Jesuit Communication Project

Media-literacy guru needs an angel

The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
December 2, 1996
Copyright 1996, The Globe and Mail Company
By John Haslett Cuff

Alhough he's been a member of the Society of Jesus for 40 years, Father John J. Pungente doesn't see television as the devil's tool, and he's adamantly opposed to censorship. He also thinks the V-chip is useless because it exempts the two forms of television violence that most affect children, news and sports.

Canada has long been a leader in the field of media-literacy education, thanks largely to the tireless and illuminating work of Pungente. And yet, for lack of funding, he may be forced to pack up his invaluable library of more than 4,000 books and research materials on media and move to the United States.

Pungente has approached more than 100 different foundations--without success--for continuing support for the Jesuit Communication Project, one of the world's leading media education resource centres. If a corporate or foundation donor doesn't step forward soon, this world-renowned media educator will have to look elsewhere. The Project is located on one floor of offices in Toronto and is run only by Pungente and his long-time assistant, Adrienne Pereira. It's a registered charitable institution that was founded in 1984 to "encourage, promote and develop media literacy." It functions as a consultant to education and industry, offers use of its media library and publishes Clipboard, a semi-annual newsletter that covers media-literacy activities around the world and goes out to 41 countries.

For the past 12 years, Pungente has laboured heroically in Canada to assist teachers, children and parents in media-literacy education, a discipline that is a required component of most high-school curriculums in Canada and in many countries.

"Pungente is one of a kind," says Neil Andersen, a teacher and writer. "And the loss would be incalculable if he left. There is probably no one who knows more about the state of media literacy and education around the world than John."

Thanks to his Internet connections and the more than 300 workshops, lectures and presentations Pungente has conducted in Canada, the United States, Japan, Britain, Australia, Spain and France, he is known and highly regarded by virtually everyone in this important and still relatively new field of education. The terrible paradox is, that while ministries and boards of education are beginning to acknowledge how crucial media literacy is to the impressionable and media-saturated young, there is scant training available for teachers just entering the profession and few resources allocated for the task.

"The irony is that educators have finally realized that we live in the 20th century and that children spend more time watching television than they do in school. They accept that media-literacy education is essential, but they basically tell teachers they'll have to learn this stuff on their own," says teacher Barry Duncan, who is also the author/editor of the textbook Mass Media and Popular Culture. "It would be terribly sad to lose Pungente, he's been something of a white knight," lobbying for copyright reform for teachers and fighting off the various attempts to bring commercially sponsored newscasts into the classroom, says Duncan. "John is a marvellous scholar, has a great, wry sense of humour and has brilliant presentation skills, whether he's talking to 800 teachers or a small group of parents who are concerned about violence on television."

"Media literacy is the ability to look carefully at media messages and think critically about them," Pungente explains. "It is a basic literacy, one that is as important as reading or writing."

Pungente, 56, was a movie brat, raised in Brandon, Man., where his father ran a Famous Players cinema. He eventually took a Master's degree in film as well as M.A.s in theology and English. He has worked variously as a high-school teacher and principal and as chairman of the Manitoba film classification board, where he led the fight against the government's attempt to ban Last Tango in Paris. Pungente has no patience for what he calls the "innoculationists," those V-chip lovers, book burners and anti-Power Ranger zealots who want to protect people from the evils of= culture.

"I'm offended by inanity," he says with a chuckle, "by how appallingly awful some TV shows are. The more media literate a country is, the better its television tends to be." The United States, which produces the bulk of the world's most popular culture, is probably the least media literate of all, he notes. "The reason British and Australian television is so much better than ours is that they've been paying attention to media literacy for more than 30 years."

Pungente's involvement with media literacy is a natural outgrowth of his faith. The priests of the Society of Jesus have been renowned educators for more than 400 years. And the Roman Catholic Church first acknowledged the importance of the new media as a "fourth agent" in the moral instruction of citizens as early as 1938--this was reinforced in Vatican 11 (1962-65), when the Vatican Council and Pope John XXIII urged the faithful to embrace media literacy.

In addition to being director of the Jesuit Communication Project, Pungente is also founder and president of the Canadian Association for Media Education Organizations and the producer (with Neil Andersen and Gary Marcuse) of Scanning Television,a scintillating four-part video series and teacher's media-literacy workbook.

Submitted by John Pungente