Media are Constructions

The old adage, "The Camera Never Lies," is indicative of the way we have been conditioned to accept the relationship between reality and the representations of reality that the media construct. In a day of virtual reality and computer simulations "seeing is not believing". All media are carefully assembled, edited, selected and designed constructions. They show us a world but is a selected and often unrepresentative view even though it seems to be true. Learning to distinguish the reality from the reflection is implicit in this concept.

Media Representations Construct Reality

This principle involves the realization that there is a relationship between the way the world is presented by the media and the way we as media consumers perceive that world. Crime is 10 times greater on television than in real life, but many Americans perceive their world to be as violent and threatening as the media construction. When we have had no direct or immediate experience of the individual, institution, issue, person or place represented, the media tend to mediate. Hence, unless we have been to Australia for example we might perceive it as an odd mixture of "Crocodile Dundee" meets the "Thornbirds". For today's students, born and raised in the post-Vietnam era, their knowledge of that war is likely to have been constructed by "China Beach", "Tour of Duty", "Rambo", "Platoon" and other media constructions.

Audiences Negotiate Their Own Meaning

Put simply, "Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder". While we may often argue about the "beauty" of the media, the old adage helps us conceptualize the audiences are not passive recipients of media messages. Rather we filter media content and messages through a complex nexus of our own nature and needs including our existing beliefs and value systems. Significantly, different ethnic groups exposed to the same media content, select, reject, recall and comprehend quite different components of the same content.

Media Constructions Have Commercial Purposes

Put bluntly, the bottom line is the buck. Any real understanding of media content cannot be divorced from the economic context and financial imperative that drives the media industry. While many people lament the rise of tabloidism and "infotainment", the media industry justifies such trends on the basis that these stories sell. Hence, they are simply giving the public what the public wants.

The same is true in the entertainment media. While opinion surveys frequently show Americans are concerned about media violence, ticket sales and ratings also indicate that programs with high levels of violence also attract audiences. Breaking this cycle clearly involves understanding the dynamics of the market place and a realization that as consumers of media messages we are both part of the problem and part of the solution.

Media Messages Contain Values and Ideologies

Even though we are conditioned to think of movies, television programs and other media as separate and discrete products, ideologically they consistently construct, contain, carry and convey certain basic beliefs and values. In literature we might for example move beyond the plot or narrative chain of events and look at the theme or message. Hence Dorothy learns "There's no place like home" in The Wizard of Oz. When we stop seeing media products as discrete self-contained programs and look at the consistent and recurring themes that pervade the media we begin to recognize the cumulative value system at work. Hence in American media we might discover messages which suggest that consumption is inherently good and that violence is a viable solution and response to problems we face. Leading educator, Theodore Sizer has noted that: "television has become the biggest school system, the principal shaper of culture... powerfully influencing the young on what it is to be American". Understanding what television and other media teach is central to this component of media literacy

Media Messages have Social and Political Consequences

This principle explores the relationship between image and influence, content and consequence. In an era of consumption and materialism for example, how do we raise children to have spiritual values? In an age of AIDS, what happens if the messages about sex provided by the church, school and the family are undermined and contradicted by media messages which promise instant gratification or indulgence without consequences? What is the relationship between the backlash against affirmative action and social and media stereotypes for example about immigrants and welfare mothers? The principle involves exploring the way the media show and shape, reflect and reinforce reality. It involves understanding who and what is portrayed both quantitatively and qualitatively, as well as which groups and individuals in our society are left out of the picture. In part it involves understanding who is portrayed by whom, how and why with what effect.

Each Medium Has a Unique Aesthetic Form

When Steven Speilberg decided to shoot Schindler's List in black and white he acknowledged the relationship; between media content and media form. Since the world had initially learned of the Nazi death camps through black and white photographs and news reel documentaries, Spielberg utilized a format that recreated the time and era. This principle of media literacy enables us to understand the unique characteristics and attributes of each medium and to explore that way that form is related to content. It enables us to conceptualize not just what we are told, but how. The Vietnam War has been described as the "living room war" because it came to us via television. In what way might our perception of the war have been different if we had merely read about the death count and body bags and not accurately seen it?

partly adapted from David Considine: Some Principles of Media Literacy


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