A Few Words about "Media Literacy"

Media literacy is the ability to understand how mass media work, how they produce meanings, how they are organized, and how to use them wisely. The media literate person can describe the role media play in his or her life. The media literate person understands the basic conventions of various media, and enjoys their use in a deliberately conscious way. The media literate person understands the impact of music and special effects in heightening the drama of a television program or film...this recognition does not lessen the enjoyment of the action, but prevents the viewer from being unduly credulous or becoming unnecessarily frightened. The media literate person is in control of his or her media experiences.

The following definition of media literacy came out of the Trent Think Tank, a 1989 symposium for media educators from around the world sponsored by the Canadian Association for Media Literacy:

"The goal of the media literacy curriculum must be to develop a literate person who is able to read, analyze, evaluate, and produce communications in a variety of media ( print, TV, computers, the arts, etc.)."
Most often, "the media" are lumped together as a single entity. But "the media" are actually many forms of communication...including newspapers, magazines, and billboards, radio, television, videocassettes, video games, and computer games. Since the students participating in VidKids are primarily engaged in television viewing (most of them are too young to read newspapers and magazines), our activities focus on video and TV.

Why teach media literacy to young children?

Because American schoolchildren spend more time watching television than they do in school or play. The average child watches approximately thirty hours of television per week! The Los Angeles Times recently reported that 37% of children aged 9 - 11 have their own TV's, as compared to 49% of 12 -13 year-olds, and 54% of 14 - 15 year-olds.

Media bring the world into our homes. From them, we learn about war and peace, the environment, new scientific discoveries, and so on. We are dependent upon mass communication for knowing what is going on in our physical, social, economic, and political environments. In other words, almost everything we know about people, places, and events that we cannot visit first-hand comes from the media. We also rely on media for entertainment and pleasure. Television and film have become the storytellers of our generation; these stories tell us about who we are, what we believe, and what we want to be.

The cumulative impact of mass media is to unconsciously shape our visions of ourselves. In some ways, this is fine: we can learn from the media that our nation is strong and decent, that our political process is reliable, and that our technological acheivements are often remarkable. But in other ways, allowing the mass media to shape our images of ourselves is dangerous because the media must follow conventions that are often out-of-sync with real life.

Mass media can teach us what it means to be a woman, what families are supposed to be like, or what it means to grow old. Because we receive these messages over and over, we may unconsciously come to accept them as truth without really thinking about it.

The dangers of not thinking about media are greatest for young children, who are among our nation's heaviest but least sophisticated viewers. By failing to help them develop media literacy skills that will allow them to analyze critically what they see and later read, we allow their developing visions of themselves to be controlled by men and women remote fro them and from us, whose values and visions we may not share.

While creating video is one important way for children to understand how media works, it is not intended as a way to train future media professionals for jobs. Instead, you might think of it as teaching "good citizenship" skills. After all, young people must be able critically evaluate the world around them in order to fully and effectively participate in it.

The purpose of media literacy is to empower young people to understand the mass media and how it works so that they can be in control of this important aspect of their own lives.

To look is one thing,
To see what you look at is another,
To understand what you see is a third,
To learn from what you understand is still something else:
To act on what you learn is all that matters.
-- Taoist saying

The above discussion is adapted in part from the book Media & You: An Elementary Curriculum.