Democracy At Risk:
Building Citizenship Skills through media Education
Author: Dr. Renee Hobbs
Associate Professor of Communication
Babson College, Wellesley, MA
A thirteen year old is studying the cover of a Time magazine issue
featuring the furrowed face of Bob Dole. "This photo," he says, "seems
to suggest a negative attitude toward the candidate. It's in black-and-white,
and this makes Dole look older, and meaner, and notice how his face
has deep lines and his eyes are not looking at the camera. This image
was chosen to cast doubt on the candidate."
Jeremy England, a freshman at Oyster River High School, has been part
of "View Smart to Vote Smart," a media literacy program developed by
Continental Cablevision that features lesson plans, print and video
resources designed for use in the classroom (Splaine, 1996). With his
classmates, Jeremy has explored the ways in which political advertising
shapes the campaign process, and identified the techniques which are
used to attract audiences' attention and manipulate their emotions.
He has tracked a candidate's slogan and sound bites and looked at how
the media has picked up on these messages. He has monitored the enormous
amount of time that the media spends telling us who's ahead in the polls
as opposed to information on the issues. He's looked at differences
between different media in the way they cover politics, and examined
how television production techniques can alter images and evoke powerful
feelings without the public even knowing it. Jeremy England is deeply
engaged in politics, and was selected to write a newspaper column sharing
the teen perspective on the political campaign. He recognizes the power
of the democratic process and the power of the individual to communicate
a point of view. He is deeply sensitive to the media's role in shaping
the public's perception of politicians and politics. Jeremy England
has discovered the power of being literate in a media age.
How can citizens be best prepared to participate in a democracy? The
complaints about spectator democracy have emerged in potent form during
the 1996 election. More and more citizens are alienated from the political
process. Recent studies suggest that many Americans are confused by
politics because they simply don't know enough basic facts to follow
a substantive political debate. The evidence is startling: 46% of Americans
can't identify Newt Gingrich as the Speaker of the House, and fewer
than one-third can identify the name of their representative in Congress
Today's conflict-oriented coverage of politics makes it possible to
tune in to the fireworks and miss the substance, and the media circus
around political campaigns is especially distracting to less educated
citizens. "[Voters] see and hear the conflict but miss the content,"
as reporters are "increasingly drawn to reporting strategy and partisan
skirmishes surrounding major policy debates but not their substance"
(Morin, 1995). According to political scientists, the information gap
-- differences between the most well-informed citizens and the least
well-informed-- is affecting how politics is practiced, dumbing down
democracy and making political campaigns increasingly negative, simplistic
What kinds of knowledge, attitudes and skills are essential for being
a citizen in a media age? How do we create opportunities for young people
to develop their interests in democracy? What role can the media, teachers
and parents play?
In more and more classrooms in the United States, educators are beginning
to help students acquire the skills they need to manage in a media-saturated
environment, recognizing that in its broadest sense, literacy must include
the ability to skillfully 'read' and 'write' in a wide range of message
forms, especially considering the dominance of image-based electronic
media. In fact, the powerful concept of literacy was the driving force
that led leaders in the media literacy movement to adopt a comprehensive
definition of media literacy as "the ability to access, analyze, evaluate
and produce communication in a variety of forms" in a conference sponsored
by the Aspen Institute (Aufderheide, 1992). Put simply, media literacy
includes the skills of literacy extended the wide variety of messages
that we are exposed to in contemporary society. Media literacy includes
reading and writing, speaking and listening, accessing new technologies,
critical viewing, and the ability to make your own messages using a
wide range of technologies, including cameras, camcorders, and computers.
Media literacy is not a new subject area and it's not just about television:
it's literacy for the information age.
Proponents and practitioners of media literacy often fail to identify
the distinct components of media literacy, and as a result, media literacy
practices often vary widely, as many different approaches to building
media literacy skills are proliferating. But these different practices
can be conceptualized along a continuum with four phases, as articulated
by Elizabeth Thoman (l996):
What determines how educators come to enter into one or more of these
practices? In my own interaction with teachers, I've found that a teacher's
concerns about the intersection of youth, media and culture shape their
practices in the classroom. Why are some teachers attracted to media literacy?
Some see media literacy as a tool to build relevance into contemporary
education, building links between the classroom and the culture, so that
students see how themes and issues resonate in popular culture as they
do in the study of literature, history or social studies. Some see media
literacy as a citizenship survival skill, necessary to be an thoughtful
consumer and an effective citizen in a superhighway-driven media age.
Some see media literacy as a kind of protection for children against the
dangers and evils engendered by the excesses of television, and see media
literacy as an antidote to manipulation and propaganda. Some see media
literacy as a new kind of English education, learning to appreciate and
analyze ads and sitcoms and films -- some of which are destined to become
the "classics" of the next century-- with the same tools used to study
the traditional genres of poetry, short story and the novel. Some see
media literacy as a way to give children the opportunity to tell their
own stories and better understand the power of those who shape the stories
of our culture and our times.
