As education concerns itself with an understanding of the world and ourselves, it must necessarily also grapple with the sources of influence and representations of reality thatwe are constantly exposed to. With the invasion of the mass media, particularly, it has become a crucial function of education to help children pay attention to the influences they imbibe and the representations they internalize. Our knowledge of all that we do not directly see, hear or experience for ourselves - what we know about nations and war, about nature and the environment, and about people, products, fashion and lifestyles - is largely from the media. Given the power of the media today, if we do not teach our children how to live, the media will.

Thinking adults spend a great deal of time and energy in finding a good school for their children, in seeing that a rich curriculum is offered; it is surprising then, that adults often think nothing of the place and time occupied by television, that most persuasive of teachers, in the home. With increasing exposure to television, young people today carry a whole world of imagery and narratives in their heads. Among their peers - in the neighbourhood and at school - the received images from the media get enacted and reinforced in their minds, withseveral far-reaching consequences.

Increasingly, the teacher's role is not somuch to provide knowledge but to show the relevance or irrelevance of knowledge in human growth, to help build perspective, to invite discussion and to promote listening, observation and attention. The student needs to be encouraged to enquire, to be attentive to all that happens within and without, and to not seek security in acceptance of the word or the image. Recognizing this, an initiative urgently needed in our schools is that of developing a much more critical understanding of our media experiences. We may refer to this, in short, as 'media literacy'.

What is media literacy?

Media literacy is the informed, critical understanding of the workings of the media. From hoardings to the Internet and incorporating the various forms of the print media, television, videos, electronic games and films, the media is increasingly developing its own language and idiom, the structure and semantics of which the modern user needs to be able to comprehend beyond its surface appearances. The larger aim of media literacy would be to turn the student's relationship with the media into one of active and critical engagement.

Some key concepts or insights that need to be understood regarding our experience of the media are outlined below:

  • The media is a constructed reality. Nothingwe see or read in the media can be completely 'objective'. While we should expect fairness and balance in reporting, we must also understand that the news, information and ideas that we receive are from someone else's perspective. It is a reality constructed by producers, directors, writers, actors, editors and advertisers who bring to their work their own points of view. These constructions need to be deconstructed so that the point of view, the overt communication and any less obvious messages can be identified and separated.
  • The media uses specific identifiable techniques to manipulate responses. One can learn to become more conscious of these techniques by identifying the processes by which the moving image is constructed - camera angles, music, special effects and symbols - and recognizing the role of each in creating an impact. Being able to identify these techniques empowers the user such that, rather than be acted upon by the media, he can find his own actions and responses.
  • The media has a powerful impact on the way we understand the world and the meaning we give our experiences. Very often it 'mediates' between reality and us. A number of our attitudes, interpretations and conclusions are affected by our experience of the media. Often the intermingling of our personal needs and worries with the messages of the media shape our sexual attitudes, our notions of family or our ideas of work and success.
  • The technology of the medium and the message received are closely linked. The newspaper and the television report the same story in different ways, and therefore tend to communicate varied impressions and messages. The form and content cannot be separated. In away each medium communicates values, dominant political positions, and lifestyles by selection, exclusion and emphasis.
  • Media products are greatly influenced by commercial considerations. The final media product that we experience is born out of many decisions and is carefully constructed. The content, technology and distribution are deeply influenced by commercial considerations. Producers sell their programmes to television channels; television channels attract advertisers to their programmes and advertisers sell their products to viewers. Media production is a business, and, therefore, must be aimed at making profit..
  • In creating what Marshall McLuhan calls the global village the media carefully cultivates targeted groups while large sections of people are left out.
  • The world in the media is most often seen from one point of view and often communicates that some people and some ideas are more important than others. Programmes in the media are usually of a similar type, based on unquestioned assumptions and accepted beliefs and targeting predetermined audiences. Varying viewpoints, less popular themes and new ideas have difficulty finding space. Whose views are not being seen or heard? Why? One needs to ask who is left out and why. Questions of who owns, who controls and who benefits from the media are immensely significant.

