Winter 1994, Volume 2, Number 1

Can U.S. media literacy movement open door to more points of vew?

Tired of feeling like the Lone Ranger of Media Literacy? Now you can join your ML friends in a cyberspace forum sponsored by New Mexico State University and KRWG-TV in Las Cruces. To join, write Jim Ficklin, Box 30001, Dept. TV-22, Las Cruces, NM 88003-0001. Jim's e-mail address is

Following is a commentary on the U.S. media literacy movement posted to the list by Wally Bowen.

The goal of Citizens for Media Literacy is to link critical thinking about media to citizenship and civic education.Examining the histori-cal roots of our current mass media system and the journalistic and story-telling conventions it has spawned is especially helpful in creating productive analytical models and methods. For example, using the frames of history and political economy have been vital in our approach to the issue of the Information Highway and what this new media means to citizens rather than consumers.Unfortunately, the U.S. media literacy movement has been too focused on visual literacy. As a result, the perceived pool of available training and trainers is limited largely to the language arts curriculum. Visual literacy is certainly an essential part of media education, but it too often limits analysis solely to what goes on inside the frame of the TV screen. It also does not address the needs of teachers in the fields of history, social studies, government, economics, and health education.

Another limiting factor in the U.S. media literacy movement is an apparent distrust of points of view that question the effects of heavily mediated experience. For example, those who raise the issue of heavy TV viewing on brain development in young children or who question TV cultures effects on language, socialization, community-building, or the environment often get dismissed as media bashers, or as protectionists or proponents of inoculation theories. Similarly, some leaders of the U.S. media literacy movement seem ambivalent about challenging the hegemonic nature of the U.S. media industry (with the possible exception of the violence issue). Mounting such a challenge is de rigeur if you're Canadian, British or Australian because of the obvious hegemonic influence of U.S. media in the international realm.

This American ambivalence has several interesting threads: First, American media educators do not want to be perceived as aiding and abetting conservative media critics with their overtones of censorship. Second, we are not immune to the peer pressure of our well-heeled colleagues in the media industry. Indeed, some U.S. media educators see the media industry as a primary source of funding.Third, the inherent conservatism of U.S. public school bureaucracies discourages the broader examination of media culture inherent in a cultural studies approach, with its emphasis on questions of political economy, power relations, hegemonic influence, etc. Fourth, the U.S. media literacy movement does not have the common grounding in a cultural studies approach that lends breadth and coherence to the British-Canadian-Australian models. These pressures and the absence of a more cohesive and inclusive philosophical framework have resulted in a rather insular and self-referential coterie of media educators. This was probably inevitable.

The pioneers of U.S. media education started from scratch and without any significant institutional support. What worked was the visual literacy approach, and where it worked was in the language arts classroom. The conventional wisdom said that entry into the politically charged minefield of the public school curriculum is achieved by slipping media literacy into the language arts critical skills curriculum.Despite the merits of this focused and pragmatic approach, the strategy has a serious limitation: it fails to connect to the concerns of a broad range of scholars, teachers, health educators, parents and citizens who are seeking ways to critically challenge a media system that exploits children, reduces citizens to consumers, rewards those who poison public discourse, and perpetuates a high-consumption lifestyle.Moreover, this narrowly focused approach may be self-defeating because it encourages a defensive posture toward views which do not fit its limited frame of reference. Fortunately, this trend may be changing.

The recent Teaching Around Television conference sponsored by Albuquerque Academy opened up the conversation to points of view rarely heard at previous U.S. media literacy conferences. The conference was a watershed event because it laid the groundwork for a more inclusive approach to U.S. media education. Albuquerque Academy has not only positioned itself to become a leader in the U.S. media literacy movement, it has also created the prospect of the independent school network becoming a force for making media education a critical component of K-12 school reform in both the public and private sectors. The nations independent schools have a long tradition of being in the forefront of innovation and change. Their deep roots in liberal arts traditions make them less vulnerable to conservative complaints about media educations core requirement that a cultures dominant stories and archetypes be critically examined. Albuquerque also opens the door for the kind of public-private partnerships that are now in favor among private foundations and a growing number of government agencies.In summary, if the U.S. media literacy movement focuses exclusively on a kind of scaled-down, politically palatable version of what the Canadians, British or Australians call media education, then our impact in the schools will continue to be piecemeal and minimal.

Even more tragically, we will have left the field wide open to those reactionary forces who are more intent on limiting rather than liberating thought and expression. We Americans must create an inclusive vision of media literacy that speaks to the concerns of all citizens who are committed to critical thought and expression and to the First Amendment principles described by Justice Hugo Black, who wrote in Associated Press v. United States (1945) that the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public. . . . Freedom of the press from government interference under the First Amendment does not sanction repression of that freedom by private interests.

Return to Contents Menu