What does it really mean to be media literate?

My media literacy instincts are so engrained I rarely think about them. Sometimes, though, they become visible, like the time I was at the Bonnaroo music festival in Tennessee. I was there working on a documentary about the festival’s recycling and green efforts (which are extraordinary) and had free run of the place. One evening I was munching away in the food court when a college-aged fellow sat down across from me. In the background I could hear Tom Petty perform a live version of his greatest hits CD (the difference between the two was nominal). The young man, who was from a Southern state (Alabama or Georgia–my memory fails me), started a friendly conversation. At some point–I don’t know why–I launched into a diatribe about the culture industry, noting the various sponsorships, marketing opportunities and corporate presences throughout the festival and in the music world in general. I talked about how his demographic is targeted and that the illusion of choice hid the fact that media corporations had consolidated power and were engaging in ethnographic research to get into his mind.

What seemed so perfectly obvious to me–the big corporate take over of the cultural commons–came as a total shock to this poor dude. He wondered out loud if I was some kind of wizard–he didn’t use this term, but I think that’s what he meant. No, I said, it’s quite simple. It’s media literacy. Then I realized how dangerous to the status quo media literacy is, and that without these basic skills corporations will run amuck.

I don’t want to presume that this particular kid didn’t have agency or free thought. In fact, he seemed quite interested in what I had to say, albeit his shock was palatable. I offered him my card and said that if he ever wanted more information about the things I had ranted about, he could contact me. He thanked me and we parted ways.

I never did hear from him again. However, that short experience had a big impact on me. How many of these kids are out there? That is, kids who are curious but not to the point of seeking information outside what is available to them in their immediate environment. Or what it is that enables me to see the pervasive system of manipulation, whereas he doesn’t. I’m not saying this to be superior, but I’m trying to understand the skills that enable some people to see beyond the veil of hegemony. Is it just media literacy, or is there more to it?

Naturally, as a media literacy educator I spend lots of time thinking about what it is that makes students media literate. But it occurred to me that I rarely turn the table on myself. What is it that makes me a media literate person? What tools and thought processes do I use on a daily basis that enable me to “read” media critically? Rather than postulate about students in abstract terms, perhaps by examining my own practices it will help me design a better educational environment. So what does media literacy look like when practiced by a “pro”?

Here’s a narrative example of a media literacy exercise I went through recently. I had just watched the most excellent documentary, Gasland, a documentary about a natural gas extraction process called fracking. The film is so effective and powerful that it is giving the natural gas industry a nauseating headache. The stark image of burning fumes coming out of people’s tap has ignited the opposition’s imagination and is thwarting a powerful industry that has quietly colonized the West like an industrial slime mold. If an independent film can challenge the likes of Dick Darth Vader Chaney and Halliburton, surly the industry response will have to be effective and heavy-handed. I wanted to know what kind of media strategy they would use and how media literacy could respond to their efforts.

The answer came quickly enough. A fast search on YouTube churned up a four-minute infomercial, “The Truth About Gasland,” which expounds upon the ecological benefits of natural gas without ever mentioning that dreaded word, fracking. Narrated with an earnest, folksy, neighborly, chirpy voice, the voice actor wonders how it is that such a well-meaning documentary like Gasland could get everything so totally wrong. The ad is a glittering piece of propaganda, similar to the natural gas ads I saw running on repeat loop during my most recent visit to the states. (This other natural gas ad is stunningly brilliant: it symbolically represents gas as innocent, innocuous hot air balloons that are silent, unobtrusive, safe and pure.)

Going deeper into my investigation, I clicked through to the page of the user who posted the video. As I suspected, it was for some kind of trade group called America’s Natural Gas Alliance. I first check its Web site, and then I do some oppositional research by going to PRWatch.org. Created by the Center for Media and Democracy, this site serves as an amazing watchdog of corporate maleficence. Founded by the co-author of Toxic Sludge is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations IndustryJohn Stauber–it is a sister site of SourceWatch, BanksterUSA and ALECexposed.org–all a hornet’s nest of trouble for disinformation spewing PR flacks. This and its companion sites are a wealth of information that can help any investigator get a complete picture of the various “astroturf” organizations out there defending corporate energy policy.