Steps in media literacy


Any media literacy programme can be visualized as moving in three progressive steps.

The first step towards media literacy is to become consciously aware of what forms of media one consumes and to what extent. It is important to recognize the time one spends with various media products. This awareness helps in learning to actively choose and regulate one's time with various forms of the media.

The next step involves the learning of specific skills to critically analyse, question and evaluate media messages and understand the manner in which one creates meaning from those messages. These skills are well learnt through the tools of directed observation and critical listening, questions and discussions.

The third step attempts to go deeper and explore the forces that shape the media. Questions of who produces the media we experience, for what purpose, targeting whom, excluding whom, as well as the nature of its technology, are crucial here. The analysis moves to social, political and economic aspects of the media and the insight that the technology of the medium inevitably shapes an ideological relationship between the producers and the consumers.

Media literacy in the curriculum and the teacher's role


What place would media literacy then find in the curriculum? There are several possibilities for this. One could plan a course spanning half a year or a year (perhaps at the level of class 8 or class 11); conduct a workshop of two hours a day for aweek or a fortnight tailored for any specific age-group; offer a voluntary activity for a group of interested students once or twice a week over a term; and even carry out a number of exercises at random with various age- groups. Media-related activities - such as studying a newspaper article, discussing the place of icons and role-models from the media - could be incorporated as part of language classes or be attempted during class-teacher periods or culture classes.

It is important that the course or activity does not become an isolated exercise that has no direct link with the intent and approach of the rest of the school curriculum. Since the media is pervasive and intrusive in its impact, it needs to be handled comprehensively. Thus an attempt at critical media awareness must be supported by other processes in the school that teach students to recognize passivity and question basic assumptions. Media messages which, forinstance, emphasize the fulfillment of individual desires or aggression as a means of handling conflict need to be addressed, and this may be done by finding waysof working together and resolving conflict intelligently.

There seem to be a few prerequisites for teachers who wish to work with media literacy among young people. These include an interest and an engagement with the media, an understanding of the media as a complex conditioning process that impacts awareness, and the realization that reflection on our media experiences must become a part of education.

Teachers need to remain in touch with the pulse of children's media worlds and keep abreast of significant happenings, fashions and fads. A willingness to talk and create a discussion around what has been read or viewed, both informally and formally, and a questioning of the fashionable as dictated by the media, would help in starting constructive conversations around the media. It is also necessary that the school finds ways for students to interact with people who do not find a place in mainstream media, and also create occasions for exploring ideas and forms of entertainment other than those fostered by the media.

In a media class the teacher's role is really that of a facilitator. He is perhaps as susceptible to the impact of the media as the child, while being more interested and knowledgeable in its functioning. It is necessary that the teacher is conscious of his location vis-à-vis the article or programme that is being discussed, and is willing to share his views transparently, while inviting other observations and raising questions for the students. A good place to start with any study of the media is observation - a close observation without judgement of good or bad. Here questions that direct and focus observation would help students to uncover aspects of the media products under study that are not so obvious. Observation allows the student to be alert and draw upon her own resources. It also takes into account the fact that the media do not have the same kind of impact on all children or adults, and that children have their own powers of discrimination. This individual response and an ability to 'read between the lines' must beencouraged, for it empowers the student to learn on her own.

In summation, the issues that media literacy engages with are held within the larger question: given the media environment, what is it that we must do to help children meet the demands of life intelligently? Can we 'protect' and retain their innocence? Or do we provide them the freedom and space to talk and think about what they will inevitably see and hear? Through conversations and reflection, they need to become aware of the feelings aroused in them and be helped to discover ways of dealing intelligently with the excitement, desires, anxieties or fears that cloud the mind. We must do all that is needed to keep the mind open and alert. Eventually, it is in discovering the many possibilities of engaging with life, and in searching out that which demands a fuller use of their capacities, that young people can put the media and its messages in place.