July 29, 2005

MEDIA LITERACY: What is it and Who needs it?

In Canada, media literacy means different things to different people. In classrooms it has usually meant guidance for students on how to decode and deconstruct meanings and messages in all forms of media, ranging from print to television, film, radio, video games and the Internet. At the kindergarten level this has translated into emphasis on making play areas, war toy free zones. At the elementary level, attention has been paid to the inadequacy of classification systems and how young children invariably end up with access to "adult only" entertainment. There has also been much hand wringing amongst educators over the growing popularity of television wrestling matches and violent video games which have given rise to bullying, aggression and gang related violence in real life. Remarkably, as the problems worsen, links with violence in popular culture in news reports have virtually disappeared, suggesting a collective desensitization within society at large.

In Ontario, at the high school level, media literacy as a separate subject, was introduced to Grade Eleven students in the late 1980s. The emphasis on decoding and deconstructing meanings and messages in all forms of media, with students taught to "read between the lines and images", was a definite step in the right direction, however, integration of child development learning theory was lacking. Similarly, values and ethics were side stepped on the basis that "as a teacher you had to start where the students viewing habits lay to hold their interest". As a result, hard rock music lyrics and other extremely violent media content were often normalized within the classroom, along with the conventional wisdom, that the best strategy was ALWAYS for parents to interpret the messages. Seldom, if ever, was it considered to be turning off the television entirely.

In the end, the primary emphasis, before media literacy as a separate subject was eliminated entirely during the Harris years as a cost cutting measure, was to teach students how to work effectively with various new forms of communications technologies. In other words, the emphasis was almost entirely on production skills. Likewise, at the post secondary level, media studies have usually revolved around post modernist, cultural analysis of various forms of media or production techniques. Here too, with the exception of growing concerns about media ownership concentration, ethical considerations have been avoided on the basis that diversity was the key. The ugly specter of censorship has always been raised by corporate behemoths as well as liberal academics, artists and journalists in the debate over policy. Consequently, very little common ground has been established between the polarities of individual and collective rights on the issue of harmful effects.

Canada has been a pioneer in developing media literacy curriculum for schools. It was one of over 85 recommendations in the Report from the Royal Commission on Violence in the Communications Industry, released in 1977. It is time for us to step up to the plate on the subject once again. Indeed, our very survival and that of the planet may depend on it. Terrorism, for example, takes on a myriad of different faces - gun snipers, serial killers, school shootings, youth gangs and suicide bombers. All of these forms threaten the fabric of democracy. Media violence and the real life violence it helps to fuel, is quite literally, leading to the silent crumbling of our social infrastructures.

National security is an increasing preoccupation amongst governments as well as the public at large, yet the predominant emphasis in the current public debate is on more military spending and rooting out misguided youth who "hate our freedoms". Very little attention is paid, within the mainstream media, to underlying causes and factors contributing to an escalating international culture of violence. The incredible destruction of civilian infrastructure and lives as a byproduct of so-called "humanitarian" wars is also usually ignored as a contributing factor to the despair of young men of Middle Eastern origin anywhere in the world. Often, despite middle class backgrounds and a good education, in western countries, they are the ones who find it particularly difficult to obtain gainful employment. In addition, they most certainly contribute to the billion dollar annual sales in violent video game entertainment, known to contribute to, among other harmful effects, increasing feelings of victimization, anger and rage.

In fact, it has recently been reported that, not only does the American Military draw upon Hollywood expertise using violent video games such as Doom and Quake to train and recruit soldiers, so does Al Qaeda. This was pointed out in the documentary titled MEDIA JIHAD aired on CBC Television's THE PASSIONATE EYE July 22. Indeed, stores in London, England, which serve the Pakistani diaspora, reportedly sell violent video games in which Americans rather than Arabs are the villains targeted for destruction. In other words, the well-known copycat effects of media violence as entertainment have found their way onto the real life stage of international terrorism.

The devastation to the environment caused by modern American warfare, leaving many areas in developing countries virtually uninhabitable, is seldom discussed at all. Consequently, ecosecurity, our most urgent concern at this juncture in our human history, is hardly on the radar screen for most politicians. Lester Brown, with the World Watch Institute has, for at least a couple of decades, argued that the powerful influences of mass media must be more effectively harnessed to provide the kind of education required to save us from our own self-destruction as a species. C-CAVE welcomes assistance and suggestions on how we can best mobilize resources for media education in Canada where it is most urgently needed.

Rose Anne Dyson, Ed.D.
Chair: C-CAVE and the Media Working Group - Science for Peace (University of Toronto)
Editor- The Learning Edge
Author of MIND ABUSE: Media Violence In An Information Age
Co-author of MEDIA, SEX, VIOLENCE and DRUGS in the GLOBAL VILLAGE and Terrorism, Globalization & Mass Communication