Media Literacy

By Cynthia Peters


When my daughter came home from kindergarten telling me that her school was teaching her about the media, advertising, and such things as toy packaging, I was impressed. She was beginning to get the tools necessary to think critically about the blizzard of advertising and commercialism we confront everyday. It’s always been clear that no matter how much parents de-emphasize TV or avoid the malls and the Disney stores, kids will be hit hard by the corporations that want them to consume their products and their values. We can’t protect kids from all the media messages, but we can empower them to be critical. We can make them "media literate," the goal, I discovered, of an important political movement that has gained momentum in the last few years.

With programs sprouting all over the country, finding outlets in schools and churches, the media literacy movement aims to equip children with the skills they need to critically view commercials and be better consumers. Some media literacy programs also teach children how to use various mediums themselves. According to the Aspen Institute Leadership Forum on Media Literacy (1992) and the Canadian Association for Media Literacy, media literacy is the ability to "access, analyze, evaluate and produce communication in a variety of forms."

Is this a long overdue anti-corporate critique of the media? Not exactly. The people who preach media literacy hail from all over the political spectrum. Their funding sources are everything from the Catholic Church to Disney Corporation and MTV. They use media literacy as a tool to counter whatever media messages they find particularly abhorrent or as a neutral form of "education."

For the Right, there’s too much emphasis on birth control, homosexuality, and single motherhood on TV. For the Methodists, TV violence stands in contrast to their biblical faith that "every person whom we encounter is as precious as one created in the image of God." For Donna Shalala, Secretary of Health and Human Services, teachers who bring a media literacy curriculum into the classroom are doing nothing less than "protecting the future of our country" by educating kids to say no to smoking, drinking and marijuana use. [Current Health 2, Nov. 1996, v23 n3, pS1] For liberals, advertising that does not deliver on its promise abridges our rights as consumers. For grassroots organizations that put communication tools directly into the hands of urban youth, for example, media literacy helps young people "navigate modern times."

Almost no one wants to look at key questions of who owns and controls the media. There is little attention to the profit-driven nature of our economy and how that gives rise to a commercially driven media. With the exception of organized religion, most of the media literacy movement emphasizes awareness over social change, and places responsibility for mediating the media squarely on the shoulders of parents and teachers, and the children themselves. As several authors from the media center of the Judge Baker Children’s Center in Boston put it, "We need to teach children how to watch television safely." [Boston Globe, December 14, 1997]


Reign of God in "the kingdom of thingdom"?

The Catholic and Methodist Churches are two branches of organized religion that have put considerable energy into the media literacy movement. While both focus on education, they also explicitly see media literacy as an opportunity to push Christian values and faith.

Sister Elizabeth Thoman, C.H.M., executive director of the Center for Media and Values in Los Angeles and early activist in the media literacy movement, asks, "How do we instill [in children] moral values of justice, selflessness, and understanding when mass media bombard them with images of instant gratification, violence, and greed?" [U.S. Catholic, March 1994, v59 n3] Part of her answer is to disseminate educational kits that help children "interpret, analyze, and evaluate the images, words, and sounds that make up our contemporary mass-media culture." Since 1991 Catholic activist Hunt Violette has been sending a newsletter to parents, pastors, Sisters, schools and 58 Protestant churches, her goal being to teach critical thinking. Specifically, she touches on issues of sexism, consumerism, and parenting and relates these themes to more general questions of how to "make faith and values more central to daily life."

In 1992, the Vatican marked its formal recognition of the importance of media literacy by publishing a "Pastoral Instruction on Social Communications." In it, the Vatican acknowledges that "reality, for many, is what media recognize as real." Thus, the media have the power to marginalize people, values, cultures and art forms that do not fall in its range, not only in North America but in third world countries where U.S.-owned media systematically undermine indigenous cultures. Although the Catholic Church has certainly been guilty of its own often brutal form of evangelism, this particular document is surprisingly critical of the hegemony practiced by the economic and political elite. Calling access to information and the protection of one’s indigenous culture a fundamental right, the Vatican wants to reintroduce the "values of the reign of God," and persuade students that they are "daily being coerced to join `the kingdom of thingdom,’ where their intrinsic value as persons is stripped away and they become one more commodity to be bought and sold." [America, March 6, 1993, v168 n8]

The Social Principles of The United Methodist Church, in its section on "Media Violence and Christian Values," points to "the unprecedented impact which the media (principally television and movies) are having on Christian and human values within our society." Identifying media violence as the moral equivalent of a harmful substance, Methodists call for media that clearly "Create community and value and develop cultures; help to remove people and society from the cycle of violence; ... respect human dignity and seek to involve people in participatory communication processes that enhance human dignity." Beyond gaining analytical skills, Methodists hope individuals will prepare for "citizenship in a media culture -- understanding how the media work in society; [and] taking personal and public action to challenge government and industry." [from "Violence in Electronic Media and Film" off the Web]


Non-profit, secular media literacy, brought to you by...