- Awareness of time and choice in media consumption. This phase of
media literacy involves gaining consciousness and sensitivity regarding
the extent and magnitude of individuals' exposure to different kinds
of media messages, from billboards to tee shirts, from newspapers
and television to videogames and the internet. Activities often involve
counting and measuring one's use of media, exploring different pleasures
and satisfactions people receive from a range of media messages, and
learning strategies for managing media use in the home.
- Critical reading/viewing skills and media production activities.
This phase of media literacy involves developing skills for analyzing
and producing media messages, explicitly extending the traditional
skills of literacy to include 'critical reading' and 'writing' for
the mass media. Producing media messages has long been understood
as one of the most valuable methods to gain insight on how messages
are constructed. Critical analysis examines specific techniques involved
in constructing messages by looking inside the frame of media messages
to study specific patterns in the representation of social reality
in a range of genres-- books, magazines, sitcoms, ads, public service
announcements, web sites, documentaries, films, newsletters, comics
and editorial columns. 'Looking inside the frame' includes examining
the range of choices made by the author about the 'text,' including
asking questions about the author's motives, purpose and point of
view, the techniques used to attract attention, the use of image,
sound and language to convey meaning, and the range of different interpretations
which are likely for different individuals.
- Analysis of political, economic, social and cultural contexts of
the media environment. This phase of media literacy involves gaining
knowledge about the ways in which media institutions are shaped by
the historical, political, economic and social forces. For example,
students can learn about the historical and economic conditions which,
during the 19th and early part of the 20th century, led to the concept
of "journalistic objectivity." They can examine the economic relationships
between advertising and a consumer culture; study the patterns of
representation of masculinity, power and violence in sports reporting;
examine how advertiser preferences shape TV programming; understand
government's role in subsidizing the technologies which comprise the
internet; or learn about the historical dimensions of broadcast de-regulation
and reform and advocacy initiatives.
- Media advocacy, media action and social change. This phase of media
literacy involves active participation in 1) efforts to mobilize public
opinion towards a specific policy of media reform, or in 2) using
specific media strategies to attract press interest, build coalitions,
shape policy decision-making, and change offensive or problematic
practices on a number of social issues. For example, students can
write letters to advertisers about programs they dislike; they can
support campaigns which raise awareness of the need to protect First
Amendment rights in cyberspace. They can create their own media campaigns
to promote a particular social health issue, like violence, alcohol
abuse or smoking. For example, 2500 teachers and students in the community
of Billerica, Massachusetts organized a comprehensive anti-smoking
media campaign as part of their school-wide "Ad Lab" project in 1994.
But there are other visions of media literacy, more narrow and more
problematic. Unfortunately, some see media literacy as option for low-performing,
underachieving students whose interest can be piqued by TV and nothing
else. Some see it as a kind of vocational education, where kids can
learn to make web sites or TV shows and head for careers like the grownups.
Some see it as a chance to play with sophisticated electronic tools,
like servers, graphics packages, scanners, character generators, video
toasters and wave-form monitors. Still others see media literacy as
a way to make children aware of the web of "false consciousness" that
capitalism has woven into our psyches, moving them to advocate for revolutionary
change. Some think media literacy is just about making "good choices"
about what to watch or read. And many simply think the curriculum is
already too crowded and teachers already too incompetent, burned-out
or overburdened to make room for media literacy. It is because American
educators have so many diverse perspectives on the benefits and value
of media literacy and the best strategies for implementation that its
practitioners and advocates often fail to distinguish among the four
distinct phases sketched above. Such a wide range of divergent motives
can be a sign of the media literacy movement's vitality, but can also
generate confused, inarticulate and occasionally adversarial positions
relative to the varying practices which fall under the umbrella term,
In Europe, media literacy has gained some measure of official status
within Great Britain, Canada, Australia, Scotland, Spain and other nations,
where media literacy is required as part of the language arts program
in grades 7 through 12. Most of the training American teachers now receive
is strongly patterned after models provided by British scholars, including
Len Masterman, David Buckingham, David Lusted, Cary Bazalgette as well
as British and Canadian teachers who have written about their experiences
teaching media analysis and media production to young people.
With this nation's renewed interest in children and education in the
1990s, there have been significant signs of recent growth in the media
literacy movement emerging in the United States. Support from the education
establishment is emerging as the drive to re-write curriculum and develop
standards and framework for K -12 education expands; at least 15 states
have language in their state curriculum frameworks that support media
literacy. In the State of North Carolina, for example, media literacy
is included in both the Communication Skills (English) curriculum and
in the Information Skills curriculum. In Massachusetts, media literacy
is explicitly emphasized in all of the curriculum frameworks recently
developed by the state education department. The State of New Mexico
requires students to take a media literacy course in order to graduate
from high school. In Texas, the language arts curriculum is being re-written
to include media analysis and production activities (Considine, 1995).
