Discerning the Truth:
English Course Teaches Students Media Literacy
"Most Americans probably do not ask themselves when they turn on the six o'clock news who owns the media. Most people open the paper or watch television expecting to get information that is useful to them [i.e., tomorrow's forecast, sports, or local information...]. What they end up with, however, is less about news and more about commercialism."
If you guessed that a renowned media critic like Robert McChesney or Ben Bagdikian is quoted in the opening paragraph, guess again. This is how Kelly Jones, one of my first-year college students, began her essay on media conglomerates entitled "Own the Media: Own the World." The eighteen- to twenty-three-year-olds who comprised my English composition classes were alternately shocked, outraged, and finally galvanized into activists when they learned about the transnational corporations that control nearly all of the media we consume and how it impacts them directly as citizens.
Media conglomerates were the last topic we investigated as part of the four-part media literacy course I offer. The first unit in the course was basic media literacy, where the students learned a working definition of media literacy and why it is a necessary skill for the information age. "Media literacy is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and produce all forms of media, print and nonprint," the definition used by David Consodine in Media Studies. Our textbook, Media Literacy, by W. James Potter provided excellent background for the students as well as exercises to develop media literacy skills, analyzing the content of television shows and becoming sensitized to advertising and patterns in TV entertainment.
The first unit also looked at the cultural impact media has on all of us through how it portrays males and females in ads, movies and TV, as well as the effects of media of violence on children and dating relationships and the persuasion techniques used in commercials. To illustrate these persuasion techniques and deconstruct commercials, I made extensive use of a CD-ROM created by the New Mexico Media Literacy Project.
I also used the CD to concretize the basic principles for media literacy. One concept I stressed repeatedly was that TV runs at 30 frames a second and the conscious mind can only process eight frames per second; thus TV and movies are designed to keep us from reflecting and analyzing material presented. Another concept I stressed is that media create reality. What we see on TV, read in the paper, hear on the radio, or watch in the movies, if it is repeated often enough, tends to become "the truth."
The concept that media create reality was illustrated beautifully by the students themselves when they did their first papers. Many wrote about the damaging impact of advertising and teen magazines on body image because they feature images of unattainable, airbrushed perfection. Several young women shared personal stories of battles with eating disorders. Male and female students voiced their concerns and wrote about the damaging impact of rap music and videos on teen relationships, while others discussed the need for societal awareness of the pervasive, desensitizing and damaging effects of TV, movie and video game violence on youth.
The students especially enjoyed deconstructing commercials and, I admit, I undertook this task with some trepidation. I decided to approach it just the way Bob McCannon showed us during training sessions I took with the New Mexico Media Literacy Project. I began with the Coke commercial that shows the mother bear urging the cub to swim under the ice cold water and rewarding the cub with a Coke, demonstrating emotional transfer. This commercial is highly familiar and very nonthreatening to deconstruct. The class "ooohed" and "aaahed" just like Bob said they would.
Then we tackled the "Barbie and Kelly go shopping" commercial, which demonstrates how very young kids are primed to believe three things about shopping: it's lots of fun, it's not finished until the cart is full and sneaking things into the cart when mom isn't looking is a cool thing to get away with. "Look at this commercial and tell me if you think the story here is a good one for your little brothers or sisters to see," I instructed the class. Bob had assured us that even with an audience of pediatricians, everyone would bounce in their seats and sing "wheee" with the catchy jingle. I had my doubts about my MTV-generation classes, but plowed ahead.
"I'm going to run this commercial straight through the first time and then stop at key places the second time so we can talk about the various advertising techniques," I said as I cued up the commercial and began to play it. The song started to play, Kelly bounced in her seat, and, sure enough, when the singer sang "wheee," so did my students. Both classes responded to the commercial just like Bob said they would, and the ensuing deconstruction went beautifully. The students enjoyed the activity as they exercised their developing critical thinking skills. We had a very lively interchange that even involved some of the students who were usually quiet.
Other units in the course were "Gender, Race and Class in the Media," "Press Coverage in Vietnam & the Gulf War: Negotiating a Compromise" and "Media Conglomerates: What Are the Perils of Media Ownership in the Hands of So Few?"
The unit on war reporting converged with our response to the 9/11 terrorist bombing and the U.S. bombing in Afghanistan with the ensuing debate over the role of the American media in covering the conflict. We had spirited discussions on the role the government, military and press play in determining what kind of press coverage Americans hear when we are engaged in a conflict. Should we see pictures of our casualties? Does the military have the right to restrict the press to pools as in the Gulf War? How much access should press people be given to combat areas? Should civilian casualties be reported? Both of my English classes struggled admirably to come to grips with these vital issues.
Whatever issues we discussed, I believed the worst thing I could do was to teach my students about problems in society and not give them any tools with which to effect change. At appropriate junctureswhen the students were enraged about ads leading to eating disorders, violence on TV contributing to violent behavior, racial stereotyping in media or corporate control of media and its connection to government influenceI gave them avenues of action. Write a letter to the editor, here's the address. If you want to stop buying the magazine, stopbut write to the editor and tell them what you learned and why you're not buying it anymore. Write to CBS, ABC, NBC or FOX and tell them why you think they need more positive programming for minorities and a higher percentage of minority scriptwriters. I took them to a wide array of social activism websites and showed them how to join groups and work for change in a variety of arenas.
For the final project, the students wrote a reflective essay and had the additional option of writing a letter to the media about an issue of importance to them and sending it. About one-fourth of the students decided to write letters, and one student emailed me as soon as she got a response from the radio station she contacted.
My students' words are most eloquent in summarizing what happens when media literacy goes to college:
"I am writing to you at Chevrolet to express concerns about your... 'Keep America Rolling' commercial. Each time I hear it I have the impression it is making an appeal to patriotism. I would like to think this is not the case; that capitalism has its limits in the face of dignity and respect for human loss, but the repeated airing of this commercial has made me wonder." Mike Eskinazi
"I have always liked rap music and perhaps I always will... One of my favorite songs is 'Baby Got Back'... I remember first seeing the video and thinking it was cool. But when I wrote the paper I changed my views. I looked at it from a woman's point of view and noticed the song is filled with filth that puts down women." John Reid
"One of the ways I have changed as a result of becoming media literate is that I am highly skeptical of media messages I receive. I am capable of seeing through the attractive package that they come in.... I would not have dug deep into the wealth of knowledge in alternative sources to learn anything outside of what is on primetime TV... I hope to become a better, more active citizen, instead of a defeated, cynical one." Falinn Roulac
"I grew up with Barbie dolls; I wished I could be blonde, I wished I could wear high heels,....l wished I was thin. Instead of having an improved sense of self, my career, and self-esteem, I ended up doubting myself and the way I had to look to be the things Barbie taught me that I wanted to be. I'm asking you to consider a more proportioned Barbie, a friend of Barbie, a Barbie parent or a Barbie campaigning not only a healthy image, but an open mind to large women and men who are beautiful, realistically beautiful.... I know the risk of losing money is serious in this procedure... but money is worth nothing when shaping the future. Love our girls for who they are, not what society thinks they should be." Carolyn Desormeaux
"Perhaps the most valuable piece of information I have learned is that one must educate oneself by researching many arenas and sources of information about a story or issue. By doing this, one can formulate an educated, PERSONAL opinion rather than digesting and believing what one author or advertiser wants you to believe. Knowledge truly is empowerment, and I am happy to say this course had empowered me!" Avivah Jakob
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This story was published on February 6, 2002.