surprised you?
4. What are some experiences that you had early-on?
5. What are some milestones that you noted along the way, for yourself and for the field?
6. What informed and inspired your work? (Scholarly work? Technology? Social Events and Needs?)
7. How far do you think the field has come?
8. Do you think the field has moved in the direction you think best? Why or why not?
9. What would you like to see happen?
10. Whom would you recommend to be part of this project? How can we contact him/her?
Each interview took its own course, but in the end, a mosaic emerges, and this mosaic leads to a fascinating mural of the times and the people and the happenings. Some individual views are in concert with others, some are contradictory. But each person speaks for him or herself and a picture of the whole emerges over the course of reading all the interviews.
It is my hope and my expectation that these discussions will provoke ideas and will gestate more debate and more importantly, action. We stand today on the shoulder of these giants, of these remarkable people who helped launch a great movement and discipline that is so central to our times and to the future; their perspective and experience are invaluable and instructive.
There are many themes and messages that come to life in these interviews, but a few stand out strongly for me:
In spite of the noise and confusion, the debates and the arguments, we must stand together in our pursuit of media literacy for our people, the citizens of the world who operate each day in the global village. It is not a matter of “new” media literacies or “old” media literacy; it is not a matter of emphasizing the analysis of tv or the internet (or in earlier days, the radio); it is not a matter of whether media literacy is a field or a movement or a pedagogy.
It IS a matter of standing together to help citizens acquire the literacy skills they need for pursuing life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in the 21st century. Media literacy is literacy. The timeless Concepts of media literacy, the fundamentals still count, and yet our education system has neglected incorporating them as central to acquiring and discerning content knowledge. That is a result of flaws in the education structure, not in the media literacy pedagogy.
As a result, technology has galloped ahead and is highly accessible, while literacy is not. Generations have missed getting these media literacy fundamentals, but it doesn’t make the need to get the fundamentals any less relevant; they are more important than ever before! Deconstruction, construction, participation – they are all intertwined and relevant. The Concepts of media literacy apply, regardless of the medium.
Let’s stand together on what we can agree on and seek to help millions of people to get the skills and knowledge they need. Let’s recognize up-front that media literacy exists on a continuum – some will be more media literate than others, and that’s fine. And in the meanwhile, we can continue to experiment and to develop and grow the cutting-edge body of work that our special expertise enables us to keep expanding.
No one will ever be the master; we all continue to be seekers who can always improve our skills and knowledge. But to make media literacy accessible to millions, it must be presented in a way that works for millions.
Several pioneers expressed thoughts about whether media literacy is a “field” or a “movement.” Personally, I see this debate as a false dichotomy and a red herring.
Why does media literacy have to be one or the other? To me, it is both – and more. It is a field of study, a pedagogy, and a movement. There are special characteristics, overlaps, opportunities and cautions involved in each arena.
Media literacy is a field. To be media literate, one must learn about how media systems operate. Media systems can be systematically identified and analyzed (hence the Core Concepts of media literacy), and the systematic exploration of a system at work is the foundational characteristic of a field. The biggest caution I see in making progress in the study of media literacy as a field is a structural one, in that universities are divided into knowledge silos that inhibit interdisciplinary study. Media literacy as a field demands “systems thinking” and interdisciplinary study; it is a 21st century field that the feudal university structures typically don’t support, which makes the pursuit of media literacy as a field challenging. Fortunately, scholars are persisting.
Media literacy is a pedagogy. Understanding about media oneself and teaching others about media are two different skills. The basics of media literacy provide a framework and teaching/learning strategy applicable in school and outside of school, 24/7. Using media literacy Concepts is a strategy for helping people acquire content knowledge and to discern. People can use the Concepts to help teach themselves individually on a lifelong basis, or to help teach and share with others, using a common vocabulary and understanding of the Concepts. Media literacy is rooted in a process of inquiry, and this is a fundamental pedagogy and internalized skill that makes sense in today’s information-heavy culture. Teaching and learning don’t just “happen” in a classroom; we are all teachers and learners who need to know how to be media literate.
But though the classroom walls are breaking down, media literacy advocates must address the professional development and other resources needed for success in formal education settings. And as formal education addresses the fact that content is infinitely available, and that they must concentrate more of their efforts on teaching media literacy process skills, there is a need to build out the pedagogical infrastructure that is missing on a large scale.
