Access in a Digital
Author: Kathleen Tyner
One prevailing argument
for access efforts is that knowledge is power. Certainly no one could
maintain that a lack of information serves the needs of people in a
complex society, but the conventional wisdom about the relationship
between knowledge and power deserves to be revisited if people are to
access and create the information they need to make informed decisions
in a democratic, technological society. Digital technologies, in particular,
call into question the popular notion that information is a finite commodity
and that those who disseminate information are more powerful than those
who receive it.
Access to media is not
at all powerful if audiences cannot make sense of the information they
receive. As the world moves from analog to digital, it becomes increasingly
apparent that access to information -- and to the channels that control
its flow -- is only the first plateau of human communication. Media
literacy, the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and production communication
in a variety of forms, is the next step.
Without media literacy,
the potential of digital communication is a case of too much of a good
thing. In a digital world, images, texts, and sounds collapse into a
"bit stream" of raw data. Cable and broadcast channels are mere tributaries
in the digital flow. The Internet "network of networks" is a roaring
river. Mass media models that produce information "by the few for the
many" are becoming quaint anachronisms, replaced by news, entertainment
and advertising by the many for the many. Citizens are left to sort
through the flotsam and jetsam of this digital tsunami and to select
the information most useful to their circumstances.
If literacy is the cornerstone
of a democratic society, then it is imperative that the definition of
literacy be extended to include electronic as well as printed information
so that an active, informed citizenry can make the decisions necessary
to keep democracy alive in these times of great social upheaval. In
fact, media literacy is not so different from print literacy. It's goals
are the same. Media literacy is an active and demanding literacy that
involves more than being able to make sense of a tv story between the
commercials breaks. Media literacy requires the "reader" to think independently,
to question and to reflect on answers. Media literacy is an ideal that
constantly negotiates the tension between knowledge and power -- between
power and justice.
It is taught in most developed
countries in the world -- except the United States. In North America,
it is mandated in secondary education in Ontario and the experiences
of international media educators offer strategies for the implementation
of media literacy education in the United States.
Because it is centered
in critical thinking and teaching, there is no set formula for teaching
media literacy, but there are certain concepts that media educators
have found useful. The foremost concept is that all media are constructions.
According to media educators around the world, media are not "windows
on the world," or "mirrors of society," but carefully manufactured products
intended for specific purposes. Although media are not, by definition,
"real," they have political, economic and social implications for policy
and behavior in the real world.
This concept is particularly
tough for those who seek redress through community access for a long
history of inaccurate, mis-representations in mass media. Media education
does not ignore this inequity. It encourages alternative, diverse re-presentations,
especially those that entail people speaking for themselves, all the
while reminding us that all media are constructions and that none of
it -- not even independently produced media -- is value-free, balanced
and objective. The media education process encourages audiences to question
media representations of people, places and things and to place them
in their historical, economic and cultural context, no matter who produces
Media educators around
the world insist on a complete approach of both media analysis and production.
Since the overriding goal of media education is not job training for
independent producers, or personal self-expression, but enhanced democratic
citizenship skills, the primary purpose of production is to inform the
analysis of mass media information created "by the few for the many."
Jobs, artistic expression, and getting the word out, are important by-products
of production, but without analysis and action, true empowerment cannot
take place. Simply learning to master the tools of technology is not
Media education encourages
the active collaboration of the audience in the communication process.
Not all people want to produce, but all people are citizens who can
learn to actively analyze and evaluate information.
All this is not to say
that the question of equitable access to information and the means to
produce it is solved. Access still faces formidable barriers around
the world and access organizations must still use most of their resources
to achieve the basic right to create and receive information. Even so,
most organizations devoted to equitable access have all the ingredients
in place to take the next step to incorporate media literacy education
in their training programs.
It is a vital and worthy
challenge, one that has already manifested itself in places like Austin,
Texas where Austin Community Television (ACT) producers joined Austin
public school teacher in the Summer of 1992 in a Media Literacy Institute
conducted by Strategies for Media Literacy (San Francisco) and Southwest
Alternate Media Project (Houston). The teachers and producers there
saw that together they had a vast store of human resources to draw upon
to bridge production and analysis and to initiate a program of media
literacy education in their community.
Media education is enjoying
increased popularity in schools, community groups and health organizations,
as well. It is a logical and necessary brand of literacy that has the
potential to enhance social justice by teaching active citizenship skills.
Media literacy education has the potential to realign an equitable relationship
between knowledge and power and to revitalize the central, democratic
goals of community access in a the age of digital communication.
This article first appeared
in the Summer 1994 issue of the newsletter for National Association of
Local Cable Programmers. Reprinted permission of author. Copyright 1994