We live in a media-dominated society. The urban dweller's world view is increasingly shaped by the news-bites and entertainment offered by the electronic media (with a range of 60-odd television channels and a variety of home entertainment gadgets to choose from). The print media (magazines and newspapers) and even the ubiquitous billboards, beaming down their colourful messages, are also very much part of our day-to-day lives. Radio and satellite television reach far into the rural interior, and there are few people today who do not have some form of regular contact with the mass media.
The pervasive presence of media in all our lives demands that, as thinking persons, we reflect on certain questions. How do we view the relevance and role of mass media? What is our relationship to the content and form of the media messages that we receive daily? How do we receive these and in what manner are we shaped by them? As educators, we also need to become more widely aware of the forces that drive the media, of the political and economic considerations and feedback loops through which media practitioners construct products and messages for their consumers. We need to be cognizant of the effect these processes have on value-formation, societal trends and lifestyle choices, as well as on the sense of inclusion and exclusion within our largersocial environment.
At another level, educators also need to critically engage with issues thrown up by the built-in effects of media technologies, especially those of the electronic media. How do these alter our sense perceptions, our behaviour patterns and our capacity to learn? Ultimately, as educators our primary concern is with the learning mind - with an alert, awake mind, that is conscious of what is around and within it, which can engage actively with the multiple challenges of life. Understanding our media experiences, and learning to put them in their place, must therefore become an inextricable part of education in our times.
Our relationship with the media
There is no denying that the various media play a vital part in the modern world. One of the values thatwe ascribe to the media in an increasingly globalized world is the awareness that it can generate about realities outside the realm of one's own personal experiences. The audiovisual power of the television provides a 'magic window' that brings a vast variety of geographical and cultural locales and a range of ideas into our homes. In modern democratic societies it is the media that must provide access to information on various events and issues, and allow for a diversity of opinion and points of view. Indeed the reach of the electronic media is such that, even as majorworld events unfold (the GulfWar, the September 11 attacks in New York), we seem to be positioned as 'participants' in the drama. The title of Shashi Kumar's paper presented at the workshop, 'Television as an Extension of our Times', points to the central role this technology has come to play in our lives.
However, we clearly need to look beyond a naïve or surface view of the role that the media play in our lives, and develop a critical understanding of our relationship with these various means of 'mass communication'. At the outset, we may readily recognize that entertainment (and not information, ideas and points of view) is the single greatest purpose for which we increasingly turn to the media. The huge slices of prepackaged entertainment that the electronic media fill their programming schedules with have become justified by the fact that we, the public, lap up the fare which they offer. In turn, we too are necessarily shaped by the content and form of the programmes, with their frequent advertisement breaks, that we are enticed to watch. With some reflection we can become aware that even programmes considered relatively innocuous - such as the cartoon network or the music channels - communicate not just at the surface, overt level, but also have a sub-text, a set of subliminal, less obvious messages that we may be internalizing.
As viewer preferences are shaped by entertainment that dazzles - with glamour and action-packed sensation - there is a real danger of trivializing even the more serious modes of discourse, such as news analysis, political debates and discussions, social and environmental commentaries, as well as religious and educational programmes. There is a 'dumbing down' of standards when such programmes take the cue fromthe formats of entertainment programmes. Spectacular visuals or sound-bytes on prime-time become more significant than the airing of serious issues or the promotion of real thinking. Shashi Kumar comments on the homogenized and highly consumerist orientation of television programming that has proliferated in the South Asian context: ...the sheer plurality of national channels over the last decade has not meant any real democratization, except in a purely structural sense, or any real advance in terms of evolving an Indian identity of diversity. What we see is more of the same, with American television idiom taking over to boot:an idiom which, as former Managing Director of BBC, John Tusa, points out, is expressed in a series of antithesis - 'of more choice but less diversity;more information, but less knowledge; more action but less news; more gratification but less satisfaction; more viewers but less engagement; more immediacy but less depth; more in the present, less in the past; more unto the minute, but less tradition; more on demand, less to wait for'.