In many communities, educators have begun the process of thinking
seriously about expanding the concept of literacy to more systematically
include media and technology. While there was only one teacher-training
program in media literacy in 1993 at the program I developed at Harvard
Graduate School of Education, in 1994 there were 12 different programs
held across the United States, and by 1995, many communities were developing
their own staff development programs for groups of educators. However,
in most communities, media literacy exists due to the energy and initiative
of a single teacher, not because of a coordinated, community-wide programmatic
plan of implementation. At present, only a few communities are aiming
towards district-wide implementation of media literacy concepts where
all students in the school system are expected to engage in a coordinated
set of media literacy activities, including Billerica, Massachusetts,
Cold Spring, Minnesota, Dennis Yarmouth Public Schools in Massachusetts.
More long-term investment in teacher education, site-based coordination
of innovative, district-level programs and support for evaluation and
assessment will be needed if media literacy skills are to be recognized,
not as an enrichment experience for a privileged few, but a basic skill
that all students must master.
Media Literacy and Building Citizenship Skills
Elihu Katz (1992, 37) reminds us of the organic connection between
communication, education and democracy: "democracy is meaningless without
multiple voices...it is simply impossible to talk about citizenship
training in modern society without reference to mass communication."
There are three major ways in which media literacy can contribute
to strengthening the future of American democracy through outreach to
the 45 million students in our nation's schools.
First, media literacy practices help strengthen students' information
access, analysis and communication skills and build an appreciation
for why monitoring the world is important. Media literacy can inform
students about how the press functions in a democracy, why it matters
that citizens gain information and exposure to diverse opinions, and
who people need to participate in policy decision-making at the community,
state and federal levels.
Secondly, media literacy can support and foster educational environments
in which students can practice the skills of leadership, free and responsible
self-expression, conflict resolution and consensus-building, because
without these skills, young people will not be able to effectively engage
with others in the challenges of cooperative problem-solving that participation
in a democratic society demands.
Third, media literacy skills can inspire young people to become more
interested in increasing their access to diverse sources of information.
The trend towards increased centralization of ownership of mass media
and technologies industries may promote an 'illusion of diversity' that
limits people's access to ideas which are different from their own.
In a multicultural society, people need to increase their comfort levels
and tolerance with a wide range of different people. Media literacy
can raise awareness of the vital role of being exposed to a rich array
of diverse opinions and ideas. In the following pages, I examine more
closely the challenges and opportunities that accompany the pragmatic
incorporation of these skills as they relate to the lives of contemporary
American teachers, students and school administrators.
Strengthening Information Skills
One of the most potent crises which face the future of American public
schools is a problem that few educators address, the power relationship
that Neil Postman (1985) has called the struggle between "first curriculum"
of the mass media and the "second curriculum" of the schools. When Ted
Sizer (l995, 83) recently identified this issue as one of the great
"silences" in public education, he addressed an issue that media literacy
educators hold dear:
All of us know that the minds and heart of our children are influenced
in ever increasing ways by information and attitudes gathered far outside
the schoolhouse walls, from an insistent media and the commerce that
depends on it. In our policy discussions, we barely mention that fact,
much less address it... How the schools do, do not, or should connect
with the newly insistent media world is rarely mentioned. We live in
an information-rich culture, one controlled by commerce, but we plan
the reform of our educational system as though the schoolhouses were
still wholly encapsulated units..... These are some of the silences.
They need to be filled.
Students come to class with plenty of ideas and information about
how the world works, about lifestyles, relationships and social norms,
and most of the information they receive does not originate from the
students' family or neighbors, their pastors or community leaders. As
George Gerbner (1990) has put it, most of the stories we tell our children
are told by a few global conglomerates who have something to sell.
Yet in many classrooms, the practices of American educators are guided
by the assumption that information primarily flows in one direction--
from teacher to student, and from textbook to student. Teachers' control
over access to information has been the defining quality of their authority,
at all levels from kindergarten to graduate school. According to Paulo
Freire and Henry Giroux (1989, 8), "[T]he language of educational theory
and practice is organized around a claim to authority that is primarily
procedural and technical... a language that in its quest for control,
certainty and objectivity.... removes schools from their most vital
connections to public life." Ceding the role of information provider
to institutions outside the classroom threatens the role of the teacher
and usurps the dominance of the academy-defined canon of things worth
learning about. Many teachers are still in denial about this already
well-entrenched shift and, as a result, they may reject media and information
technology as a tool for teaching and learning precisely because it
alters the authority relationship between teachers and students.