At PRWatch I typed in “natural gas,” which yielded no results. Then I entered “fracking,” and I hit a mother load of articles. One of the most interesting is an op-ed titled, “‘Energy in Depth,’ ‘Counter-Insurgency’ Tactics, and Astroturf ‘Energy Citizens.'” If you ever wanted a primer on corporate information war tactics, this article has it all.

OK, so I could go on. I don’t want to focus so much on my particular analysis or these ads, but more on the process that I went through to expand my awareness.

First of all, it starts with curiosity. Before the entire investigation can begin, there needs to be curiosity about the topic at hand. The motive that underlies this goes well beyond basic media literacy education, although media literacy can certainly help people become more curious about how and why media are created. Curiosity derives also from a sense of wonder about the world, a desire to know it and feel the contours of its wholeness. These traits, I believe, are cultivated early in life through a combination of school, family and habitat.

Some environments don’t invite curiosity. For example, let’s start with religion. Compare the experience of Buddhist practice which often starts from the standpoint of, “Don’t trust what I’m saying, experience if for yourself, ” versus a rigid fundamentalist stance that states, “This book represents the word of God, never doubt it!” Obviously those who grow up around true believers and those exposed to methodologies that always test and question the textures of reality are going to have different frames of the world.

I don’t attribute the instinct to question and test the world through direct experience as a direct result of media literacy. However, having taught hundreds of youths over the past dozen years, I believe that media literacy does open that door. Call it a gateway to critical thinking, media literacy can model a way for becoming instinctually skeptical of any claims being made by mediamakers.

So what comes after curiosity? Perhaps the next skill one must have is to know right off the bat that all media are essentially created by people (and/or institutional forces) with an agenda. The intent may be totally innocuous, but all media starts with the desire to communicate something. The trick is to find out more about that intention and who is doing the intending. I first learned this when I was a teen punk rocker. In LA, the central clearinghouse of punk gossip, news and DIY know-how was Flipside, a kitchen table zine that was like the bulletin board of the movement. At 15 I wrote a letter to Flipside, which they promptly published. It was the first time I saw my name in print (aside from a school yearbook) and it blew me away. Never mind that their policy was to print every letter they received, I realized that it wasn’t difficult to get published. This lead to the next logical step: creating a zine. My friends in the neighborhood and I banded together to create our own publication, Ink Disease, and with a $60 loan and access to a photocopier at a local print shop, we were off and running.

The moral of the this short anecdote is that the illusion that separates information consumers/audiences from media makers needs to be snapped. And it can be done through the actual act of media making (more on this below). This sets up the skill to know that media are not mystical creations, but that they have nuts and bolts and processes that lead to their creation. But again, I have to return to this environmental theme: the fact is that the revelations that led to the desire to make media were made possible as a result of family, education and habitat that encouraged creativity and curiosity. Without those basic ingredients, I would never have become a punk, I would never have read Flipside or gotten the idea to write a letter to express my views.

The more I think about it, the basic step of writing a letter required other essential, but taken-for-granted skills. I needed to know that I could read something, write a response to it, and then act upon that response by mailing it to the publisher. This might seem like civics 101 to most people, but I imagine that there is a large population out there where the idea that they can participate in a dialog with the media that surrounds them is not possible. OK, I understand the Internet changes all that and anyone can write a comment on a Web page these days, but posting and commenting about party pictures on Facebook doesn’t really count for much as far as political participation. It needs be something more engaged. In this sense, functional media literacy–being able read and comment on something, or even make a mash-up and post it to YouTube–may not translate into something more intangible: to care about something and to become an actual cultural citizen.

