Media literacy is a new and important area within the interdisciplinary movement of new literacy studies (sociolinguistics, mass media, curriculum, and cultural studies, etc.). In this context, media literacy goes beyond reading and writing texts to also include (in a Freirian sense) reading and writing the world. As a new area of inquiry, media literacy involves (a) understanding how corporate for-profit media work, and their impact on educational, social, political, cultural, and linguistic practices; (b) understanding that educators, parents, and citizens need to be media literate to be able to participate in and for a democratic society; and (c) developing strategic abilities for searching, supporting, and/or creating independent, nonprofit alternative media.
There are several approaches to media literacy. Some draw on theoretical frameworks (cognitive, moral, ideological, etc.), and some on media analysis (advertising, news, content). The lack of media literacy potentially prevents citizens from effective participation in democratic systems. Democracy, as a freely elected and responsible government by popular consent, cannot exist without informed citizens. Therefore, the existence of independent media is a sine qua non for maintaining a democracy.
Evidence suggests that in the United States, corporate media are, in fact, becoming adjuncts of government to advance their common agendas and to develop policy that favors their interests. Consequently, corporate media are becoming unprecedentedly large (five major conglomerates) and diverse in their media businesses (many media modalities: radio, TV, film studios, magazines, etc.). The obvious consequence is that democracy becomes poorer—what some term a “capitalist ‘democracy,’” one involving consumer choice more than genuine democratic participation. Chomsky sees this process as an “assault on democracy” in which powerful corporate and essentially totalitarian entities linked to powerful states function in ways that are largely unaccountable to the public.
In this context, the technological revolution in communications is paradoxical. It provides the possibility for facilitating communication among people but also makes possible forms of domination and control by facilitating the hegemonic conjunction of market, military, and political interests through the creation of consensus and dissensus.
More than just “representing” reality, corporate controlled media increasingly construct reality—a reality convenient to their interests and their corporate and political allies. Ben Bagdikian points out that today, in the age of the communications superhighway, people live in two worlds: a “flesh-and-blood” world and a media-constructed world. As the latter becomes more ubiquitous, the first world becomes more illusive.
Understanding how media work implies also that we are aware of the psychological impact of media programming. In this context, authors such as Carlos Cortés document how media teach about cultural diversity and how consumers learn not only content information, but values, attitudes, sentiments, looks, perceptions, and culture. Noam Chomsky has pointed out in much of his work that a critical understanding of corporate media requires “intellectual self-defense” in which we become aware of our susceptibility to be influenced by propaganda and ideological control.
In the era of corporate media, TV and the Internet in particular are shaping students’ minds and learning experiences, both inside and outside the school. Chomsky argues that TV works in tandem with schools to indoctrinate students and therefore prevent them from asking questions that matter in their lives. Nonetheless, most of the media’s curriculum remains hidden and unrecognized. But this is not an obstacle for affecting the consumer. Actually, as Lilia Bartolomé and Donaldo Macedo point out, mass media educate more than teachers and parents combined.
Television as a media form is not limited to commercial broadcast programming. Alex Molnar, for example, has documented how Channel One has entered schools, often against the will of teachers and parents. He shows how the imposition of Channel One is largely unfavorable for schools and inappropriate for students who become captive consumers. This type of contract leads researchers such as Molnar to argue that the real purpose of Channel One is not to serve students but to indoctrinate them in a mercantilist and materialist mentality under the guise of “curriculum improvement.”
David Sholle provides several guidelines for relevant, local, and effective critical media literacy: (a) unwrapping the myths and excluding discourses; (b) placing media analysis into a theoretical and historical context to confront market-driven production and consumption; (c) connecting text and imagery with students’ experiences so as to allow them to express their allegiances, pleasures, and understandings; (d) helping teachers to operate as facilitators of critical media literacy by steering discussion to students’ literacy practices and targets of media propaganda; (e) facilitating students’ active engagement in remapping and expanding their views and positions for the purposes of strengthening democracy; and (f) building counterhegemonic strategies for oppositional practices.
In conclusion, media literacy is a pedagogy of questioning that is indispensable to democracy. To be media literate is to read critically and understand the texts and reality constructed in media sources, and in turn the power relations, myths, and types of control they assume. Not to have our students become media literate is ultimately undemocratic and contradicts the likelihood of a sustainable and just society.
- Bagdikian, B. H. (2004). The new media monopoly. Boston: Beacon Press.
- Bartolomé, L., & Macedo, D. (1997). Dancing with bigotry: The poisoning of racial and ethnic identities. Harvard Educational Review, 67(2), 222–245.
- Chomsky, N. (1989). Necessary illusions: Thought control in democratic societies. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.
- Cortés, C. (2000). The children are watching: How the media teach about diversity. New York: Teachers College Press.
- Cortés, C. (2005). How the media teach. In G. Schwarz & P. Brown (Eds.), Media literacy: Transforming curriculum and teaching (Yearbook Vol. 104, pp. 18–34). Chicago: National Society for the Study of Education.
- Freire, P., & Macedo, D. (1987). Literacy: Reading the word and the world. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.
- Herman, E., & Chomsky, N. (1988). Manufacturing consent: The political economy of the mass media. New York: Pantheon.
- Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2003). New literacies: Changing knowledge and classroom learning. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.
- Molnar, A. (1996). Giving kids the business: The commercialization of American schools. Boulder, CO: Westview.
- Semali, L. (2005). Why media literacy matters in American schools. In G. Schwarz & P. Brown (Eds.), Media literacy: Transforming curriculum and teaching (Yearbook Vol. 104, pp. 5–17). Chicago: National Society for the Study of Education.
- Sholle, D., & Denski, S. (1995). Critical media literacy: Reading, remapping, rewriting. In P. McLaren, R. Hammer, D. Sholle, & S. Reilly (Eds.), Rethinking media literacy: A critical pedagogy of representation (pp. 7–31). New York: Peter Lang.
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