A major theme of the dozens of non-religious media literacy projects around the United States is that no one is to blame for the content and form of the media. We simply must be better educated about how to view and use it. According to Wally Bowen of North Carolina’s Citizens for Media Literacy, media educators worry about being "perceived as aiding and abetting conservative media critics with their overtones of censorship." Furthermore, media educators worry about alienating "our well-heeled colleagues in the media industry. Indeed, some U.S. media educators see the media industry as a primary source of funding." Bowen also points to the inherent conservatism of U.S. public school bureaucracies and the fact that media literacy is grounded in language arts curriculum, which distances it from such issues as "political economy, power relations, hegemonic influence." One set of teaching materials put out by the {NAME?} is called "Beyond Blame." Though its goal -- to teach children how to critically view the media -- is laudable, the media itself is never demystified. Children gain no understanding of the logic that drives corporate media nor any insight into how it functions as an advertising delivery system. To make matters worse, some media literacy projects actually deliver the advertising.

The non-profit Just Think Foundation says it wants children and adults alike "to have a better understanding about the media and the messages they are sending and receiving. Instead of being critical about the media, the Foundation promotes critical thinking about the media." Founded in 1995 and sponsored by the likes of Disney and FAO Schwartz, Just Think's goal is to collaborate with educational organizations and the entertainment industry in teaching young people critical thinking skills about today's media and providing them with production tools to create their own media projects.

Just Think’s hip and graphics-loaded web site reminds us at every turn that the media is not the problem, it’s our inability to understand the media that needs to be remedied. The liberal sprinkling of corporate logos with links to corporate web sites provides a constant background buzz of legitimation. Just Think’s own logo -- an illuminated light bulb -- reflects its own benign goals: heightened consciousness on the part of the media consumer, and support by the education community and media industry in the media literacy process.

What exactly can the media industry contribute to the media literacy process? According to Renee Hobbs of Babson College and a leader in the media literacy movement, the industry-supported media literacy resources often provide teachers and parents with their first exposure to the rich and complex ideas of media literacy. Hobbs adds, "If this were the end of the journey, then I'd be concerned about the possibility that these approaches could co-opt the media

literacy movement. But generally speaking, teachers and parents quickly appraise the wider range of complexities and paradoxes of the American mass media system and move beyond the industry-supported materials which serve to introduce them to the field." Hobbs also believes that some industries can play an educational role. Claiming it would be inappropriate to receive funding from the ad industry, for example, she would nonetheless like to see it take some initiative in the educational aspects of media literacy. Advertisers could "pull back the curtain" on the ad industry -- demystifying and deglamorizing commercials, so that we can critically analyze how they operate on us.

Wherever you stand in the debate about how the media and advertising industry can contribute to media literacy, it should be clear what they have to gain from their participation. First, they are associated with a positive educational effort that only wants to understand how the media works. Their presence in the media literacy movement reinforces the notion that they are it: the one immutable "real thing" that can have its inner workings investigated and unmasked to a degree but that is not at risk of losing any power. Once more people start to ask why the media works the way it does, how they have managed to so thoroughly control what we see and hear, and what their interest is in keeping a narrow range of political debate, any corporate presence, along with their dollars, will quickly disappear. Second, believe it or not, the media probably stands to benefit by having more media literate consumers out there. Just as the book industry is interested in a population’s ability to read, the media industry -- especially as its tools of communication grow more complicated and technical -- will profit from having consumers who know what to do with and how to appreciate the plethora of communication implements. The media industry must know on some level that knowledge of and comfort with video equipment, computers, internet communication, etc. will increase the number of people schooled in and enamored of electronic media.


Hey kids! Stand up for your rights!

Zillions magazine, a sort of Consumer Reports for kids, has, for years, been heavily involved in pulling back the curtain on the toy industry. Empowering kids by helping them understand the toys they play with and the ads they see on TV, Zillions falls short of actually criticizing the multi-billion dollar industry. Their goal, rather, is to make the child a more savvy consumer -- one who knows how to product-test shampoos in her own home and "zap" brand name dolls that don’t live up to advertisers’ promises. Filled with pictures of child testers who are either gleeful or despondent about how a toy worked, Zillions reinforces the idea that toys can deliver happiness if they work correctly.

Not that children shouldn’t be knowledgeable about the toys they covet. They should. Perusing Zillions, kids will see images of children who look engaged, critical and discriminating about the products they use -- a sharp contrast to the kids on the TV commercials.

But can we pause for a moment and consider what the poor kids have to deal with when the product actually works the way it’s supposed to. Consider, for example, the Take Care of Me Twins. These dolls sneeze and produce from their noses a cute bubble of fluid, which can then -- hold on! brace yourself for the excitement! -- be wiped! Think of the action, the creativity, the cognitive stimulation! But that’s not all. These dolls also drool. And don’t forget: there are two of them. Twins, remember. As the ad says, "Caring for twins is so much fun!" Indeed. Now, if there were ever a case of one hoping that the packaging would blessedly not deliver on its promise, this would be it. Since when does anyone think it’s fun to clean runny noses and mop up baby drool? But, as Zillions reports, the problem with these dolls is that they over-deliver, sending streams of water out of their noses and mouths when "burped" or made to sneeze. The disappointed tester we see in the picture seems to say to us, "It’s not fair!" She wanted cute body fluid bubbles and instead got a geyser.

