Media Literacy: An Overview…
Inquiring Minds Want to Know:
What is Media Literacy?
Deborah Leveranz and Kathleen Tyner
The Independent, August/September 1993
The Japanese call it johoshakai, the Age of Information, and if the soothsayers are correct, it will change the world of the future as surely as railroads transformed society in the nineteenth century. Instead of new products and commodities, the telecommunication highway of the Age of Information is positioned to transport a burgeoning commodity as old as civilization: information. It remains to be seen if increased access to information can improve the human condition, but is apparent that humans are already awash in more information than the world has ever seen. Technology pundits gleefully describe how it will be processed, packaged, and delivered to every home. As people clamor for access to more and more information, a niggling question remains: what are people going to do with all this information once they receive it?
Media literacy offers an answer. The internationally recognized definition of media literacy, and one used to mandate media literacy in Canada’s public schools, is “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and produce communication in a variety of forms.” Media literacy extends the traditional notion of literacy to include electronic forms of communication. In fact, media literacy is nothing new. It is the same old literacy with a fancy name. Like print literacy, media literacy is a lifelong process And like print literacy, the fact that people can make sense of words on a page without moving their lips (or watch TV which talking on the phone) doesn’t necessarily mean they are literate.
Media education recognizes that raw information is probably worse than useless if people do not have the skills to organize, evaluate, and make it work for them. According to its champions, media education builds the necessary information processing skills to negotiate contemporary society in way that are both personally and socially satisfying.
Media literacy is not only about reading. Increased access to video equipment, computers, and other new technologies means that consumers also have the ability to produce their own messages. In 1992, there were 40,000 electronic bulletin board services in he United States. By 1993, the number had skyrocketed to 60,000. Consumer video equipment wed to computers offers unforeseen avenues to produce and transmit words and pictures anywhere in the world. People are desperate to learn how to use information technologies. In its second year, the Multimedia Institute at San Francisco State University has a waiting list of 300 students.
As people become more sophisticated media users, these skills carry a tremendous potential for the revitalization of both education and the arts in an Age of Information. Media education provides a structure for discourse on diverse and sometimes polarized issues-independent versus mainstream media., stereotyping versus alternative representation., consumerism, propaganda, and censorship. It offers methods for articulate self-expression about media information that can be transferred to a variety of personal and civic purposes.
The discursive kind of literacy envisioned by media educators demand a cultural, historical, economic, and social context for complete understanding of media messages. The process begins when the reader mentally questions mediated information in books, on television, and in all sorts of pop culture messages. This process of questioning information is what media literacy education is all about. As Elizabeth Thoman, executive director of the Center for Media and Values in Los Angeles says, “Media literacy is not about finding the right answers, but about asking the right questions.”
Why should independent film/videomakers care about this media literacy movement? It is for the development of audiences for alternative works? Or to encourage future makers to carry on a tradition of personal vision works? It is to provide an arena for discourse on the social and political impact of society’s self representations? It is to empower under-represented or disenfranchised populations? There is no right answer, and there are many other “right” questions.
A short history lesson
Media education in the United States probably began at the turn of the century with the acceptance of the novel, considered a radical form of popular culture at the time, in traditional schooling. It ahs enjoyed popularity sporadically in this century, primarily as a reaction to the introduction of new pop culture communication forms, such as comic books, film, radio, and especially television. The typical position taken by media educators throughout history, as each new medium was introduced, pitted popular culture against fine arts, with media-the primary disserninators of popular culture fare-clearly on the defensive. This protectionist stance toward media was derived from assumptions based more on conventional wisdom than on social science research-such assumptions as:1)Popular culture is inferior to fine arts as a subject for study; 2)popular culture directly causes anti-social behavior; 3)audience members have little control over the power of media; 4)Americans would prefer classical books and music to popular culture, once they were educated to enjoy them by those with discriminating taste; and most of all, 5) even though “the business of America is business,” commercialism in any form is bad.
The problem is , who decides what is “good media” and how can “bad media” be regulated? Short of the sheer force of will that adults can exercise over children, the hope for early attempts at media education put stock in “critical viewing: that allowed people to see the error of their popular culture ways and self-regulate their use of media.”
