October 2, 2003, Episode 47: Media and Messages


Media Literacy is becoming more important as we are continually and increasingly bombarded with media messages during all our waking moments. This week, we talk to the director of a program dedicated to helping young people become more media literate and we contemplate what media is.  Chris Kruger and his Island Voices kids share what they think media literacy is and why it is important.

If you want to become more media literate, we have some websites to suggest:

Know about some other good websites that would make this list complete?  E-mail us at fpp at cultural construction company dot com and let us know what you know.  Be interactive. Be the media.



Marshall McLuhan wrote in Understanding Media:

Quote, after three thousand years of explosion, by means of fragmentary and mechanical technologies, the Western world is imploding. During the mechanical ages we had extended our bodies in space. Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned. Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions of man - the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and our nerves by the various media, close quote.

The media explosion of the 1990s has led to more access to the production of media than ever before in human history. With a home computer, the right kind of software and some know-how, a savvy user can produce texts, sounds, graphics and videos that rival those created by so-called professionals. With the right Internet access, a savvy user can distribute her work in places that people from every country on earth can see.

From a particular point-of-view, it would seem that all media have become democratized.

But another point of view exists, and a valid case can be made for it as well. The media explosion is controlled for the most part by a few multinational corporations. The "right" software, hardware and Internet access will most likely be owned by one of maybe five corporations. The rights of amateur and small professional media producers are being limited by intellectual property laws in countries all over the world and, paradoxically, by the refusal of sitting governments to observe existing law in their own areas. Distribution of independently produced media is bottlenecking, with only a few distributors willing to take a chance on videos and films produced outside of the corporate controlled structure. Cable television may offer over 100 channels to its customers, but without government intervention, the channels tend to gravitate to the same kinds of material.

The driving market force in media is towards the consumer, not the producer. For example, mini-discs, .mp3 players, CD burners and DVD burners are manufactured, marketed and regulated as if the only thing that can be done with such technologies is to listen to music or watch video that someone else has produced.

So, are the new technologies democratizing the market, or has the new media oligopoly limited freedom to the point that only the most mainstream and mediocre creations will be distributed? Well, the answer is yes. Both forces are at work in media and because of this, it is more important than ever for people to be media literate.

The concept of media literacy is not that old. In an article entitled "A Brief History of Media Education" in Media Literacy Review, an online journal produced by the Media Literacy Online Project, College of Education, University of Oregon, Eugene, Bill Walsh outlines four historical periods of media education. 

The first historical period, which lasted until 1960, saw no one paying attention to media. Educational efforts concentrated on printed material and printed material alone. Teachers ignored radio, film and television. The second historical period Walsh calls the inoculation phase, so-called, because media education was bent upon teaching students how, quote, empty, silly, and valueless, close quote media was. The third phase was the use of media in order to gain the attention of the students, the theory being that television and film had created a generation that couldn't sit still long enough to learn something unless it was entertaining. Media education was a means to an end.

By the 1990s, teachers were beginning to understand that a great deal of information was being absorbed by students (and the rest of us) through multiple forms of media. It became apparent that instead of ignoring multimedia, ridiculing it with snobbery or pretending it was a means to an end, the time had come to teach students how to use these sources of information to their fullest potential and how to assess critically the overwhelming amount of information that bombards all of us regularly.

Barry Duncan of Canada's Association of Media Literacy lists six reasons why media skills and media literacy are important:

1. media dominate our political and cultural lives.
2. almost all information beyond direct experience is "mediated."
3. media provide powerful models for values and behaviour.
4. media influence us without our being aware or as Marshall McLuhan described it, quote the environment is invisible, close quote.
5. media literacy can increase our enjoyment of media.
6. media literacy can make a passive relationship active.
Wally Bowen, Executive director of the Citizens for Media Literacy in Asheville, North Carolina, describes the reasoning behind the Harvard Institute on Media Education's emphasis on media literacy:

Quote, The one-way flow of information from corporate-owned and sponsored media reduces citizens to mere consumers. Citizens have rare opportunities to reverse that one-directional information flow, and those opportunities result in little more than "sound bites" or bumper-sticker sloganeering. In short, modern media culture presents us with a paradox: despite the unprecedented power of information technologies, our political discourse has been steadily and inexorably reduced to the carefully manufactured sound-bites of political spin-doctors and other cultural/political elites. Cultural authority is often invested in these voices because they have learned to look and sound the part, and because they have a finely-honed sense of the acceptable parameters of discourse, which in the corridors of power is called "the conventional wisdom." Any ideas or discourse outside these parameters are deemed irrelevant and forced to the margins, where they eventually appear in obscure journals, on an occasional talk-radio program, or on the Internet. Media literacy, as envisioned and practiced by Citizens for Media Literacy, seeks to empower citizenship, transform a passive relationship to the media into an active, critically- engaged force to challenge the traditions and structures of a privatized, commercial media culture in order to find new avenues of citizen speech and discourse, close quote.

How does one achieve this active relationship to media? Oft quoted Jello Biafra, puts it quite simply, quote, don't hate the media, become the media, close quote. Media literacy is not just about learning how to be a better consumer. Media literacy is learning how to become a producer as well.

That philosophy is demonstrated well by a local Victoria program called Island Voices. Local film cooperative CineVic provided a place this summer for kids aged 14 to 19 not only to learn how to use film equipment, but to think critically about media. Participants in the program were able to meet many of the local producers of media and spend some time producing a documentary of their own. The project has been extended into the fall, with drop-in meeting on Fridays and plans to produce some Public Service Announcements.

We spoke with the director of Island Voices, Chris Kruger, about his work with the kids and media literacy. Chris and the Island Voices kids challenged us this week to think about media literacy and our love/hate relationship with multi-media. We translated that challenge into a meditation on the media and what we and others have had to say about it. We will share that meditation in the second half of our show. In the spirit of media literacy and promoting interactivity, we invite you to check out websites for more information on media literacy. Cinevic's web address is www.cinevic.ca and our website, as always, will have additional links, so visit us at fpp.culturalconstructioncompany.com. We, of course, welcome any feedback you want to send our way.

In the meantime, sit back and enjoy this episode on media literacy we call, "Media and Messages."

copyright 2003 by Carl Wilkerson and Pattie Thomas


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