So maybe care precedes curiosity, although I hinted at the possibility that curiosity derives from a desire to learn more about and to connect with the world. Once again, I have come across a key aspect of media literacy that may not be teachable through media literacy: the impulse to care about the world.

Yet, despite all the faults of media, empathy is one of their key strengths. It may in fact be a kind of media that leads someone to care about something. This was certainly the case when I saw Gasland. And it was a documentary film about the LA punk scene–The Decline of Western Civilization–that inspired me to shave off my skater locks and to ditch my OP shorts (I kept the Vans, which have remained a signature of punk attire–it least the SoCal variety).

OK, then. Let’s say that a media literacy skill includes empathy.

Moving on, this leads to the next question we have for any media text. Who created it and why? In the case of the anti-Gasland propaganda ad, it was important to investigate who made the media. But this required other skills. I needed to know where to click to get my answers, and I needed to know how to do a proper search, but not just any search, I needed to know how to do oppositional research. For example, I may not spontaneously arrive to PRWatch through a simple google search. In fact, after several different tries, I could not generate a search that would bring up PRWatch without actually naming the organization. So I need to know that it exists and that I can go there. How do I know of its existence? By attending media literacy conferences where people who know about this stuff share information.

I imagine for students to get exposed to such sites they would need to be guided by educators, mentors or through exposure from grassroots organizations working in their communities. Thus, I have to conclude that media literacy by itself won’t do the trick. There needs to be an environment of heightened awareness and education that comes through organizing. The word has to get out there, and media literacy in and of itself–although critical–needs to be part of larger grassroots campaigns that can build networks of knowledgable people who know where to look and how to find things.

So now we arrive to the media text itself. First off, all media are intertextual–they link and refer to other texts. Understanding intertextualilty depends upon knowledge of genre, because genre represents a particular kind of menu of tropes, concepts and discursive clusters that make up the point of view of any media text. One way to think about it is like knowing the difference between menus for a Chinese or Mexican restaurant: they both have similar forms, but also have different conventions and built-in expectations.

In order to get a more complete picture, one then needs to map and chart connections with the text. In the case of the anti-Gasland ad, there is the Gasland movie itself that is referenced (good things to know about Gasland include that it was Academy Award-nominated, it has a Web site with all kinds supplementary materials and the content of the film is important to be familiar with). Then there are other ads produced by the same PR folks who made the commercial. What kinds of materials are on the organization’s YouTube channel? Are there counter ads contesting the PR flacks? It’s also important to be familiar with the political discourses occurring within the ad’s context (it uses terms like “energy independence,” “opportunity,” “benefit” and “develop,” all of which have particular connotations right now regarding national energy policy).

This now brings us to symbolic resources. This is where media literacy education become particularly handy. I need to know the conventions, codes, techniques and meanings of the various different rhetorical strategies employed by the ad. This is not so easy. Even a very media literate person may not know the historic weight behind many of the symbols used and how they tie into particular discourses about the environment. Being able to refer to a menu of discourses is what a truly media literate person can do. For example, what is the situated meaning of particular images–kids, trees, clean neighborhoods, open landscapes, friendly people–and their implied portrayal of what constitutes a “true America”? Deconstructing the hegemonic (taken-for-granted) concept of America requires a lot of background research and knowledge. Political economy is not something that one takes as a pill and understands implicitly.

Finally, knowledge of filmmaking comes to bear. Knowing how editing works, and the role of music (like the ad’s use of folksy mountain music), narrator tone, graphics, etc. can be learned in film studies, but also in basic media making courses. Students who first learn the media making arts are always astounded by how simple it is to manipulate images and sounds. So along with understanding how to read symbols and discourses, people also need basic technical knowledge of how to make media.

