Media Literacy. ERIC Digest.
by Abdullah, Mardziah Hayati
Children today are growing up in what O'Sullivan, Dutton and Rayner
(1998) call a "media saturated" world, in which mass media, including the
Internet, have a commanding presence in daily life. Media messages exert
such powerful "social, emotional and intellectual influences" (Hepburn,
1999) that it is important to develop a society which understands how media
can both serve and deceive. It is thus imperative for educators to teach
what Megee (1997) calls "the new basic"- media literacy - so that learners
can be producers of effective media messages as well as "critical consumers
of ideas and information" (Rafferty, 1999).
WHAT IS MEDIA LITERACY?
Based on definitions provided by conferees at the Annenberg School for
Communication (cited in Megee, 1997) and by the Canadian Ministry of Education,
media literacy (ML) may be thought of as the ability to critically understand,
question and evaluate how media work and produce meaning, how they are
organized, how they mediate and construct reality, and how they impact
our lives. ML may include the ability to create media products.
Fulton (1998) discusses technology-related competencies and curriculum
standards defined by various states that may be applied to ML education.
Among the six "essential learnings" Illinois desires for its students are
the ability to seek and navigate information, to communicate effectively
using appropriate technology, and to be responsible citizens in a technological
age. Thus, in addition to teaching the technical aspects of handling various
media equipment, ML is concerned with helping learners become informed
users of media messages.
UNDERSTANDING MEDIA MESSAGES
Most people involved in ML share the premise that media are used for
specific purposes, including commercial concerns. Media messages thus embody
values and ideologies (Hoffmann and Johnson, 1998), and although media
texts are theoretically polysemic (open to various interpretations), producers
employ various techniques or codes to draw audiences to the preferred meanings
of texts (O'Sullivan, et al., 1998). For example, product comparisons are
commonly used to persuade consumers that one brand of product is superior
McMahon and Quinn (in O'Sullivan, et al.) identify three categories
of codes that may be used to convey meanings in media messages: technical
codes, which include camera techniques, framing, depth of field, lighting
and exposure and juxtaposition; symbolic codes, which refer to objects,
setting, body language, clothing and color; and written codes in the form
of headlines, captions, speech bubbles and language style. For instance,
a journalist aiming at readers' sympathy for an imprisoned political activist
may choose to publish a photograph of the activist, crouched behind bars,
next to a picture of a caged animal (making use of body language, setting,
and juxtaposition) and anchor the picture to a caption that reads "CAGED!"
Helping learners understand how codes are used to create desired effects
is an essential component of ML education.
IDENTIFYING STEREOTYPES AND BIASES
Media representation of reality may "inform, reinforce or challenge"
stereotypes and biases that exist in society. For instance, the image of
the dumb blonde (associated with characteristics such as seductive behavior,
strong make-up, sexy dresses, naivety, giggling, and illogical thinking)
has been propagated through movies, and although women are increasingly
being featured as tough, independent individuals, commercials still tend
to portray female characters in decorative and domestic roles (O'Sullivan,
et al., 1998). ML education thus needs to help learners explore the extent
to which media help construct "artificial definitions of masculinity and
femininity" (Graydon, 1997). Racial stereotypes pose another challenge.
Racism is often masked, such as in television programs that feature ethnic
minority characters in solely humorous or exotic roles, in commercials
that sell skin-whitening beauty products, and in the frequent portrayal
of minority groups as social problems (O'Sullivan, et al., 1998).
READING BEYOND REALISM
Media mediate reality via the use of recognized codes and conventions,
and the credibility or realism of a media text may be judged by the degree
to which the audience identifies with what is being portrayed. For example,
appropriate setting, clothes and props determine the surface realism of
a drama, while credible acting adds to its plausibility, and suitable music
enhances the mood. However, what is 'real' is culturally situated and subjective
(O'Sullivan, et al., 1998). Crowds at a soccer match may thus appear either
rowdy and unruly or excited and ardent, depending on the narration and
the visual evidence presented. Mediated reality can therefore be controversial.