Media literacy is a movement. Everyone in society has a stake in media literacy, since media literacy is fundamental to having capable citizens in a democracy that is dependent on critical thinking and analysis of information. With stakes this big, and understanding of the new role of information and education in our society still so limited, it is imperative that media literacy become a movement of millions of people who seek to become excellent information managers, wise consumers, responsible producers and active participants in their communities. It is imperative that millions of people demand that these skills be formally taught to their children. The grassroots will ultimately be heard. In this context, it is also imperative to have the support of all involved, especially the media corporations who drive and control much of the messaging.
Credits and Methods
Many people helped to bring this project to fruition. The major spark for the project came from my friendship and conversations with Marieli Rowe, who has given so much of herself to so many. My work with Elizabeth Thoman over the years also spurred my curiosity and interest in the field’s evolution; Liz has been unflagging in her dedication. I started working on the project in earnest in 2008, and upon Marieli’s recommendation I contacted Barry Duncan and asked his input. Barry generously framed some historical developments and provided some project parameters. Barry defined the early roots of media literacy as being prior to the 1960s, led by Marshall McLuhan Sr., Bee Sullivan, Father John Culkin and Herb Ostrach. Marieli went even further back in time, as you will see in her interview. Barry defined the first wave of media literacy in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s (it is this era that Voices of Media Literacy most closely represents). Barry defines the second wave of media literacy as starting with the 1990 conference at the University of Guelph, Ontario and the 1992 Aspen Institute conference (this is when the U.S. folks started participating in greater numbers.) And Barry defines a third wave as starting with the Media Education Conference in 1995 in Boone, NC. There are undoubtedly other turning points or points of departure since then, but I believe that Barry’s perspective is key to understanding the early gestation of the field.
Barry also recommended, at the project’s inception, to focus on a cultural studies model of media literacy, since this model provides critical rigor for early efforts to understand media and to teach about media. Len Masterman is a key figure in this evolution (and yes, Len, some are definitely more equal than others! Thank you for all your inspiration and the Concepts of media literacy!).
Due to other pressures, I didn’t work on the project again for two years, during which time I mentioned the Voices of Media Literacy project to my friend and colleague Barbara Walkosz, then a communications professor and media literacy advocate at the University of Colorado-Denver, and now a consultant at Klein-Buendel, a health communications firm. Barb enthusiastically endorsed the project and I invited her to join with me. Barb subsequently recruited a doctoral candidate at UC-Denver, Dee Morgenthaler, who along with me, conducted interviews and assisted with editorial duties beginning in spring, 2010. Marieli Rowe personally interviewed Jean Pierre Golay with the technical assistance of Karen Ambrosh. The last interview was conducted in June, 2011.
It is no easy task to convert an audio recording to a printed text. Dee Morganthaler and Nyrie Kayekjian transcribed 19 audio recordings, and Elizabeth Clayton Smith and Hannah Schechter collaborated to transcribe the recording of Jean Pierre Golay’s interview, in which he and Marieli Rowe conversed in French (Hannah Schechter translated the French to English and transcribed the text) and English (Elizabeth Clayton Smith transcribed).
Along the way, minor copy editing for readability from the audio text was done by Dee Morganthaler, by Nyrie Kayekjian, by Joao Castilhos and by me. Each pioneer was given the opportunity to review and edit his/her individual transcript one time; then we published the transcripts. Some transcripts are lightly edited and some are heavily edited by the pioneers, but regardless, the finished transcripts are the words of the pioneers themselves. Beth Thornton, CML's communications director, provide major work with the web-related publishing. Aaron Dietrich, CML's web developer, provided technical assistance. Each one of the people credited here gave countless volunteer hours to this project, and I am deeply grateful.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t thank the pioneers themselves: there are not enough words! Their brilliance, their hard work, their dedication, their sharpness, their sense of fun, their inspiration! They have given the world a true gift and on a minor note, their stories kept me going in the times of trouble that plague any major project. I also want to acknowledge and thank my family, especially my husband Tom, who have steadily supported my work.
President and CEO
Center for Media Literacy (CML)
Voices of Media Literacy Publisher/Executive Editor