Hence, while partaking of the opportunities that the new media offer, as educators and learners we can hardly underestimate the power of the media in shaping our thought process, subtly influencing our attitudes, and blunting our capacity to respond to real-life challenges. The risks for children who are high consumers of the media is perhaps even greater. We therefore must ask ourselves whether there are ways in which one might constructively engage with the media, and be able to glean what is worthwhile. Can we also hold it accountable for what we clearly recognize as destructive? And in our attempts to do so, we must be more fully aware of whatwe are up against.
Forces that shape the media: three viewpoints
It would appear that the forces that control the mainstream media are formidable. As a first step it is useful to have an informed, critical insight into the workings of the 'media business' and its less-publicized manipulative aspect. Both Shashi Kumar, Director of the Asian College of Journalism, and Sadanand Menon, a journalist and media critic, offer clearly articulated perspectives on this vexed issue, while V. Geetha, a writer interested in issues of culture and gender, highlights the media's role in constructing and sustaining debilitating gender inequities.
Shashi Kumar traces the growth of the electronic media in the context of global changes from the industrial age to what is popularly known as the 'information age'. Those who control mass media today - especially the electronic media - are clearly into 'big business', with the sole agenda of competing, capturing markets, and optimizing resources. The economic compulsions of the mass media have become intertwined, following the demise of a bipolar world, with the commercial and political interests of the U.S., the sole super-power. The pathbreaking work of Noam Chomsky and Edward Hermann reveals an implicit nexus between the mainstream media and the U.S. administration in 'manufacturing' consent on crucial matters of war and foreign policy. Parallel to the rise of multinational corporations, the media business too is increasingly being taken over by a few giant corporations (Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner exemplify this trend). Pressed into the service of economic globalization, these set the agenda and the menu for television today, which only strengthens a unipolar view of the world. The outcome can be seen in the manner in which the erstwhile regional or 'national' moorings of television are rapidly giving way to increasing projections of a certain homogenized 'metropolitan' lifestyle, which is aimed at the upper middle class markets, to the exclusion of all other concerns.
What then is media's role in society? Does it at all reflect the realities and concerns of diverse sections of society? Can it ever be a true representation of the lived experience of the vast numbers of people who partake of it? Shashi Kumar highlights not only the highly selective, distorted and fragmented representations of reality thatwe find in the media, but also its active collusion in ...literally pushing into oblivion the overwhelming reality of the vast majority of the world - particularly the vast rural hinterland that continues to dominate developing societies... so that it becomes a dark mass that exists around and outside the four corners of the television frame.
Television practitioners, as well as their more affluent viewers, become increasingly cocooned in a 'feel good' consumerist bubble. It is a bubble that invalidates the realities of large sections of people, and in ignoring the vexed and problematic issues of our societies, the media becomes a major part of theproblem itself.
Sadanand Menon, speaking of the print media, complements the perspective outlined above by asking whether the media's primary role is disseminating information or 'filtering' information. He sees that it is clearly the latter: by acting as a 'gatekeeper' in the service of what he calls 'print capitalism' it has, in fact, moved in the direction of preventing people from knowing more. People have less access to information that is truly relevant, which they can engage with. Watching trends in the newspaper industry, one can see how the character of newspapers has changed. The format and content of 'broadsheets' - which reported on current events and politics - and that of 'tabloids' - which had a fare of light, gossipy news - have increasingly merged to produce what may now be called 'broadloids'. 'Broadloids' work on the theory that the front page should have a friendly, sunny appearance, with sensational stories and titillating material. Not only are readers lapping this up, but these papers are a huge economic success because they are supported by extensive advertising, especially by the cosmetic industry.
But all this comes at the expense of 'substance': serious news and people's issues are either blanked out, relegated to receiving minimal coverage, or simply reported in a populist manner. Whereas state censorship is no longer an issue, corporate control of the media and the market forces have commodified information and a different kind of censorship prevails. The place of responsible journalism is thus increasingly under threat in mainstream media. This calls for people's initiatives and those of concerned individuals to work from both within and outside the media to restore the 'right to information' that is the lifeblood of any democratic society.
