Critical Media Literacy
The evolution of media studies in the US includes the focus on media production, reception, use, ownership, (de)regulation, distribution, analysis and critique. The impact of this research on educational scholars have led many in the field to theorize the influence of both the media and popular culture on the very conception of “literacy” (Alverman, Moon, & Hagwood, 1999; Buckingham, 2003a; Grossberg, Wartella & Whitney, 1998; Giroux, 1996; Hoggart, 1957; Lewis & Jhally 1998; Luke, A. & Freebody, 1997; Luke, C. 1997; Macedo & Steinberg 2007; Morrell 2002; Sholle & Denski, 1993). The value of such work, moreover, is considerable given that globalization exponentially increases the frequency and commonness of media culture. Additional arguments for expanded visions of literacy include changes from industrial to technological modes of production, greater fragmentation of mass audiences, the rise of intertextuality and interactivity in the construction of meaning, and the ability to use mass media to (im)mobilize populations. As a consequence, there is a recognized need to enlarge understandings of literacy acquisition to include the ability to read and write beyond traditional notions of written texts. The realm of mass media and popular culture can thus no longer be ignored as pedagogical sites capable of influencing subjectivities, identities and the political discourse of everyday life.
Within this context, the coordination of racialized identities and the cultural production of difference are also mitigated in the media and in popular culture by its creation of unfulfilled appetites and excesses of desires, as well as an incompleteness that often fosters, "insecurity, anger, violent passions, frustrations, and resentment" (McCarthy and Dimitriades, 2000). Media saturation and its production of discontent often functions to discipline populations in particular ways while concealing socio-economic power struggles. Because of these altered relations, populations are continually forced to redefine identities as social relations repeatedly diversify and fragment in ways that reproduce dominant relations.
Douglas Kellner (1995) cites media saturation as a cause for expanding conceptions of literacy: “We are immersed from cradle to grave in a media and consumer society and thus it is important to learn how to understand, interpret, and criticize its meanings and messages” (xii). The ubiquity of the “culture industries” upon our daily lives thus situates the role of media pedagogy in the formation of subjectivities by emphasizing the construction of meanings and contemporary identities. Kellner (2000) advocates for a critical media literacy promoting the ability to overcome civic disengagement and to intervene in the global relations that are transforming our world. He believes critical educators should facilitate the development of communal contexts where individuals learn to empower themselves to understand and resist the negative aspects of mass media and globalization. He calls for a "globalization from below" that fosters progressive social agendas, emancipation and radical democratic participation as a means to overcome authoritarianism and corporate power. New communication technologies, he believes, can enable ordinary citizens to produce and disseminate oppositional content that could be used to assist in political struggles. Thus, he (1997) advocates for the expansion of the definition of “public sphere” include the growing influences of technology and popular culture in the capacity to interact and engage with others – a redefinition that implicates critical education in the process.
Carmen Luke (1997) complements Kellner’s position with her call for a literacy centered on the study of how mass media influences the production of imagery and iconography in popular culture. She notes most contemporary media literacy curricula are focused on television literacy and describes its primary objective as follows:
"The central aim of TV literacy is to make students critical and selective viewers who are able to reflect critically on TV’s messages, their own reasons for viewing, and to use those critical skills in the production of their own print and electronic texts. Core analytic questions are meant to interrupt students’ unreflective acceptance of text and to develop new strategies for thinking about the meanings TV transmits, and how viewers construct meanings for themselves from those texts" (33).
Thus, Luke (1997) promotes a media literacy based on self-reflexivity to counter unquestioning media consumption. She connects the impact of media messages with the production of desires and pleasures while often-times contributing to the portrayal of sexists and racist stereotypes: “Developing a critical understanding of how texts position individual students must always extend to helping them understand how others might read texts, construct and/or resist textual meanings” (33).
Len Masterman (1980, 1985) also calls for the unveiling of media texts and representations within the contexts of reinforcing dominant ideologies. Masterman uses semiological analysis within a political economy approach to understand the culture industries. This theoretical position encourages the learner to develop forms of analysis in order to expose “hidden ideologies” within media texts thereby minimizing their influences.