In this reactionary vein, the 1970’s marked the first concerted effort to involve elementary and secondary students in media studies thorough critical viewing of television, fueled by a 1972 Surgeon Generals’s Advisory Committee on Television and Violence that pointed to a link between television violence and anti-social behavior. Some highly public critical viewing skills curricula were funded by the U.S. Department of Education, including those developed at WNET-New York, Far West Laboratory in San Fransico, and a number of private companies. Substantial school funding allowed for production equipment purchases that fueled a renaissance of mediamaking alongside critical viewing. This was augmented by the emergence of the nascent media arts field., which came about in the mid-seventies when the National Endowment for the Arts created a major media arts center category, and the financial support and sanction was forthcoming from major foundations, most notably Rockefeller. With a favorable funding climate and a recognition of media as an arts discipline, numerous young people trained in the schools went on to join forces with or start media arts centers.
Many of the media education efforts in the 1970’s were recognized as successful-from Sesame Street to Kodak’s “visual literacy” curriculum to the federal government’s various programs providing financial support for equipment in the schools. Nonetheless, media education came to be seen as another educational fad with no real purpose. By the early 1980’s, the conservative “back-to-basics” movement in U.S. schooling choked off official sanction for the fragile media education movement before it could take root. A dwindling economy nearly killed it off.
New, improved media education
Ten years later, a revitalized brand of media education sprouted from earlier critical viewing efforts. A hybrid of art, science, and education, the media literacy movement of the 1990″s is more about education than it is about media. Driven by a need to reform and restructure schools, it seeks to revitalize education by positioning media arts, instead of the traditional reading and writing is still about pencils and books, but it is also about the symbolic and visual language of film, video, computers, and popular culture texts.
The media education movement in the late twentieth century has much in common with those who seek school reform, away from a factory model of education that sees the student as a standardized end product to one that offers learners an opportunity to direct their own learning. This method of learner-centered education is not new. It was touted by John Dewey in Democracy and Experience in Education during the last wave of Progressive reform in the he late teens and early 1920’s in the United States. Dewy championed the need for hands-on experimental learning, democratic schools, and inquiry-based methods of instruction. His attempts to bridge art and science are of particular interest to those who produce hands-on media with kids. He says, “Scientific and artistic systems embody the same principles of the relationship of life to its surroundings, and both satisfy the same fundamental needs.”
The inquiry-based method of posting questions and encouraging students to question classical “Socratic method” practiced by the ancient Greeks, who ironically thought that the introduction of reading and writing was a dangerous threat to oral culture, a premonition that was probably on target.
The two most prominent practitioners of school reform at this time are the Foxfire teachers, begun in Appalachia and headquartered in Georgia, and the Coalition of Essential Schools, a school reform effort begun by Professor Ted Sizer at Brown University. Both of these reform movements address the best teaching style and institutional setting for inquiry-based, experimental, democratic, and student-centered learning and have chapters operating nationwide.
Although the principles of school reform are generally popular, real reform encounters resistance every step of the way in a skirmish of control over public schools that involves issues of turf, economics, and culture. Whole careers can tumble, as in the case when site-based management of local schools is taken from mid-level educational bureaucrats. At its most basic, the reform issue questions the power of the teacher, who is on some levels an agent of the state, and elevates the power of students. As in any change, school reform involves major shifts of power that are slow to implement and quick to encounter obstructionist tactics.
In short, the school reform movement emphasizes: 1) student-centered learning; 2) democratic classrooms; 3) hands-on, project based work; 4) inquiry -based education; 5) research-based approaches; 5) alternatives to standardized testing; and 6) cooperative learning. Those who practice media education insist that the learning environment must include many of these school reform elements and that media studies is not complete unless students have experience in both analysis of media and hands-on production.
Proponents agree on other principles as well; 1) media are not “windows on the world”, but are carefully manufactured products with social, political, and commercial implications; 2) even though media are not “real,” they affect people in real ways; 3) the McLuhanist idea that each medium has a unique language that influences the content being delivered; 4) audience members are not passive, but actively create meanings that sometimes subvert the meanings intended by the producers.
Media educators stress that the primary goal of media education is not merely to train future media workers or to provide students with outlets for personal self-expression, but to foster the kind of critical autonomy it takes to be informed citizens in a democratic society. If, the argument goes, essential for an informed citizenry. As an emerging field, media educators are striving for the goal of democratic citizenship from a variety of approaches. The goal is to find common ground, shared principles, and an articulated mission that unifies the various factions in media education so that it can forge ahead as an integral part of American education.
