Media Literacy


Media Education and Information Literacy

 By: Michael Haran

From SSU EDUC 559 Dr. Maryanne Berry December 3, 2014



Media education and information literacy (collectively “Media Literacy”) are critical elements of the education philosophy of Innovationism. In fact, without media literacy the basic tenants of Innovationism as an education philosophy could not exist. That’s really not quite accurate. Innovationism could exist but its contemporary implementation could not happen without the understanding of contemporary media literacy.  Innovationism is based on the concept of the integrated internal and external, objective and subjective pedagogical methodological elements of K-12 education.

Educational scholars may use the term critical media literacy to emphasize the exploration of power and ideology in media analysis. Other scholars may use terms like new media literacy to emphasize the application of media literacy as user-generated content; or 21st century literacy to emphasize the use of technology tools. (Hobbs, 2006)

The goal of media literacy is to help people become sophisticated media analysts rather than sophisticated consumers. In their paper “The Struggle over Media Literacy” (1998) Justin Lewis and Sut Jhally argue against a purely “text-centered” approach in which media texts can be deconstructed and analyzed so we can choose among them. Instead, media literacy should integrate a textual analysis with questions of production and reception. An analysis of the structure of media institutions is particularly important if Americans are to be able to appreciate and argue for alternatives to a lightly regulated commercial media system. Media literacy is, therefore, a way of extending democracy to the place where democracy is increasingly scripted and defined. (Lewis, 1998)

As Stuart Ewen (1996) put it, “Media literacy cannot simply be seen as a vaccination against public relation (PR) or other familiar strains of institutionalized guile. It must be understood as an education in techniques that can democratize the realm of public expression and will magnify the possibility of meaningful public interactions. (Lewis, 1998)

The democratization of institutions, and the long march toward a truly participatory democracy (one person – one vote), will be highly dependent upon the ability of majorities of citizens to take control, become effective change agents, make rational decisions (often on the basis of media evidence) and to communicate effectively perhaps through an active involvement with the media. (Masterman, 1997, p. 60)

Media literacy does not only include digital media such as the internet, websites, video/film, mobile phones, computer games and interactive television but also traditional electronic medias such television, radio, DVDs, and CDs; and traditional print media such as mass circulation newspapers and magazines, publications, advertising copy, popular novels, local flyers, outdoor billboards and school textbooks; college catalogues and shopping catalogues; travel brochures; and corporate and government publications (Lemke, 2005).

The most commonly used definition of media literacy is “The ability to access, analyze, communicate messages in a variety of media form” (Thoman and Jolls, 2005) and the American Library Association defines information literacy as a “set of abilities requiring individuals to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information” (American Library Association, 2006). In the teaching of media literacy, it should be noted that the term media is not technology and that media literacy represents the world and communicating social and cultural processes (Buckingham, 2007).

Using media literacy K-12 teachers can motivate students’ interest in class subject, build communications and critical-thinking skills, encourage political activism, promote personal and social development (Hobbs, 2010) but should they enlist these media for the purpose of delivering the established curriculum? Or can they find ways of engaging with them more critically and creatively? (Buckingham, 2007)

And what about the machines that deliver these digital media and information? Are they simply a means of storing and delivering an inert body of facts or data (Burbules and Callister, 2000) or are they more shaped and manipulated by the social interests and motivations of the people who produce and use them? (Buckingham, 2007)

InCultural Studies, Multiculturalism, and Media Culture” (2003), Douglas Kellner talks about providing comprehensive approaches to culture that can be applied to a wide variety of artifacts from pornography to Madonna, from You-Tube to TV news, or to specific events like a presidential election or media representations of terrorist attacks on the U.S. The comprehensive perspectives that encompass political economy, textual analysis, and audience research are explored and provide critical perspectives that enable individuals to dissect the meanings, messages, and effects of dominant cultural forms. Cultural studies are thus part of a critical media pedagogy that enables individuals to resist media manipulation and to increase their freedom and individuality.

Innovative education and learning requires full expanse of the internet to be effective. Innovationism is a learning philosophy which is based on inquiry and the serendipitous discovery from that inquiry. If the sources of information are manipulated or “filtered” the process becomes compromised and thus questionable to its authenticity (Pariser, 2011).  It is therefore critical that students, from the earliest age, learn how to critically search and evaluate information that is found on the internet. And finally, the transfer of media literacy is dependent on instructor competency.


