What is Comprehensive Media Education?

What is Media Literacy?

By: Diedra Downs, Executive Director, Downs Media Education Center, Santa Fe, NM

Comprehensive media education is the most exciting trend in school reform today. It leads our children, and eventually our society, to become media literate. Media literacy is defined as the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and produce information through a variety of mass media forms.

Mass media includes radio, television, film periodicals and books (including text books), newspapers, computer on-line and interactive technologies, cultural environments (shopping malls, freeways, cereal boxes, etc.), popular music, and energing technologies up to and including Virtual Reality.

Acess indicates the ability to: obtain a needed piece of equipment, know how to operate the equipment, understand options of research and informational sources, pursue avenues of becoming an informational mesage, Analyze indicates the ability to identify a myriad of individual elements, to correctly position each element within a given framework, and to explain the comparative weight of each element within the message as a whole.

Evaluate indicates the ability to seperate and identify personal or professional goals and values -- and to hold the identification as a system against which to judge the worth of both textual and sub testual messages.

Produce indicates the ability to create and construct a personal mass media message, while resisting the temptation to simply mimic the styles and statements to which we are all continually exposed. Clearly, conventional literacy is a prerequisite -- one should be a ble to read and write in order to produce a communication in any format. Because of its tightly woven interdisciplinary nature, a comprehensive media education curriculum encompasses history, mathematics, language arts, critical thinking, technology, philosphy, logic citizenship, classical values, social studies, political science, fine arts, and other traditional pedagogical areas. And it presents these subjects in a way relevant to contemporary youth.

From an industrial point of view we need workers with the modern ability to access, analyze evaluate and produce information, so in a sense, media literacy is a vocational mandate. But of course, we believe the urgency goes much deeper tan Voc. Ed. in a world awash with images, where our culture and society are profoundly integrated with and shaped by mediated mesages, the ability to process information (especially iconographically coded information) is imperative to personal survival.

From a democratic point of view, we need citizens who understand the inherent resposibilities of freedom, and are self-motivated enough to thoroughly research issues prior to esercising their right to vote. Too many elections have found too many of us casting ballots on sound bites or emotinal images, and too few of us informed of the issues which ultimately affect us and our families. Comprehensive media education addresses this phenomenon head on.

Because Mass media is by nature a unilateral communication, when the students move back and forth between the analytic/critical thinking model and the production model (with product release to the public through various outlets), they experience their own importance -- which strengthens their sense of individual empowerment and resposibility. And it becomes clear that a meditated message is not the "voice of authority" which it at first appears to be.

Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, as our society and its culture continue to be shaped by the breathtaking advancement of technology within the realm of electronic mass media, it is crucial that students learn how their own values and opinions are shaped by the commercially driven interests of industry -- with a bombardment of subliminal messaes found everywhere from homes to schools to popular music.

Understanding of the political ecoomy of mass media becomes a sociological study of how our contemporary culture is evolving (or devolving -- away from traditional social priorities.) In studying the political economy of mass media within a commercial driven structure, students' eyes are opened to the overriding culture impact that private industry has in shaping our society. The Downs Center believes and teaches that a free-market economy is the best economic system available -- but that we must understand its liabilities as well as its benefits.

You have probably guesed by now, correctly, that the implementation of a media literacy curriculum involves school reform at the most basic level. It is not reasonable to isolate the study of mass media when the reality of mass media is fully integrated into our classrooms, homes, busineses, and into our discretionary hours of recreation.

What is called for are classrooms as fully integrated into "real life" models as mass media are integrated into genuine "real life." The most effective approach uses a team of teacher/generalists -- each with an education specialty -- conducting a student-centered, project oriented environment. The advisability of portfolio-based assessment becomes clear when one recognizes the difficulty of absolutes like 'yes' or 'no' answers within an evaluative and critical thinking model of learning.

Whether dealing with material for history, science, or art, comprehensive media education analyzes and evaluates mediated texts against the Canandian "five key concepts". The key concepts are adapted from those formulated by Barry Duncan, Chair of the Ontario Ministry of Education Media Literacy Project. Teh five key concepts are:

1. Media constructed their own reality. This is true even of news, documentaries, and other "reality" programs. Media are constrained by forms, codes and conventions.

2. Genre, tempo, formula, format, etc,: This concept is directly related to McLuhans's famous statement that "the medium is the message."

3. Media present ideologies and values messages. Who are the "the media?" Do they reflect our world or dictate it? Mesages are presented to us within both text and sub-text; overly and subliminally; by design and by accident. Going beyond simple camera techniques and stereotype-identification, this profound concept trees media literate individuals to identify their own set of values and recognize when their inner voice is being violated by an outer influence.

4. Media are businesses with corporate interests and commercial implications. Even public television and public radio are subject to corporate pressures. With this concept students learn how to locate and analyze "alternate" sources of information -- as a balance to "mainstream messages; to understand a citizen's responsibility within a capitalist system, while protecting themselves against unavoidable and potentially damaging persuasions.

5. Audiences negotiate meaning. The most famous example of this key concept is Norman Lear's All in the Family, a program designed to illustrate the absurdity of bigotry and narrow minded prejudice. While the majority of the viewing audience negotiated the meaning of Archie Bunker, as a buffoon, there also developed audiences, in pockets of our country, who chose to see him as a hero and were pleased to have their points of view represented by him.

The United States remains the only major industrialized nation to disregard the educational mandates of comprehensive media education. The reasons for this are many and fascinating -- the solution to this is positioned in action. There is great excitement within the US educational community among those who know about the National Media Literacy Project: Pilot State New Mexico. It is hoped that the pilot site will demonstrate a cost effective and practical model of school reform, and will assist in leading the nation in the implementation of comprehensive media education and media literacy.

In short, media literacy is best defined as the inclusive literacy for people on the edge of the twenty-first century.

Diedra Downs is the Executive Director and founder of the Downs Media Education Center located in Santa Fe, NM.