The great divide
Ironically, media literacy suffers from too much of a good thing. It isn’t that no one knows what media literacy is. The problem is that everyone has earnest ideas about how to go about it. Because each media eductor words isolated circumstances, opportunities are rare for the kind of discourse necessary to hammer out a broad consensus about the processes, skills, and principles that constitute a complete course of media study.
This engenders some heated discussion in the small but growing discipline. The debate centers around the goals and purposes of media education, but it also includes strong opinions about how much structure media education should include. Since media education is composed of two parts, analysis and production, the debate usually splits along those lines, most often pitting media artists, who tend to favor production, against reform-minded educators, who think the analysis side of media education is most important. Community access producers media professionals, and average citizens have their own vocal notions about why we need media education and what path it should take.
Those who favor analysis believe that production is important only as it informs the analysis of mass media products. Generally speaking, the analysis crowd is composed mostly of certified school teachers and university educators who would like to see a formal and structured approach to media study. Many of them have no production training and are often not particularly comfortable with media technologies.
The production proponents, on the other hand, are mostly made up of media artists who have seen firsthand the power of student production to increase student self-esteem through self-expression and to offer a voice to those who have been marginalized by mass media. The media artists complain that the analysis component can be accomplished through a less-structured osmosis process of learning by doing. Media artists have also see arts education eroded in public schools and feel strongly about the need to strengthen the arts though media arts education.
Hands-on video production has a tough enough time in public schools. Access to equipment is usually a problem, and it is so alien to teachers and administrators that they sometimes don’t know what to do with it. Even so, the teachers are curious about video, and there is some evidence that its use in the classroom is exploding. A 1991 survey by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting found that 56.4 percent of the California public schools surveyed reported hands-on video production in the curriculum. Since video production is almost never a part of teacher training, teachers need media artists to help them use video to further their curricular goals. The artists can also nudge teachers out of the amateur’s trap of replicating broadcast models of production (let’s make a news show, tape the football game, etc.) and into new and exciting formats for self-expression and activism.
International media educators watch the U.S. media movement with amusement. They marvel that the U.S. produces more media than any country on earth, but that in education about media. Americans come in dead least. They chortle as the U.S. gropes toward media education, because they’ve seen it all before-20 years ago in their own countries.
The international context
It is not true that there is no concerted media education effort in North America. In fact, Canada has mandated media literacy in Ontario (not coincidentally the home of the late Marshall McLuhan). The Canadians practice a form of media education sometimes called the U.K. (United Kingdom) Model, owing to its refinement in Australia, Great Britain, and Canada. Media education in those countries is well-established, across the curriculum. Although most often found as part of the secondary curriculum, it is beginning to be included as part of primary schooling, due in part to the fact that every teacher in Ontario now has an opportunity to take media studies classes in the course of his or her teacher training. The Canadians may be the leaders in North America, but the Australians are widely acknowledged to have the most experience in developing theory and practice in media studies. The Australian Teachers of Media (ATOM) membership fluctuate from 1,000 to 2,000 members, many of them beginning in “screen education” in the 1960’s. “Screen education” was the name given to film studies at the time, and many of the principles are still used in analysis of electronic media. ATOM members have produced hundreds of curriculum frameworks, books, and teacher resources over the years and have proven themselves to be a powerful force for school reform. In Australia, media education began as a grassroots teacher movement and includes a strong media arts component.
In England, the British Film Institute produces media education resources for media teachers throughout the United Kingdom and works with a number of teacher training centers throughout England and Scotland. Also in England, the work of a core group of intellectuals positioned media educations as an essential component for democratic citizenship. Len Masterman, author of Teaching the Media, has the highest profile in the United States. His work stresses the role of critical teaching and learning as the core of media literacy analysis and practice. The goal of media education, according to Masterman, is “critical autonomy” -the ability of students to practice questioning media with their teachers until they automatically question all information, every time they encounter it.
The work of Paul Friere influenced a similar media education movement in South America, and media educators can be found on every continent, in both developed and developing countries. A media education conference sponsored by UNESCO, the French media education organization CLEMI, and the British Film Institute in 1989 in France hosted media educators from 22 countries from every continent. It was apparent at the UNESCO meeting that the U.S. had a long way to go to get in step with the international media literacy movement.