When educational leaders do come together to talk about strengthening
information skills, the conversation inevitably comes around to computer
technology, since educators are well aware of the role that information
technology plays in the workplace and regularly exposed to the marketing
messages which equate computers with superior learning and teaching.
Since the early 1980s, school administrators have been eager to 'bring
schools into the 21st century' by giving students' access to CD-ROMs,
on-line databases, computer applications, and internet access.
While computers can be found in almost every American school, most
are so old that there is limited software which can run on them, and
in most communities, students have very limited opportunities to use
them at all. As predicted, the pattern of access to technology has reproduced
the inequalities in the larger social framework of public education,
with huge discrepancies between schools, where 'information-poor' schools
have teachers and students with no technology access at all and in some
troubled urban schools, it is routine to see hopelessly inadequate access
to even the media of books and periodicals.
By contrast, in 'information-rich' schools students have access to
a well-stocked library with books, periodical and audio-visual resources,
computers for word processing, art and graphic design, and science activities,
plus computers to support library research and information retrieval.
"Whether schools or public or private, the social class of the students
has been and continues to be the single most significant factor in determining
how a school works and the intellectual values it promotes" (Meier,
The media hype about the internet has energized the frenzy once again,
as the State of California recently mandated that there will be a computer
internet connection in every school in the state, yet devoted no attention
to the challenge of providing teachers with the on-going training and
support needed if they are to develop effective uses of the technology
within the curriculum. Such efforts to put technology in schools will
do little to strengthen the information skills of students. This phenomenon
merely reflects the classic American myth of 'technology as savior,'
a belief which is deeply embedded in the culture and is particularly
troublesome in education, where limited funding and the competitive
upgrading of technology has led to a "Catch 22" for educators, where
they can never be 'saved' by the technology because they don't have
the latest, fastest, and most powerful tools that are necessary for
To build students' information skills, many education reformers recognize
that the idea of teaching as "delivering content" needs to be challenged
and replaced with the idea of teaching as cultivating "habits of mind,"
approaches to dealing with new information in ways that promote active
engagement from the learner. Deborah Meier identifies this pedagogy
in terms of five questions which should be at the heart of all learning:
Compare these "habits of mind" as they relate to some of the "key questions"
developed by the author to analyze mass media messages:
- The Question of Evidence: How do we know what we know?
- The Question of Viewpoint: Who's speaking?
- The Search for Connections and Patterns: What causes what?
- The Act of Supposition: How might things have been different?
- The Determination of Relevance: Who cares?
Questions like those found on these two lists invite the learner to take
an active stance towards information. One example of the application of
these skills in the secondary grades can be found in the curriculum resource,
KNOW-TV, developed by the author in collaboration with The Learning Channel.
This program consists of a three-hour workshop for teachers of language
arts, social studies and science in grades 7 - 12. KNOW-TV build media
literacy skills within a collection of activities, videotape and print
support materials which introduce nine critical questions for analyzing
non-fiction or documentary television. Instead of simply using a documentary
to 'deliver' content, teachers can use the documentary in a more active,
engaged fashion by inviting students to analyze the choices made by the
producer in deciding what information to include and what to omit, what
techniques to keep and hold viewer attention, and how information was
shaped to seem most believable. By learning to "ask questions about what
you watch, see and read," the fundamental premise of media literacy is
about "questioning authority," and as such, can be recognized as empowering
student autonomy (Hobbs, 1994).
- Who is the author and what is the purpose of the message?
- What values/lifestyles/point of view are represented by this message?
- What techniques are used to attract your attention?
- What techniques are used to enhance the authority/authenticity of
- How might different people interpret this message differently?
- What was omitted from this message?
- Who makes money from this message?
Another critically important dimension of media literacy for citizenship
is in helping students understand the crucial role of the press in a
democracy. Few public school teachers are prepared to teach any meaningful
analysis of the functions of journalism as a result of their own limited
education. Research on the way television is used in political education
classes reveals that when teachers use newspapers and TV news in the
classroom, they do encourage students to be critical of the issues and
events depicted, but tend to treat the media's depiction of those issues
and events as unproblematic (Masterman, 1985). When teachers do demonstrate
to students the constructed nature of the media message, they sometimes
bring their own cynicism and distrust of journalists into the classroom,
risking the possibility that students become even further alienated
and disenfranchised from the political process.
In a media literacy program designed to strengthen students understanding
of the legitimacy of opposing voices within a democracy designed in
Israel by Tamar Liebes, students spend three full days in a series of
activities, simulations and discussions which introduce them to the
problem of reliable observations and the psychology of selective perception.