A Brief History of Media Literacy Education

Media Literacy education has been around as long as humans have had the ability to communicate. Every type of visual communication from markers in the sand, to smoke signals, to hieroglyphics had to be not only interpreted but also taught to the next generation. Here we are going to focus on the U.S. history of the technological media transfer of test and images.

Technological media literacy education has been taking place around the world as with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) which has been promoting media literacy since founding the Grunewald Declaration of 1982. This program identified the need to promote communication media and information literacy through defined education systems. The goal of their program “Action for Media Education and Literacy” is to introduce media and information literacy as an integral part of people’s life-long learning (UNESCO, 2011).

The use of film was the first analogical form of media education in high schools. It wasn’t long after its commercial application at the end of the 19th century that English teachers used the media to teach communication and critical thinking. In the 1950s and 60s, students were taught about plot development, character associations, and the nuances of mood and tone as films were used to teach such liberal arts as literature and history. With the growth of film popularity not only in American culture but also education the traditional print text began to be questioned as the only education media (Hazard, 1961). (See: The History of Education Technology)

A whole generation of educators began to not only acknowledge film and television as new, legitimate forms of expression and communication, but also explored practical ways to promote serious inquiry and analysis – in higher education, in the family, in schools and in society. As a result of increased awareness in the central role of visual, electronic and digital media in the contemporary culture by the 1990s, media literacy education began to appear in state ELA education curriculum (Hobbs, 2009).

Today, nearly all 50 states have language that supports media literacy in their curriculum and an increasing number of school districts have begun to develop school-wide programs for media analysis and production. In 2004, Montana developed educational standards around media literacy that students are required to be competent in by grades 4, 8, and 12. (Hobbs, 2009)

During the 1990s, the Discovery Channel supported the implementation of Assignment: Media Literacy, a statewide educational initiative for K-12 students developed in collaboration with the Maryland State Board of Education (Hobbs, 2009). Interdisciplinary scholarship in media literacy education is emerging. In 2009, a scholarly journal was launched, the Journal of Media Literacy Education (JMLE, 2014) to support the work of scholars and practitioners in the field.


Media Literacy Text and Images

The Written Word

The written word has been around for as long as humans have been. In fact, the written word is one of the things that humans can do that not only defines us as a unique species but also has advanced (or not – depending on your point of view) the human condition. The day is coming when all U. S. K-12 instruction will be half “paper and pencil” learning and half online learning.

The term “true writing” is defined as when the content of a linguistic utterance is encoded so that another reader can reconstruct, with a fair degree of accuracy, the exact utterance written down. It is generally agreed that true writing of language (not only numbers) was initially invented in Mesopotamia (specifically, ancient Sumer) around 3200 BCE (Rawlinson, 2003). When William Caxton set up the first printing press in Britain at the end of the 15th century it marked the point at which the English language began to take the first steps toward standardization and its eventual role as a national language. (Kemmer, 2005)

Since that time the written word has been the primary media used in transferring literacy. Although images have been used by humans as a form of communication longer than the written word they could never convey an exact meaning in the way the written word could.  Illustrations were just that: redundant, secondary content subordinate to the written text. The written word had power and prestige, it defined literacy. (Lemke, 2005)

The word “prose” comes from the Latin prosa, meaning “straightforward.” Prose is the language people generally use to transmit information and express ideas. Closely resembling the patterns of everyday speech, prose is the kind of writing typically found in books, newspapers and magazines. In an age of print, the most significant public sources that sought to shape our social attitudes and beliefs presented themselves to us through the medium of text: school textbooks, mass circulation newspapers, government publications, advertising copy, popular novels, and so forth. (Lemke, 2005)

What is a text today? It is not bounded by the first and last pages of a folio book. It is distributed across multiple sites and media. It is an inter-textual constellation, not just in the imagination of literary theorists, but in simple everyday fact (Lemke, 2005). A specific print, digital, or visual text has features that influence the reading process as does the reading activity itself (whether one is viewing a TV show for entertainment, skimming the headlines of a newspaper, reading a novel for pleasure, or studying a textbook to prepare for a test) (Hobbs, 2007).