Are there any kids out there that might be able to think critically about why such dolls and activities are pushed on girls in the first place? After all, sexism can be really disappointing as well. As can the free trade laws that make it possible for child labor and underpaid adults to churn out these cheap playthings. Throw in corporate controlled and deregulated children’s television, a profit driven industry, an economic system that puts children at a higher risk for poverty than any other group, and a consumer culture that leaves many feeling deprived even as they are surrounded by stuff, and you’ve got all sorts of things to feel disappointed about.


Not-so Public Schools

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley says that young people need media literacy to help them "stretch their minds and avoid being passive consumers." [Marketing News, March 11, 1996 v30 n6 p2] President Clinton has signed into law "The Goals 2000: Educate America Act" which includes a Media Literacy standard for all primary and secondary levels. Donna Shalala thinks that media literacy will give kids the critical thinking skills necessary to avoid drug use, which is glamorized by popular culture.

Meanwhile, advertising is becoming ubiquitous in schools. In Colorado Springs, the side of a big yellow school bus becomes a bill board for just $2500. A six-foot commercial banner hung inside the school for one calendar year costs only $700. In Toronto, schools are using screen savers on their computers that mix motivational messages with sales pitches from fast food and soft drink companies. The Pepsi-sponsored screen saver advises kids to "develop a thirst for knowledge." In Braintree, Massachusetts, a company called Cover Concepts has made a multi-million dollar business out of giving away free book covers that are decorated with corporate advertising. Prego spaghetti sauce sends out free educational materials about viscosity and samples of its sauce so that kids can see for themselves just how thick and rich it really is. Gushers fruit snacks are sent out to teachers along with an educational packet that promises to motivate students’ interest in Geology and the Earth Sciences. The teachers are urged to "have each student put [a candy] in their mouths, and discuss the process needed to make these fruit snacks `gush’ when you bite into them. Then teachers can ask the kids to describe how the biting process differs from the process that creates erupting geothermic phenomena." [Stay Free! Marketing to Kids issue. Spring 1997, p. 31.] Channel One -- the advertising-driven, in-school TV network -- is in about 40% of the country’s secondary schools. It got there by giving free video equipment to financially strapped schools. Schools give their students as an audience in exchange. According to Roy F. Fox, author of Harvesting Minds, Channel One now has daily access to 8 million kids in grades 6-12. [Stay Free! P. 32]

While some parents express relief that at least cash is coming from somewhere, and school administrators throw up their hands and point in despair at their unbalanced budgets, Alex Molar (author of Giving Kids the Business: The Commercialism of America’s Schools) reminds us that corporations are escaping unscathed from public criticism. Even though they are legally bound to promote the interests of their owners and protect their bottom line, they are not considered special interests. Corporate funding of educational products is a form of self-promotion. Molar asks, "Can you imagine in your wildest dreams that a parent volunteering to tutor children in a school would only do so if they were allowed to promote the business they worked for?" While Donna Shalala and Edward Riley worry about marijuana use and keeping liquor and cigarette ads a certain distance away from schools -- not necessarily ill-conceived concerns -- Pepsi has brazenly walked right in the front door, virtually unnoticed. It has turned your kid’s computer into a digital billboard, has succeeded in associating its name with a child’s thirst for knowledge, and has made the public educational system that much more dependent on and vulnerable to privately held corporations.


The political potential of the media literacy movement

The media literacy movement has the potential to be an important educational and social change tool. It should provide the opportunity to educate children not just about deceptive toy packaging, but about where we look, in this consumer culture, to get our needs met. We could be investigating not just how well the doll’s body-fluid mechanism works, but how sexist toys demand certain kinds of play from girls. Beyond being critical of the inane sit coms and troubling TV violence from the broadcast world, we could investigate the industry more deeply and begin to understand how, as a system, it is designed to produce shows that deliver advertising. We could ask what sort of pressures are at work on the TV producers given that they work in a monopolized, profit-driven industry. We could ask how schools have come to deliver captive audiences to the corporate world. The media literacy movement should lead us to ask deep questions about the nature of our economy, the way we get our needs met, and the way we experience culture. It should persuade us that being knowledgeable about the media is not enough, that being vigilant about our children’s use of toys and TV is not enough, and that joining forces to reform the worst of the industry is not enough. The media literacy movement should not leave it to the Right and organized religion to put forward alternative values to those delivered by TV and consumer culture.

The grassroots organizations, churches, parents, teachers, and even the corporate-funded foundations that make up the media literacy movement are responding to the real outrage people feel about how the media operates on us in everyday life. As progressives, we should be adding our analysis of the media industry and our vision for alternatives to this growing movement.