Students work in groups to document a school issue, are forced to select
only a limited number of items as a result of time and deadline pressure,
and some groups of students receive informal pressure from the school
principal to 'present the school in a good light.' After experiencing
the ways in which news is shaped, students explore national television
news and learn to identify the patterns of coverage. Such activities
can promote students' understanding of education for democracy, and
the importance of turn-taking, rules of order, and rational discourse
which supports the legitimacy of oppositional voices in a public space
(Katz, 1993, 41). A number of similar programs have been implemented
in the United States, including as notable program designed by Karen
Webster and Joshua Meyrowitz to introduce 4th graders to newsmaking
in a Durham, New Hampshire school.
If one of the fundamental purposes of schools is to teach students
the responsibility of living in a democratic society, then building
students' tolerance for diverse opinions and the ability to critically
analyze information is essential. Schools should not be in the business
of preparing "docile, unquestioning workers who will go blindly into
the roles assigned them in the great struggle to dominate the world
economy. To be human in a democratic society is to be free and to be
capable of making conscious, responsible choices. A democratic society
requires that the people shall judge; schools must teach them to judge
wisely" (Soder, 1995, 168).
Providing The Opportunity to Practice Leadership and
The institution of public schooling works in powerful ways to reproduce
the existing power relations in society, and as a result, schools can
be among the most repressive and anti-democratic of social institutions.
Deborah Meier (1995, 8) writes of a dramatic example of the "petty humiliations
imposed to remind teachers and children of who's the boss," remembering
her first to a New York City school where she witnessed the principal
scolding students for crossing over a line painted down the middle of
the corridor. The unprofessional working conditions teachers experience,
where they have little control or influence over their work, often encourages
teachers to withdraw intellectually and emotionally from the enterprise.
Schools can promote the kind of apathy and alienation that "are not
only one of the main agencies of distributing an effective dominant
culture... they help create people...who see no other serious possibility
to the economic and cultural assemblage now extant" (Apple, 1990, 6).
What does it take to create a environment where democratic values
are built into the culture of the school? Deborah Meier describes her
efforts to invent a school environment which would make it possible
for teachers and students to have high expectations of themselves, "where
all kids can experience the power of their ideas" (Meier, 1995, 4).
Central Park East is considered one of the most remarkable public schools
in the nation, where 90% of the students graduate from high school and
90% of those go on to college, in a city where the average graduation
rate is 50%. Meier's commitment to reforming public schools is fueled
by her understanding of the relationship between public education and
democracy. "Public schools can train us for ...political conversations
across divisions of race, class, religion and ideology....[D]ealing
with the complicated is what training for good citizenship is all about"
(Meier, 1995, 7,22). Her perspective on the possibility that schools
can be re-shaped by democratic principles reflects the complexity of
"We also saw schools as examples of the possibilities of democratic
community, and what we meant by this was continuously under debate and
review. It wasn't simply a question of governance structures, and certainly
not a matter of extending the vote to four-year-olds. Although classroom
life could certainly include more participation by children in decisions
that traditional schools allowed, we saw it as even more critical that
the school life of adults be democratic. It seemed unlikely that we
could foster values of community in our classrooms unless the adults
in the school had significant rights over their own workplace. For us,
democracy implied that people should have a voice not only in their
own individual work ,but in the work of others as well. Finally, we
saw collaboration and mutual respect among staff, parents, students
and the larger community as part of what we mean by calling our experience
Meier and her colleagues created a school environment based on breaking
up huge schools into small schools; for choice within the public school
system; for respect between teachers, parents and students; for teaching
that connects learning to real-world activities; for a new ideal of
being "well-educated," based on the development of the skills of keen
observation, playfulness and the possession of a skeptical and open
mind, the habit of imagining how others think, feel, and see the world,
the ability to be respectful of evidence, to be able to evaluate the
quality of information, to value hard work, and to know how to communicate
effectively. Why focus on skills and not subject matter? "[A]cademia
has no monopoly on the habits of mind that underlie good practice in
all vocations of a democratic society, including the first and foremost
of vocations, that of citizen" (Meier, 1995, 171). Broadening the definition
of an educated person beyond the mastery of specific facts to promote
strong intellectual habits of mind has at its consequence the promotion
of curiosity, creativity, theory-building.
How best should educators promote student leadership skills and responsible
self expression? When Captive Voices was published in 1974, it identified
the range of powerful opportunities that scholastic journalism could
provide to students, as the school newspaper can create a public voice
to share perspectives and viewpoints, to build coalitions and change
policies through engaging the community in issues of public concern.