The Evolution of Contemporary Literacy

The advent of television challenged the basic assumptions of the traditional model of cultural and critical literacy. It was clear that more people were being influenced by what they saw and heard than by what they read. (Lemke, 2005) The world told is a different world to the world shown. (Kress, 2003, p. 1)

Radio, television, film, and the other products of media culture provide materials out of which we forge our very identities; our sense of selfhood; our notion of what it means to be male or female; our sense of class, of ethnicity and race, of nationality, of sexuality; and of “us” and “them.” Media images help shape our view of the world and our deepest values: what we consider good or bad, positive or negative, moral or evil. Media stories provide the symbols, myths, and resources through which we constitute a common culture and through the appropriation of which we insert ourselves into this culture. They also focused on how various audiences interpreted and used media culture differently, analyzing the factors that made different audiences respond in contrasting ways to various media texts. (Kellner, 2003)

It is no longer possible to think about literacy in isolation from a vast array of social, technical and economic factors. Two distinct yet related factors deserve to be particularly highlighted. These are on one hand, the broad move from the now centuries long dominance of writing to the new dominance of the image and, on the other hand, the move from the dominance of the medium of the book to the dominance of the medium of the screen. (Kress, 2003, p. 1)

These two together are producing a revolution in the uses and effects of literacy and of associated means for representing and communicating at every level and in every domain. Together they raise two questions: What is the likely future of literacy? What are the likely larger-level social and cultural effects of that change? One might say the following with some confidence. Language-as-speech will remain the major mode of communication; language-as-writing will increasingly be displaced by image in many domains of public communication, though writing will remain the preference mode of the political and cultural elites. (Kress, 2003, p. 1)

In addition, no matter how influential images become to the contemporary world of hypertexted communications, because of the impact allegories, metaphors and similes have on the cognitive imagination, visual images will never completely replace “word pictures.”  When imaginatively conceived, metaphoric language is like beautiful word paintings. (Grothe, 2008)

Although print has a certain convenience which will insure that it remains, the genres of print are already coming to resemble those of the Web, and each successive generation shows a stronger preference for online information media. The most common print media and genres of everyday life, except only, so far, the popular novel, seem likely to be superseded by their electronic successors. (Lemke, 2005)

As Kress (2003) Literacy in the new media age: Modes, logics and affordance informs us, the combined effects on writing of the dominance of the mode of image and of the medium of the screen will produce deep changes in the forms and functions of writing. This in turn will have profound effects on human, cognitive/affective, cultural and bodily engagements in the world, and on the forms and shapes of knowledge (1). The two modes of writing and of image are each governed by distinct logics. The organization of writing – still leaning on the logics of speech – is governed by the logic of time and by the logic of sequence of its elements of time, in temporary governed arrangements. The organization of the image, by contrast, is governed by the logic of space, and the logic of simultaneity of its visual/depicted elements in spatially organized arrangements (2).

To say this simply: in speaking I have to say one thing after another one sound after another, one word after another. Meaning can then be – and is – attached to “being first” and to “being last,” and maybe to being third and so on. In visual representation, the placement of elements in the space of representation – the page, the canvas, the screen, the wall – will similarly have meaning. Being visually central can mean being the “center” in whichever way. Being above can mean being “superior,” and being below can mean “inferior.” The point is that whether I want to or not I have to use the possibilities given to me by a mode of representation to make my meaning. Whatever relations are to be represented about the world have inevitably to be presented as spatial relations between the depicted elements of an image (2).

In English if I want to write or say a clause or a sentence about anything I have to use a verb. Yet both speech and writing absolutely insist that I choose a name/word for an action, even though I do not wish to do so. If I say “every cell has a nucleus” I have to use a word to name a relation between two entities – cell and nucleus – which invokes a relation of possession, have. I actually do not think of it as being about possession, but it is a commitment which language forces me to make. If I ask the class to draw a cell, there is no such commitment. Now, however, every student has to place the nucleus somewhere in the cell – there is no way around that, whether the nucleus actually has this or that specific place in the cell or not. There is a demand for an epistemological commitment, but it is a totally different one in the case of the two modes: commitment to naming a relation in one case – “the cell owns the nucleus,” and commitment to a location in space in another – ‘this is where it goes” (3).

The reason that words are empty of meaning or the word as a sound-shape or letter shape give no indication of its meaning, it is there to be filled with meaning. It is that “filling with meaning” which constitutes the work of the imagination that we do with language. It is this characteristic of words which leads to the well-known experience of having read a novel – filling it with meaning – only to be disappointed when we see it as a film, where some others have filled the words with very different meanings (3).