V. Geetha has been specifically concerned with issues of sex and gender, and the processes by whichwe become socialized into accepting and naturalizing inequitous 'gender roles'. The economics of the media determines their relationship to gender and we can see a variety of means by which mass media work to strengthen, but also reconfigure, the traditional social norms related to gender identity and gender values. Through the relative space accorded to men and women, the stereotyping in their portrayals, and the asymmetric roles that they are invariably depicted in, the media sustains a thoroughly patriarchal order (though the icon of the 'superwoman', who works at her job but does not compromise on her domestic commitments, is often shown as the 'modern' face of the Indian woman).
Advertising has been an increasingly potent force in 'objectifying' the female body and placing it under the 'male gaze' for the purpose of selling products. The notions of feminine beauty - in terms of attributes such as 'slender', 'fair', 'manicured' - projected by the cosmetic industry and sustained through images of models, fashion shows, beauty contests and the female media personality, clearly work to both co-opt as well as demean women. V. Geetha suggests that we can hardly afford to be passive onlookers and need to equip ourselves for deconstructing media products in order to be free of their tyranny. She adds, however, that we need not view the media as an unyielding monolith. Even while partaking of its biased, fractured, and politically charged imagery, one may findspaces to engage and negotiate with its dynamic reality.
Impact of media technology
Having uncovered the problematic aspects of the content of modern media, it is equally crucial to take cognizance of the impact of the technology itself. The medium of television particularly needs to be put under scrutiny. A book published some years ago, Jerry Mander's Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, makes the argument that each technological invention comes with a built-in ideology. With every advance in technology a new form of alienation grows between the human being and his environment, and this has nothing to do with the content, but is a function of the machine itself. He goes on to highlight the debilitating effects of extended T.V. watching on the human nervous system. Hours of staring at the flickering coloured lights on a rectangular screen and submitting oneself to a stream of rapidly shifting images can have far-reaching negative consequences on humanwellbeing.
Extended T.V. watching may be characterized as a form of severe 'sensory deprivation', where tactile, multisensory experiences that stimulate whole brain development are replaced by an influx of audiovisual imagery that stimulates limited regions of the brain, and gradually atrophies its creative functioning. Several studies with children have shown links between T.V. watching and passivity on the one hand, and hyperactive, aggressive tendencies on the other. It would seem that 'the problem is not what we watch, the problem is that we watch'. Since television is, however, such an inescapable part of our lives today and we cannot wish it away or would not throw it out, we may find an amelioration in 'how we watch'. The issues arising out of television viewing also apply to other forms of 'screen-based' technologies - video games, computers and the Internet.
Challenges for schools
The perspectives on media that are outlined above throw up many issues and challenges for education in our times. And respond we must if the learning mind is to remain alive, and be nurtured in a wholesome growth. Given the pervasive penetration of the mass media, our attitude cannot be simply one of 'protection'; rather it must be based on intelligent engagement with the media. Schools can provide a reflective space, where we learn to look at and understand our daily experiences, including the media-induced. We need to put in its place the media as a 'noise in the head', and find ways to read, listen to and watch the various forms of media with a mind that is not naïve and gullible, but which can actively and critically engage with them, and if need be, disengage too. To empower our students thus would require us, as teachers, to engage similarly with the media, and work towards developing original curricula for 'media literacy' inour schools.
Schools might respond at another level too. Our awareness of the harmful effects on children of the technologies of modern media, demands that there be a certain kind of protection too. This may be done by first of all involving parents, helping them to see the importance of regulating their children's access to the electronic media, and suggesting ways in which they can monitor their media experiences. As children grow to a stage where they can take a wider perspective and be self-aware, discussions on the need for self-regulation and finding creativealternatives to the media may also be possible.
Finally, we might ask ourselves: is there anything that can be done to influence the character and content of the media that we and our children are exposed to? Can schools and educators become a counterforce that holds the media accountable for the creation of programmes that are debilitating and harmful? Can they participate in the creation of alternate forms of media? These broader questions involve the social responsibility of schools and educators in relation to the media, and they too must find a place in the ambit of our thinking and action.