Commissioned by the Robert Kennedy Memorial Foundation, Captive Voices
also identified the problems which limited the effectiveness of student
journalism. The report was the single largest national inquiry into
American high school journalism, and at the time, the findings represented
a formidable indictment of the public schools. "Censorship and systematic
lack of freedom to engage in open, responsible journalism" were routine
practices by administrators and teachers. According to the report, most
high school publications were "bland" and often served as a public relations
tool for the school. Yet, according to the report, where a free, vigorous
student press did exist, there was a healthy ferment of ideas and opinions
with no indication of disruption or negative side effects on the educational
experience of the school. In the 1970's, high school journalism was
given second-class status in the school's curriculum, reflected in the
elective nature of journalism courses, since journalism courses did
not fulfill academic requirements needed for graduation. Twenty years
later, this phenomenon is largely unchanged, and the legal landscape
which had protected students' First Amendment rights has deteriorated
When the Supreme Court ruled on Hazelwood v Kuhlmeier in 1988 in a
5-3 decision, the status of high school journalism was changed significantly,
by giving school administrators the power to censor student newspapers.
In the case, a principal censored a high school student newspaper in
Hazelwood, Missouri because of two stories produced by students about
teen pregnancy and the effects of divorce on teenagers. In this decision,
the court limited the scope of an earlier ruling, Tinker v DesMoines,
which made the basic argument that "students do not shed their constitutional
rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."
The Supreme Court called upon a 1986 decision, Bethel v Fraser, that
stated that schools do not need to tolerate student speech that is "inconsistent
with its basic educational mission." In the Hazelwood case, the Court
concluded: "Educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising
editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored
expressive activities so long as their actions are reasonably related
to legitimate pedagogical concerns."
In his dissent, Justice William Brennan wrote that a high school newspaper
was a public forum, "established to give students an opportunity to
express their views," and he recognized that the loose phrasing of 'legitimate
pedagogical concerns' could easily serve as a smoke screen for administrators
to void student newspapers of unwanted controversy. The Hazelwood decision
"aptly illustrates how readily school officials (and courts) can camouflage
viewpoint discrimination as the 'mere' protection of students from sensitive
topics." More importantly, Brennan noted the hypocrisy of a decision
that allows school officials to censor controversial ideas while purporting
to teach students how to live in a democratic society, where government
officials cannot legally engage in such practices.
In response to the ruling, the professional press almost seemed to
mock the students for their arrogance in believing they should be allowed
to cover what was important to them. A principal is no different from
an editor, went the claim in newspaper editorials. Most newspapers avoided
noting the role of public school principals as public officials and
indirect agents of the government (Freedom Forum, 1994).
The Hazelwood decision had an effect on high schools across the nation
and the examples of how school administrators have applied the ruling
are chilling. In Manchester, New Hampshire, a principal shut down the
student newspaper after an editorial criticized a teacher for withholding
the vote totals in a school election. In Fort Wayne, Indiana, a principal
censored a report that documented how a tennis coach improperly charged
students for court time. In Ohio, paramedics were called to the school
when a student, who had been drinking alcohol that morning, passed out
from alcohol poisoning. The school newspaper was forbidden to write
about the event. In Nashville, Tennessee, 19 students were arrested
on the first day of school in 1990. The principal refused to let students
report the incident and the journalism advisor was replaced by someone
with no previous newspaper experience.
According to Paul McMasters of the First Amendment Center, self-censorship
is on the rise, with student journalists trying to avoid conflicts and
reprisals from school administrators and their peers. "Sometimes the
biggest proponents of censorship are fellow students harassing students
journalists. [These students] haven't been taught in their classrooms
the benefits and the absolute necessity of a free and open debate and
dialogue in our society" (Freedom Forum, 1994, 100).
Robert Trager and Joseph Russomanno make a powerful point about the
long-term impact of Hazelwood on students' socialization: "When free
expression is limited in order to instill majoritarian societal values
in their schools, this turns the First Amendment on its head. Rather...students'
expressive rights should be at the core of the societal values that
public schools teach-- and that should allow students to practice...
A school environment devoid of free expression is not likely to produce
an adult ready to support the sentiment attributed to Voltaire: 'I disapprove
of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it'"
(cited in Freedom Forum, 1994, 101).
When video technology is available, the pattern of practices involving
student communication becomes more complex. Edwin Posey teaches a video
production class at Paul Robeson High School on the south side of Chicago.