This position is further supported by Lestyna and Alper (2007) who demonstrate how corporate media produce illusory images that conceal the structural dimensions of class while perpetuating dominant myths of meritocracy. The authors see the development of critical media literacy as fostering the abilities to read belief and value systems in ways where culture is seen politically and politics are seen culturally. That is to say, literacy acquisition must foster the awareness that social action and political consciousness do not happen in neutral social historical contexts. On the contrary, their particular concern is on the growing corporate influence within the public sphere. “Corporate media’s narrow, unrealistic images conceal the extent of this assault on America’s workforce, so we can no longer afford to ignore TV’s framing of the working class or see it as just entertainment”(71).
Despite the academy’s developing repertoire of theoretical approaches to media education, there is a strong disconnect between those who call for media literacy and current educational policies within US public schools. In many ways, the recent focus on standardized testing, teaching to tests, and widespread use of uniform curricula leave little room for cross disciplinary approaches to media education. In addition, the history of media education in the US has traditionally been under-funded and ignored by policy makers and educators alike (Goodman 2003).
Steven Goodman (ibid), for example, explains how media education in the US was greatly impacted in the 1960s when cultural critics such as Marshall McLuhan, John Berger, and Vance Packard urged a focus on teaching about the media instead of through the media. In schools, curricula were written to develop analysis of television as a media text and media messages were investigated for their impact on mass audiences. Goodman goes on to say that a breakthrough in media literacy in the US came after the Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee on Television and Social Behavior released a report in 1972 which connected television violence and antisocial behavior. What followed were additional funding opportunities from the US Department of Education for the creation of curricula to develop critical viewing skills. Funding for these projects, however, were rarely renewed and educational policies in media education in public schools lost momentum.
Today, many theorists in media education are reluctant to dictate parameters when studying the field. Concerns of reifying, canonizing and creating an hierarchical approach to media education curricula are behind such statements. However, Carmen Luke (1997) suggests there are roughly four broad areas within the many variations of media literacy. These include the study of the: audience; production; political economy of media; and the study of media texts. Like Luke, David Buckingham (2003), also provides an overview of the field of media education based on four similar conceptual understandings. These include audience, production; language and; representation. Unlike Luke, however, Buckingham provides a detailed review of his proposed categories.
According to Buckingham, his four categories are not to be seen as a given body of knowledge because they would be quickly outdated in this continually changing area of study. Buckingham (2003) also insists these categorizations are non-hierarchical and should be introduced in divergent ways depending on the instructor’s pedagogical practices, curricula planning and aims. The categories he offers work toward fostering deductive versus inductive reasoning and modes of understanding. He particularly advocates for students to reach their own conclusions as opposed to pre-determined interpretations based on the teacher’s preconceived notions of the type of learning that must take place.
This position helps contextualize differences between those who call for “media literacy” versus a “critical media literacy”. While both views advocate the development of higher order thinking, the use of dialogue, student centeredness, and the incorporation of multiple learning styles that embrace the learner’s home culture and prior knowledge, critical media literacy emphasizes the role of schooling within a capitalist economic order and problematizes curricula in support of “instrumental reasoning”. Although those advocates of critical media literacy include text analysis as a pedagogical tool, they often prioritize media production in support of developing the necessary skills and competencies for civic engagement, agency and citizenry (Alverman, Moon, & Hagwood, 1999; Giroux, 1987, 1994, 1997, Kellner 1995, 2000; Lankshear & Knobel,1997, 2006, Lestyna & Alper 2007; Lewis & Jhally 1998; Luke, A. & Freebody, 1997; Luke, C. 1997; Macedo & Steinberg 2007; Morrell 2002; Sholle & Denski, 1993). In addition, those who advocate the development of “critical consciousness” see teachers as cultural workers involved in citizen education where the incorporation of historical critique, critical reflection and social action are embraced while exposing the conformist, passive and disciplining elements in the “hidden curriculum” (Apple 2004, Giroux 2001). At the heart of this goal is the ability to reveal the structural and ideological forces that influence everyday life and the capacity to act upon them (Giroux 1983).