In written text, there is a “reading path” which I cannot go against if I wish to make sense of the meaning of the text. Reading paths may exist in images caused by either the maker of the image or the reader. Image reading paths “encourage” whereas “writing paths “compel. The reading path in the image is relatively open with the image itself and elements filled with meaning. There is no vagueness; there is no emptiness. Images are plain and full with meaning, whereas words wait to be filled. The contrast in affordance of the two modes: in writing, relatively vacuous elements in strict order (in speech also, to a somewhat lesser extent); and full elements in a (relatively) open order in image. In image, imagination focuses on creating the order of the arrangement of elements which are already filled with meaning (4).


Interpreting Media Literacy

The products of media culture require multidimensional close textual readings to analyze their various forms of discourses, ideological positions, narrative strategies, image construction, and effects. There have been a wide range of types of textual criticism of media culture, ranging from quantitative content analysis that dissects the number of, say, episodes of violence in a text, to qualitative study that examines images of women, blacks, or other groups, or that applies various critical theories to unpack the meanings of the texts or to explicate how texts function to produce meaning. (Kellner, 2003)

Semiotics, or semiology, is the study of signs, symbols, and signification. It is the study of how meaning is created, not what it is. The core idea of semiotics is that all human symbolic communication, or alternatively all human meaning-making, shares a number of features. In multimedia semiotics, these common features are taken as the ground which makes integration across different media possible (Lemke, 2005).

Kellner argues that from the 1960s on literary textual analysis has been enhanced by methods derived from semiotics which he defines as a system for investigating the creation of meaning not only in written languages but also in other, nonverbal codes, such as the visual and auditory languages of film and TV. Semiotics analyzes how linguistic and nonlinguistic cultural “signs” form systems of meanings, as when giving someone a rose is interpreted as a sign of love, or getting an A on a school paper is a sign of mastery of the rules of the specific assignment (Kellner, 2003).

The fundamental conceptual unit is the signifying or meaning-making practice. It applies both to creation of meaningful media and to the interpretive work of making meaning from or with them. Such practices are culturally specific in their details, but can be described within a common framework (Lemke, 2005).

All meaning-making acts make three kinds of meaning simultaneously:

  • they present some state-of-affairs
  • they take some stance toward this content and assume an orientation to social others and their potential stances to it
  • they integrate meanings as parts into larger wholes.

In doing each of these things, they make use of cultural conventions which distinguish and often contrast the potential meaning of one act or sign with those of others that might have occurred in its place, and the meanings of each act or sign shift depending on the acts and signs that occur around it and are construed as parts of the same larger whole. The complex process by which the range of conventional meanings that any act or sign can have gets specified by context and co-text until we are satisfied that some consistent pattern has emerged is simplified by our reliance on familiar, recognizable idioms and genres.

This model of meaning-making applies to language, whether spoken or written, and also to pictorial images, abstract visual representations, music, mathematics, sound effects, cooking, dress, gesture, posture, signed languages, or actions as such. It was developed originally for the well-studied case of language, but seems to apply pretty well to all semiotic modalities. Semiotic analysis can be connected with genre criticism (such as the study of conventions governing established types of cultural forms like soap operas) to reveal how the codes and forms of particular genres follow certain meanings (Lemke, 2005).

Situation comedies, for instance, classically follow a conflict/resolution model that demonstrates how to solve certain social problems by correct actions and values, and thus provide morality tales of proper and improper behavior. The soap operas, by contrast, proliferates problems and provide messages concerning the endurance and suffering needed to get through life’s endless miseries, while generating positive and negative models of social behavior. And advertising shows how commodity solutions solve problems of popularity, acceptance, success, and the like. (Kellner, 2003)

A semiotic and genre analysis of the film “Rambo” (1982) for instance, would show how it follows the conventions of the Hollywood genre of the war film that dramatizes conflicts between the U.S. and its “enemies.” Semiotics describes how the images of the villains are constructed according to the codes of World War II movies and how the resolution of the conflict and happy ending follows the traditional Hollywood classical cinema which portrays the victory of good over evil. A semiotic analysis of this nature would also include the study of the strictly cinematic and formal elements which dissect the ways that camera angles present Rambo as a god, or slow motion images of him gliding through the jungle code him as a force of nature. (Kellner, 2003)