Students there produce documentaries, public service announcements,
a morning news show, and tape football games and school plays. Student-produced
television programs often operate without an organized curriculum and
are of widely uneven quality and in most schools, television and print
journalism programs operate separately with little overlap between the
two. Because of the instantaneous and non-permanent character of video
messages, they seem to be less subject to oversight and scrutiny from
school officials. In many schools, administrators do not regard student
video productions as the official voice of the school,
At Educational Video Center (EVC) in New York City, young people gain
the skills to make their own media messages and are able to gain extensive
training working with media professionals. Steve Goodman, the director
of EVC, believes that video documentaries present rich possibilities
for learning because they involve research, reporting, writing, using
a camera and editing. At EVC, young people have produced a range of
documentaries on issues in their own communities, from AIDS to homelessness,
stereotypes in the media, and gangs. One of the most well-known works
produced by youth involved in Educational Video Center's outreach program
was entitled, Unequal Education: Failing our Children, and it was broadcast
as part of Bill Moyers' Listening to America on public television. The
program profiled two 7th grade students in two different schools in
New York City, showing the broad differences between rich schools and
poor schools in the community. Goodman sees video production as one
central dimension to building students' media literacy skills. Electronic
journalism holds out the hope that large numbers of young people can
develop a different relationship with television. Transforming the nature
of young people's relationship with media messages is at the heart of
Promoting Access to Diverse Sources of Information
A major challenge which faces citizens and their access to diverse
sources of information revolves around an inherent structural characteristic
of the mass media: its reliance on advertising. The advertising subsidy
serves as the most powerful limit on the content of information we receive
from news and entertainment, since as C. Edwin Baker (1994) notes that
the incentive of advertising revenue encourages the media to tailor
their message content by treating advertisers' products and their broader
interests charitably in both news reports and editorials, by reducing
partisanship and often reducing controversial elements in order to increase
the size of the audience, and by favoring younger and middle- to high-income
audiences who are considered more desirable by advertisers. Notes Baker
(1994, 66-67), "Advertisers 'pay' the media to obtain the audience they
desire, providing strong incentive for the media to shape content to
appeal to the 'desired' audience... Since newspapers are under particular
pressure to sell more affluent audiences to advertisers, newspapers
sometimes purposefully limit or reduce circulation in areas or among
groups of people that advertisers do not value."
Efforts on the part of independent producers and notable production
companies including Children's Television Workshop to create a television
news program for children have been stymied by the lack of interest
in 'buying' advertising time in a serious news program for children
aged 8 to 15 (Lesser, 1994). The only contemporary news program for
children, Nick News, produced by Lucky Duck Productions, does not take
as its goal the task of providing information to children about local,
national or world events, but consists exclusively of "soft" news stories
which flatter the child audience with an assortment of feature stories
which revolve around children's creative and community accomplishments.
Many newspapers have spearheaded efforts to create a "children's section"
for their younger readers aged 9 to 17, and most of these efforts have
failed to survive past an initial trial because of the difficulty in
attracting audiences who want to 'buy' children via the newspaper (Blum,
One resource used by some teachers to introduce the issue of the advertising
subsidy and its impact on the commodification of culture to students
at the high school level has been the quarterly magazine, Adbusters.
Produced by the Media Foundation in Vancouver, British Columbia, Adbusters
has a special section designed for teens aged 12 to 19, with articles
and reviews designed to introduce the spirit of media advocacy around
a challenge to consumer culture. Because the magazine is only available
through large news retailers in urban centers who maintain a healthy
collection of independent distributors, possession of an Adbusters is
often viewed as a prized commodity itself among teachers, who typically
have had little access to non-mainstream or alternative information
Since its inception, public broadcasting has served to offer citizens
access to a wide range of messages than available via commercial media,
but they have faced renewed political challenges from conservative congressmen
with easy access to the talk radio airwaves who reject the argument
that public television requires federal subsidies. Such congressmen
argue that "the federal government has 'no mandate' to keep funding
public broadcasting; that non commercial educational broadcasting is
'not essential' to he nation...that public broadcasting is elitist,
a 'sandbox for the rich' " (Duggan, 1995, 25). Leaders in public television
generally reference the numbers which show their audiences are small
but diverse and point to icons like "Big Bird" as proof of public television's
vitality and worthiness. Proposals to support public television via
a tax on advertising revenues or by eliminating the exemption from state
sales tax generally given to advertising have uniformly received such
little attention in the press that the public is largely unaware of
either the problem of the corrosive censorship which results from advertising
or some of the potential corrections which are available to improve
the freedom of the press.
The power of large, vertically integrated companies to control the
content of the mass media has been clearly evident in the shifting patterns
of entertainment available for children and young people. The last bastion
of diversity in children's media has been in the area of children's
literature, which has been rapidly fading as a result of 'Disneyfication.'
As Joshua Meyrowitz (1987) has explained, because of the new patterns
of information access available to both children and adults, children's
access to a wide range of 'adult' content has blurred some of the distinctions
between children and adults. Adult discomfort with children's changing
status is a theme that is widely found in contemporary film and television
programming. Disney merchandising has served to smooth over this tension
in our culture, as Richard De Cordova (1994, 213) has noted, "[T]he
merchandising of Mickey Mouse toys was important in making sacred Disney's
address to children... because that merchandising worked more assuredly
than the movies to push the image of the child back into traditional
categories of childhood." At the same time that children and young people
have more and more easy access to the complexities of adult relationships
via prime-time television, sports programming and the surrounding celebrity
culture, the Disney mythology has served to frame childhood in ways
which provide a sense of comforting tradition to parents. The huge global
reach of Disney has served to displace the wider, more diverse and authentic
works of literature and art produced by authors and illustrators working
the genre of children's literature.