Folks, this is wizardry in action. Not only do we need to counter the magical skills of the media makers, we need to be defensive like Harry Potter in knowing how spells are used and how to counter them. For this reason, media literacy is essential. But it is not easy or something that simply comes out of a box. There is really no plug-and-play approach that can make us media literate in a day. Just as it takes upwards of ten years of schooling to become functionally literate, becoming media literate is a skill of lifelong learning.

Indeed, if one thing can be gleaned from this exercise, it’s that all the skills needed for media literacy take time to develop and involve a long process of education. For example, these are the resources I needed to effectively analyze the energy company’s media strategy. These don’t necessarily follow a linear path, but are more likely to be somewhat circular:

* Emotional intelligences: Curiosity, empathy, intention.

* Behaviors: cultural citizenship, engagement, reflexivity, critical thinking.

* Skills: knowing that media are constructed; awareness of how intertextuality works (genre, semiotics); familiarity with different discourses; a working understanding of hegemony, ideology and political economy; basic information literacy (where to find things, how to discern information sources); knowledge of media making (either indirectly or from direct experience); and exposure to grassroots activism.

Putting these skills into actions is like being an improvisational musician: you need to have some skills that are technical (they can be self-taught or learned formally), but you also need to have the spaciousness and flexibility to put those skills into action within a situated environment. Playing alone can be fun, but doing it with others is even better. Indeed, my viewing of Gasland was at a local event in Rome, which involved discussion and dialog afterward, which deepened my understanding of the film.

The good news is that we get a media education as soon as we start using media. Most people become media savvy before they are book savvy. However, the longterm process of cultivating critical thinking skills, compassion and cultural citizenship involves much more. For me it had a lot to do with upbringing, but also being part of a community practice in the form of punk. I think peer groups creating media around a shared passion–such as hip hop–can be of great help. I don’t expect most of these skills to be learned in a regular school curriculum. In fact, the current trend is to promote technical literacy (how to be an efficient knowledge worker without questioning neoliberal policy) rather than critical thinking about media. For this reason media literacy needs to take place as an embedded skill within grassroots activism. People who are doing community organizing should also use media literacy as a toolset to get people more engaged and thoughtful about their experience in such a highly mediated environment. That, to me, is what media literacy is about.

  • I like what you have written here and I understand. My twenty year old son has waken up to your perspective and this is a good view to have. Media Literate is an interesting term. As a sensitive person to this, it has always been part of my life. (which is why i gave up Media advertisement at a young age). As we are the older ones in the communities of our life. I feel it is our responsibility to wake the youngsters up…some will and others will not.. this is life. My first questions is always , “What is the agenda here?”… sometimes turning all the media off I find the real voice.. that is nature, I sit and listen to the politics of nature.. now that is some real propaganda.!

  • Antonio

    Hudley, I’m glad you wrote. You are one of my punk rock heroes (even though we are not supposed to have any!). Like I say, it was Flipside that gave me the initial inspiration to take action. You will be happy to know that a lot of media educators are old punks (I hesitate to say “ex-punk” because that would mean that somehow it went away). I don’t think any of us in the punk scene knew were being “media literate,” but I think this is what resulted from our DIY practices. So I agree, we need to be mentors and also learn from the new generation.

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  • Bronwen

    Hi Antonio, I really enjoyed this article and found it very thought-provoking. In fact, I ended up jotting down a bunch of notes and it turned into a bit of an essay! So, I won’t post that here. My boyfriend and I discussed it also and he wanted to add some thoughts too, so I will send that to you and if you have time and if you wish to you can take a look! But, to sum up briefly – it really got me thinking about how I have been fortunate enough to have most of those ingredients that would make me fairly media literate, and yet I still had this notion of a paternalistic ‘they’ out there somewhere looking out for my/our well-being. Of course this was/is part of the illusion and I knew that intellectually but I didn’t really know it – I didn’t live that knowledge… until it became personal for me. So, I’ve been wondering how and why that is…

  • Antonio

    Bronwen, thanks for your comment. I would be very interested in seeing what you come up with. Also, feel free to post here as well. Thanks!

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