There is another core principle for multimedia semiotics: that we can never make meaning with just one semiotic modality alone. You cannot make a purely verbal-linguistic meaning in the real world. If you speak it, your voice also makes nonlinguistic meaning by its timbre and tone, identifying you as the speaker, telling something about your physical and emotional state, and much else. If you write it, your orthography (the conventional spelling system of a language) presents linguistic meaning inseparably from additional visual meanings like your handwriting or font choice. If you draw an image, neither you nor anyone else (with a very few exceptions), sees that image apart from construing its meaning in part through language (naming what you see, describing it), or imagining how it would feel to draw it, sculpt it, etc. For young children the distinction between drawing and writing has to be learned. For all of us, speech and our various body-gestures form a single integrated system of communication. (Lemke, 2005)


Multimedia Communication and Media Literacy

All communication is multimedia communication. Or more precisely, it is multi-modal communication. Multi-modality refers to the combination or integration of various sign systems or semiotic resource systems such as language, depiction, gesture, mathematics, music, etc. The medium as such is the material technology through which the signs of the system are realized or instantiated. Language is a modality or semiotic system. It can be realized in the medium of speech or the medium of printed orthography or the medium of Braille writing or in manual signs. (Lemke, 2005) “The world narrated” is a different world to the “world depicted and displayed.” (Kress, 2003) (2)

The print medium can accommodate linguistic signs and also image signs, as well as mathematical signs, abstract diagrams, musical notation, dance notation, etc. It cannot accommodate animation or full-motion video. In many cases, we have only a single name for both the modality and the medium, as for example with “video.” As a modality, it means the cultural conventions that allow us to create meanings by showing successive images in time, so that the semiotics of still images are no longer sufficient to understand what is going on. New semiotic conventions apply in the case of video (and animation). As a medium, video or film can accommodate images (as still frames), language, music, and many other modalities in addition to its own unique modality. (Lemke, 2005)

Because every physical medium carries abstract signs in ways that allow us to interpret features of the medium also through other systems of meaning (the grain of a voice, the style of a font, the image-quality of a video), the material reality of communication is inherently multimodal. Moreover, the various modalities and sign systems have co-evolved with one another historically as parts of multimodal genres, even within a single medium. We have conventions for integrating printed words and images, video visuals and voice-over narration, music and lyrics, action images and sound effects. At the simplest level, this integration takes place by combining the contributions to the:

  • Presentation of a state-of-affairs
  • Orientation to content, others, and other stances
  • Organization of parts into wholes, from each modality

This combination is really a multiplication in the sense that the result is not just an addition of these contributions, as if they were independent of each other, but also includes the effects of their mutual interaction. The contribution of each modality contextualizes and specifies or alters the meaning we make with the contribution from each of the others. The image provides a context for interpreting the words differently, the words lead us to hear the music differently, the music integrates sequences of images, and so forth. This multiplication happens to some extent separately for the presentational content; orientational stance toward content and toward addressees; and organizational structure. But each of these three aspects of the overall meaning also influences the other two. (Lemke, 2005)

If the musical score links visual images into the same larger unit, then the way we read the content-meaning of those images can be different from how we would interpret them if they were separated into different units by a break or major shift in the music, so that they no longer seemed as relevant to each other, no longer as strongly interacting with each other and influencing each other’s content meaning. (Lemke, 2005)

As Richard Johnson (1986–87) suggested in his classic introduction to British cultural studies: Although we may be able to distinguish between a series of analytical moments (i.e., production of text, the text itself, reception of text), we need to be able to understand the determinations and connections between them.

This takes us, in brief, about as far as general multimedia semiotics has come in the last few decades. (Lemke, 2005)


The Web and Media Literacy

With the rise of the World Wide Web as near-universal information medium, it became clear to all of us that written text is just one component of an essentially multimodal medium. Webpages and websites are valued today for their integration of text, images, animations, video, voice, music, and sound effects. Websites are gradually replacing printed newspapers and magazines; college catalogues and shopping catalogues; travel brochures; and corporate and government publications. The new generation of university students, even graduate students, regards a physical visit to the library, other than for quiet study, as an anachronism. If information is not available online, it is bypassed in favor of information that is. (Lemke, 2005)