The dominance of a few, widely distributed and ubiquitous types of
entertainment and information creates an appetite, as young people's
expectations are shaped by the range (or lack of range) of messages
available to them. Some teachers have been frustrated by students' lack
of interest in non-commercial, alternative messages produced in literature,
music and the arts, available on video and in computer software. I had
the opportunity to meet a teacher at the 1995 National Media Literacy
Conference in Boone, North Carolina who had just moved from teaching
at a private school to teaching at a public school, and was struggling
with students' lack of interest as she used of a wide range of alternative
media in the classroom. These materials worked well, she noted, among
the children of the well-educated and affluent, who were accustomed
to a wider range of information and entertainment. She complained about
her new students' impatience and resistance to messages that did not
fit their expectations of what storytelling or video "should" be. How
can educators build their students' capacity to manage messages that
do not fit comfortably within the existing commercial paradigms?
The growing community of media literacy educators has as its explicit
aim the nurturance and the support for the alternative media arts. In
1990 when the media literacy movement was in its initial emergence in
the United States after a prolonged hiatus, independent artists and
educators met at a conference in Austin, Texas, in an event supported
by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Alliance
for Media Arts and Culture (NAMAC). By exploring the intersections of
independent media arts and public education, participants recognized
a critical mutual goal: to stretch young people's appreciation and understanding
of the wide range of forms available for self-expression and communication.
It is an explicit goal of education for democracy: to build students'
tolerance for complexity.
But such work is challenging when teachers perceive that they are
engaging in the task alone, without the support of the culture, and
often as an act of resistance against the culture. In the face of the
isolation of the classroom, alone with one hundred or more children
and teenagers for six hours a day, the task is daunting. Andy Garrison
is an independent filmmaker and a high school teacher who produces materials
that help teachers incorporate the study of alternative media in the
classroom. His film, Night Ride provides a rich, multilayered visual
and auditory dramatic experience, and the creative array of activities,
discussion formats and writing assignments which accompany the film
permit a teacher to engage in the kind of close analysis that builds
critical thinking skills.
There is a serious need for initiatives that provide teachers with
the opportunity to access, screen and evaluate non-commercial "texts"
and to provide teachers with experiences that build their own awareness,
knowledge and skills of the values of independent, non-commercial media
arts. One example of this is the program, "Diverse Images and Perspectives,"
a workshop designed by Karon Sherarts, in which teachers learn methods
of integrating the work of alternative media artists into the existing
curriculum. ALIVE-TV, a national public television series produced at
KTCA-Minneapolis sponsored the workshop in collaboration with the Minnesota
Film Board and Independent Television Service (ITVS), an organization
created by Congress to address the needs of underserved audiences, particularly
minorities and children.
Teachers, of course, are the ones who shape the 1000 hours of instruction
received by the 45 million children in our nation's schools. Treated
for too long as factory workers and not as professionals, it is clear
that a critical focus of the media literacy movement aims to enhance
the knowledge, skills and practices of the 2.1 million teachers in the
United States, better preparing them to create opportunities that stretch
and enrich their students ability to access, analyze and communicate
information, engage with their students in practices that promote leadership
and problem-solving, and increase students' exposure to a diverse array
of opinions and ideas.
It is impossible to have a healthy democracy unless there are healthy,
competent, engaged citizens. American youth, however, are using drugs
and alcohol at earlier ages, engaging in sexual behavior and getting
pregnant earlier, and causing pain and being hurt by the dramatically
increased levels of violence among 12 - 17 year olds (Carnegie Council
on Adolescent Development, 1995). The shifting knowledge economy now
requires that people acquire sophisticated reasoning, communication
and problem-solving skills, and yet 44 million adults in the U.S. lack
even basic literacy skills (National Center for Education Statistics,
1993). In order for adolescents to thrive, it is essential to improve
the quality of our nation's communities, schools and families if we
are to take on the task of improving the health of American democracy.
Within this broad context, media literacy has an important role to
play. As Umberto Eco (l979, p. 15) claims: "A democratic civilization
will save itself only if it makes the language of the image into a stimulus
for critical reflection, not an invitation to hypnosis." As a result
of modern communication technology, we have become so thoroughly enmeshed
in a sign system that the very system has become invisible to us. As
media literacy techniques help refresh our vision, we are invited to
're-vision' ourselves, our families, our neighbors, our communities
and all our social institutions in ways that reflect the spirit of democratic
problem-solving through mutual respect, rational discourse and critical