Children today are growing up in what O'Sullivan, Dutton and Rayner (1998) call a "media saturated" world, in which mass media, including the Internet, have a commanding presence in daily life. Media messages exert such powerful "social, emotional and intellectual influences" (Hepburn, 1999) that it is important to develop a society which understands how media can both serve and deceive. It is thus imperative for educators to teach what Megee (1997) calls "the new basic"- media literacy - so that learners can be producers of effective media messages as well as "critical consumers of ideas and information" (Rafferty, 1999).
What is Media Literacy?
Based on definitions provided by conferees at the Annenberg School for Communication (cited in Megee, 1997) and by the Canadian Ministry of Education, media literacy (ML) may be thought of as the ability to critically understand, question and evaluate how media work and produce meaning, how they are organized, how they mediate and construct reality, and how they impact our lives. ML may include the ability to create media products.
Fulton (1998) discusses technology-related competencies and curriculum standards defined by various states that may be applied to ML education. Among the six "essential learnings" Illinois desires for its students are the ability to seek and navigate information, to communicate effectively using appropriate technology, and to be responsible citizens in a technological age. Thus, in addition to teaching the technical aspects of handling various media equipment, ML is concerned with helping learners become informed users of media messages.
Understanding Media Messages
Most people involved in ML share the premise that media are used for specific purposes, including commercial concerns. Media messages thus embody values and ideologies (Hoffmann and Johnson, 1998), and although media texts are theoretically polysemic (open to various interpretations), producers employ various techniques or codes to draw audiences to the preferred meanings of texts (O'Sullivan, et al., 1998). For example, product comparisons are commonly used to persuade consumers that one brand of product is superior to another.
McMahon and Quinn (in O'Sullivan, et al.) identify three categories of codes that may be used to convey meanings in media messages: technical codes, which include camera techniques, framing, depth of field, lighting and exposure and juxtaposition; symbolic codes, which refer to objects, setting, body language, clothing and color; and written codes in the form of headlines, captions, speech bubbles and language style. For instance, a journalist aiming at readers' sympathy for an imprisoned political activist may choose to publish a photograph of the activist, crouched behind bars, next to a picture of a caged animal (making use of body language, setting, and juxtaposition) and anchor the picture to a caption that reads "CAGED!" Helping learners understand how codes are used to create desired effects is an essential component of ML education.
Reprinted with the permission of the Education Resources Information Center.
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