Media Literacy Online Project - Serving Educators Around The World
Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

Access in a Digital Age

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 them.

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 nearly enough.

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 Kathleen Tyner.