Nevertheless, O'Sullivan, et al. note that audiences generally accord a
great degree of credibility to broadcast news and documentaries, perceiving
the reporting to be objective and accurate. Documentaries, in particular,
are considered reliable because of visual evidence, location shots, the
fly-on-the-wall approach (recording the reality of everyday life without
structured direction), interviews with experts and ordinary people, and
"seamless editing." In reality, however, these techniques disguise values
and ideologies that determine the editorial choices involved in the making
of these media messages, and ML education needs to sensitize learners to
the underlying intentions of producers.
ML is also concerned with teaching learners how media cater to different
audiences. Understanding audience needs helps producers decide on the content
and delivery of messages. Blumler and Katz, in their 1974 study (cited
in O'Sullivan, et al., 1998), found that watching television fulfilled
four needs: it was a form of escapism or diversion from everyday pressures,
a basis for socializing with other viewers, a channel for exploring personal
problems by identifying with certain characters, and a source of information
about real-world events. This list - which should include educational needs
that are relevant to today's society - is useful for thinking about audiences
of other media forms as well. Writing articles for newspapers and magazines
also requires a sense of who the readers will be. For example, the headlines
and first paragraph of a news article have to contain information about
the what, when, where, who, and how of an event to provide the gist of
a story for busy readers
POSSIBLE LEARNING ACTIVITIES
ML involves interpreting media messages (creating personal meaning from
codes and conventions) as well as thinking critically about then (Rafferty,
1999). Thus, an infusion approach, which immerses teaching critical thinking
within teaching the content knowledge of ML (Feuerstein, 1999), may be
useful. Thoman (1999) identifies five critical-thinking questions that
learners can ask specifically about media messages:
* Who created this message and why?
* What techniques are used to hold my attention?
* What lifestyles, values and points of view are represented?
* How might different people interpret this message?
* What is omitted from this message?
Learners can conduct interviews and short surveys to obtain information
on audience needs and preferences. In addition, Hepburn (1999) suggests
getting learners to keep personal logs about programs that appeal to specific
age groups, and to study prime viewing times and media ratings (using resources
such as the Nielsen report on television viewers).
To further develop critical awareness, learners can be asked to practice
distinguishing fact from fiction in selected television shows, and to review
advertisements found in various media forms, as suggested by Hepburn. Graydon
(1997) encourages learners to study the portrayal of images, such as male-female
images, by physically imitating the ways in which men and women are positioned
in fashion features, describing how the poses make them feel, and noting
consistent differences. O'Sullivan, et al. (1998) advocates student research
on the same subject, such as studying the proportion of men and women appearing
in commercials and the roles they portray.
The more learners are involved in ML activities, the more likely they
are to become informed and empowered users and consumers of media. The
following Web sites provide further information on Media Literacy:
The Center for Media Literacy
The Media Literacy Online Project
Media Awareness Network
Feuerstein, M. (1999). Media literacy in support of critical thinking.
In Journal of Education Media, 24 (1), 43-55. [EJ 588 243]
Fulton, K. (1998). Learning in a digital age: Insights into the issues.
In T.H.E. Journal, 25 (7), 60-63. [EJ 561 440]
Graydon, S. (1997). Overcoming impossible bodies: Using media literacy
to challenge popular culture. In Emergency Librarian, 24 (3)15-18. [EJ
Hepburn, M. A. (1999). Media literacy: A must for middle school social
studies. In Clearing House, 72 (6), 352-357. [EJ 587 385]
Megee, M. (1997). Media literacy: The new basic. In Emergency Librarian,
25 (2), 23-26. [EJ 558 513]
O'Sullivan, T., Dutton, B., & Rayner, P. (1998). Studying the media.
2nd ed. London: Arnold.
Rafferty, C.D. (1999). Literacy in the information age. In Education
Leadership, 57 (2), 22-26.
Thoman, E. (1999). Skills and strategies for media education. In Educational
Leadership, 56 (5), 50-54. [EJ 581 520]