Chapter Two

Developing a Literacy for Television & the Media

In a television course, the context of media literacy is looked at and approached in many different ways. TV Ontario offers a concise definition:

"The media-literate person is one who has an informed and critical understanding of the nature, techniques, and the impact of the mass media. For children, the most pervasive medium is television. Media Literacy: Teaching about Television focuses on the tools they need for television literacy: the ability to make rational judgments about what they see on television." (1998)

However, for our purposes, defining media solely in terms of television might be too narrow. Due to all the technical developments in the industry, media literacy also has to include media as it is being re-defined by visionaries like Bill Gates, CEO & founder of Microsoft, and companies like AT&T, GE, and BellSouth. In today's world, the futures of television, the telephone, and computers are moving along increasingly parallel pathways.

The impact of all this new technology on learning will be astounding. For example, in just a few years, anyone will be accessing information from the Internet right from their desk-top or software application without really having to do anything; not even opening up a menu. The definition of a web page will move from something that resides on an Internet Service Provider, as it does now, to become any source document residing anywhere in your computer In other words, a word processing document that contains hyper-links automatically becomes a web page. This is certain to have an affect on how we look at textbooks in the future.

This will also have a tremendous effect on television viewing for entertainment purposes. While no one knows for certain that the days of one-to-many prime time viewing are numbered, we certainly know that the television ratings system (and corresponding system for providing commercials) will evolve into a more interactive process. Information on viewing habits will be gathered on-line on a one-to-one basis. Viewers will be able to watch any show, when they want it, on demand without having to videotape it during its "normally" scheduled time period. In other words, the definition of "normal time period" will certainly be modified. A current definition of media literacy has to include the possibility of these new communications methodologies as we envision them.

What makes this even more of an issue for a class about television is that this type of salesmanship has crept into the process of providing news coverage. The concept of newsworthiness has taken on new meaning. New words have crept into our newscast vocabulary. Terms like sound bites, spin doctors, paparazzi are becoming current vernacular. Quoting the back cover of The Cronkite Report video used in these sessions:

"The media lack objectivity. News is often inaccurate. Producers seek to entertain rather than inform. Coverage is too negative. These are just some of the things the working press have to say about the state of their own profession."

There is further evidence of this bias in news reporting, as seen in essays on the Deep Media Literacy web site. In other words, there is a school of thought consisting of those who believe that news is selected, packaged, and presented, not based on its news value, but based on how many commercials the newscast can sell. It is important to note that first year high school students generally have no concept of how the media makes money. This is taught very early on in the session on news filtering.

The main difference between the definition of media literacy found at the beginning of this chapter and the second, and more important, focus of this book is in the area of intent, or desired final outcomes for the program. Despite the fact that a critique of the media occupies a significant portion of the agenda, (at least in the initial sessions) the ends or final goal of media education in this course is to cause students to establish their own, personal relationship with the media. In other words, students are asked to make a critical review what is happening in the industry in order that they decide for themselves how they should react, and the role that television and other media will play in their lives. From there, they will have the basis to take their first steps towards becoming creators of media, something which media educators like Kathleen Tyner refer to as the acquisition model for media literacy.

Becoming more sophisticated creators of media will become much more important in the not-so-distant future. New technologies are already beginning to cause a complete paradigm shift in the whole connotation of the term television broadcasting. Soon, an entire new industry will emerge where individuals will be commercially broadcasting from their homes. Garage Cinema (a term used by Marc Davis in an address to the ACM in 1997) is already a reality in an amateurish sort of way. Recall, the woman who recently gave birth over the Internet.

In short, moving from the premise of learning how to deconstruct the media, students begin to move towards a more sophisticated approach to building their own constructs (i.e., the acquisition model). Through critique of others work, they learn about communications in context of message design, persuasive writing, and creating a personal communications style. They will then use these newly discovered cognitive skills to create media of their own.

The Lessons in this chapter are:

Digging Deeper

Sources for additional information on media literacy are becoming more readily available everyday, both in print and on-line on the Internet. There are two books, in particular that should be read by teachers trying to prepare themselves for teaching students about television:

Teaching About Television, and Teaching the Media, written by Len Masterman. The former is published by Macmillan Press LTD, Great Britain. The latter is available from Comedia/MK Media Press, also of Great Britain.

Dr. Ron Whittaker, at cybercollege.org discusses The Decline of TV News Credibility. This is an excellent article about what has happened to television news coverage. It can be used as supplementary reading or to stimulate class discussion.

A review of the book: Is Seeing Believing? How Can You Tell What's Real has been posted on the Center for Media Literacy's web page by Frank Baker. It is a wonderful product that examines issues surrounding the digital manipulation of photographs. The product comes with a videotape, a poster and a teacher guide.

Most are links are to super sites like the Media Literacy Clearinghouse that provide a numerous links to other sites of similar interest.

Kathleen Tyner has written a definitive book that looks at the latest trends in media literacy in light of the new technologies. Literacy in a Digital World reviews teaching and learning in the Age of Information. Much of the concepts taught in this chapter were spawned by Ms. Tyner's work.

One additional link, in particular, may be of interest. The San Jose Metro, a newspaper in Silicon Valley, Ca, wrote, in its January 23, 1997 edition, about a program being aired on a local PBS station: Fear and Favor in the Newsroom, a documentary about how big money influences the media. This compelling article discusses the difficulties the independent movie makers had in getting anyone to air their program. This show is finally working its way around the country and may be generally available in the near future. In the meantime, the news article is an opportunity to make a point, especially in Lesson 2, the Media Filtering Paradigm.

For further information on the War of the Worlds, the Discovery Channel has developed a set of lesson plans surrounding their television broadcast from the Spring of 1999. The site includes activities, links, and additional information about the origination of the story.