This is due in part of the fact that media is approached in the United States from a wide, sometimes conflicting, variety of purposes that touch on aspects of the ability to “access, analyze, evaluate and produce communication in a variety of forms.” Few programs in the U.S. approach the ability of international media educators to integrate these four skills into a coherent and structured whole. As media teachers begin to find common ground and work toward a unified goal of media education for all students, the field of media education will take on increasing importance in global educational reform efforts.
Bridging the gap
In 1992, two events helped to bring media educators together to find common ground and to lay the ground work for the discourse, support, and organization necessary to bring media education to the United States. With these events, media artist, educators and community leaders cross disciplinary boundaries to forge a fragile synthesis of education and the arts, opening new and challenging opportunities to bridge the gaps between technology, education, and the arts though the analysis and production of media. In April 1992, an unprecedented gathering of government officials, educational policy analysis, educators and artists met in Austin, Texas for a conference cosponsored by the Southwest Alternate Media Project (Houston). Strategies for Media Literacy (San Francisco), and the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture (Oakland, California). At that conference, the group formed the National Alliance for Media Education (NAME), a coalition of individual and organizations with a common goal of promoting media education in the United States (“What’s in NAME’s Name?” April 1993}.
NAME is in its infancy, but has already received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to create a database of media educators in partnership with the National Telemedia Council, one of the oldest media education groups in the United States. Other NAME projects planned for 1994 include a student tape exchange and dissemination of media education information.
In December 1992, an international group of media educators met at the Aspen Institute Leadership Forum on Media Literacy to discuss strategies for supporting media education in the United States. The gathering offered a rare opportunity for those in the field to begin a discourse about the role and purpose of media education in the United States. A position paper on media literacy was released by the Aspen Institute in June 1993.* The media literacy movement in the United States is currently enjoying attention from a wide variety of sectors. Several nonprofit organizations continue to create materials, offer support, and networking opportunities for media teachers. Public access producers are including media education as part of their production training, and arts institutions are looking at ways to incorporate media education into their community outreach programs.
Individual media artists are finding their own place in the media education movement. The hope is to get alternative works included in the school curriculum-teaching about media, not using media as an illustration for other subjects. Media education not only ones a new market for distributors of independent work, it also provides what independent producers are best at-access to different points of view, with an infrastructure for presentation and discourse. The media artists and organizations that have been working with young people since the 1970s and later are beginning to find new opportunities within the educational and social systems. These are no longer tied strictly to arts education, vocational education, or at-risk populations, but are integrated into the fabric of our life-long learning.
Corporations are also starting to show some interest. They see a chance to “re-purpose” their footage for media education uses, especially in the field of multimedia production. For example, ABC Interactive ahs the opportunity now to re-purpose news footage for interactive, edu-tainment products that teach bout science, health, and history. In the past, most of that footage could be literally as old as yesterday’s newspapers. Now it can make money for ABC again and again. Unaccustomed to the limelight, the challenge for media educators is to stay the course so that media education does not simply become this year’s buzz word, only to be discarded by the next educational fad.
Where do we go from here?
The hope for media education lies in its ability to form coalitions and alliances and to bridge divisions in the field. Support form the upper echelons of the educational bureaucracy is vital, but the center will not hold without an equal push from the grassroots that demands media education at the local level in schools, community groups, and arts program.
Arts educators see media education at its most basic as a way to approach audience development. Although not every media student will become a mediamaker, all of them are audience members and citizens who can benefit from sophisticated understanding of mass media materials. To maintain and develop audiences for alternative media, it is the artists” job to team with educators to articulate a compelling vision of media education in the United States, one that provides the arena for asking the right questions and coming up with new answers in the Age of Information.
*Media Literacy: A Report of the National leadership Conference on Media Literacy. By Patricia Audefheide, is available from: The Aspen Institute. 1735 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Suite 501, Washington, DC 20036. fax: (202) 986-1913.
Kathleen Tyner is founding director of Strategies for Media Literacy, a nonprofit organization that promotes media education, and is a research associate for rural and educational technology programs at Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development. Deborah Leveranz is artistic director of the Southwest Alternate Media Project and develops programs in media literacy for children, parents, educators, and artists.
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