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Media Literacy Introduction

Parents worried about the content of media, be it television, movies or music, may find their first reaction to be “turn off,” “tune out,” or (as a friend of mine did upon finding an objectionable CD in his son’s possession) break it into a thousand pieces.

In some instances, that’s an appropriate first response. But it’s also important to recognize we cannot entirely isolate ourselves from all media influences. Unless we live like hermits, we will continue to brush elbows with other media consumers everyday. Unwittingly or not, like a contagious infection, the children your sons and daughters play with will transmit media messages through things as subtle as their fashion choices to more obvious examples like mimicking violent scenes.

If we truly want our children to be protected, we need to immunize them with more than just warnings of “It’s bad for you.” In order to have more control over how pop culture influences us we need to help those young minds (along with our aging brains) understand how and why media messages have so much impact.

“Media Literacy” is the term academics and educators banter around to describe this field of learning, although it also includes everything from knowing how to use a DVD to being able to deconstruct a foreign film. In its basic form media literacy is similar to what we’ve all been doing in English class for decades--looking at texts and trying to find the true meaning of the work. In this case a “text” can be a television program, movie, music video, song, commercial or <gasp> a book.

To become media literate takes time and diligence. Those who have spent years in this discipline talk about the importance of being able to access, analyze, evaluate and communicate.

In the early days of electronic media, accessing it was likely the easiest task. Simply turn on the radio or TV (although I do recall my father uttering words not suitable for children as he adjusted the antenna on top of the house). Today, with hundreds of channels and media sources as vast as the Internet, this task is becoming increasingly complex. And chances are your kids will be able to push those buttons faster than you can.

Analyzing is like going back to school. While it requires work, it can also be a lot of fun. Using media literacy skills, you and your children can learn to see how lighting, music, camera angles, dialogue and many more ingredient, are combined to form a media text. The ability to deconstruct the final product, and see each of these elements and understand the role they play in the message presented is one of the most powerful skills your children can possess.

Within the realm of evaluating, your personal standards for media consumption need to be made. A war movie may justify violence, but what about a music video? Are consequences included with immoral sexual behavior? Do all young people really use profanity as frequently as we hear it in music?

With the Internet becoming a primary source for information, evaluating the messages we receive from media is literally critical. Even major media has been guilty of presenting overt bias and outright sensationalism (anyone remember those exploding Ford Pintos?), but on the Internet anyone has the ability to say anything. It’s up to us to evaluate if what we read, see and hear is valid.

Finally comes the ability to communicate. This is a pivotal change because for decades media was a one-way street. In 1960, a television camera cost more than your home and it wasn’t portable. Now video cameras, computers, digital cameras, and a plethora of consumer electronic devices allow us to construct our own media. It will be assumed our children will be capable of operating all of these devices (as well as others that haven’t even been invented yet) in their careers, just as we learned to use a typewriter.

Over the next while, I intend to explore these topics in depth, and hope to provide some basic techniques to help your family become more media literate. I’m always amazed with the responses I receive after providing seminars on basic media literacy techniques. Many tell me they feel like they are seeing television for the first time… and just as many say their kids become so fluent in deconstructing and analyzing media that it can drive a parent crazy.

I suggest that’s a minor consequence in return for a major victory.

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