Most students used library resources, especially scholarly databases for course-related research and far fewer, in comparison, used library services that required interacting with librarians. Today’s students are not lazy or unthinking but they now look at information sources, systems, and services as to how well they meet his or her needs in terms of content, accessibility, and usefulness. They have developed sophisticated information problem-solving strategies that help them to meet their school and everyday needs.  (Head, et al, 2009)

Books-on-tape are as much literate works as are printed books. Scripted films and television programs are no less products of literate culture in their performances than they were as texts. In the multi-modal medium of the web, the message is less the medium than it is the multiplication of meanings across media. Television programs, including the network news, have associated multimedia websites, as do popular films, digital games, and even books. The Harry Potter books began as a print literacy phenomenon, but today there is a seamless web of books, films, videos, videogames, websites, and other media. (Lemke, 2005)

Young readers would consider us illiterate today if we knew only the printed texts, because for them the intertextual meanings and cross-references among all these media are essential to their peer-culture understanding and “reading” of these works. Not only are the textual themes and content distributed over the various media in all these and many other cases, but so are the visual images and visual styles and the themes and meanings they present. (Lemke, 2005)

The notion of writing as “productive” or “creative” is also changing. Fitness for present purpose is replacing previous conceptions, such as text as the projection of a world, the creation of a fictional world, a world of the imagination. The affordance and the organizations of the screen are coming to (re)shape the organization of the page. Contemporary pages are beginning to resemble both the look and the deeper sense of contemporary screens. Writing on the page is not immune in any way from this move, even though the writing of the elite using the older media will be more resistant to the move than writing elsewhere. (Kress, 2003) (6)

The principle of hypertext or hypermedia, which we associate with the Web, based on explicit links of text or images to other text and images, from webpage to webpage, now also applies to the social and cultural linkages among our reading of books, viewing of films and television, screening of videos, surfing the web, playing computer games, seeing advertising billboards, and even wearing T-shirts and drinking from coffee mugs that belong to multimedia constellations. (Lemke, 2005)

The term hypermedia, which is an amalgam of hyper-text and multimedia (Semali & Pailliotet, 1999), refers to the links available to readers as they move between computer windows and a mix of media texts, such as sounds, images, words, movies, and the like. More than a decade ago, Jay Bolter (1991), a literacy expert in hypertext applications, observed that above all else, becoming literate in a hypermedia environment challenges the notion that any single text represents an author’s complete, separate, or unique expression (Alvermann, 2004).

Each of these media directs us to the others, without web-like hyperlinks; each one provides an experiential basis for making meanings differently with all the others. The web is a truly multimedia medium insofar as any other medium can be embedded within a webpage and linked into a website. As a medium it can accommodate, in principle, and increasingly in practice, any modality and it can at least simulate most other media. It is also a hyper-textual or hypermedia medium because elements in other media and modalities can be linked together in ways that allow the user to choose a variety of paths through the website in the course of time. A trajectory across links within a website may already carry us across different genres and different media using different modalities. (Lemke, 2005)


The Power of Media Control

 Authorship is no longer rare which also lessens the authority of the text. When the process of selection is lost authority is lost as well. The effects of the move to the screen as the major medium of communication will produce far reaching shifts in relations of power, and not just in the sphere of communications. Where significant changes to distribution of power threaten, there will be fierce resistance by those who presently hold power, so that predictions about the democratic potentials and effects of the new information and communication technologies have to be seen in the light of inevitable struggles over power yet to come. It is already clear that the effects of the two changes taken together will have the widest imaginable political, economic, cultural, social, conceptual/cognitive and epistemological consequences. (Kress, 2003) (1)

However, a textual analysis that takes place without examining the institutional, cultural, and economic conditions in which texts are produced and understood is necessarily limited. Media literacy, in short, is about more than the analysis of messages it is about an awareness of why those messages are there. It is not enough to know that they are produced, or even how, in a technical sense, they are produced. To appreciate the significance of contemporary media, we need to know why they are produced, under what constraints and conditions, and by whom (Lewis, 1998).

Raymond Williams (1977) has documented the way in which early struggles over literacy were bound up with questions of power and control. In the early years of industry, workers were trained to read, but not to write. This allowed them to follow orders or read the bible for moral instruction, but not to express their own needs or interests (Lewis, 1998). The written word had power and prestige, it defined literacy. Website authoring is the new literacy of power. (Lemke, 2005)


The Politics of Critical Multimedia Literacy

The time is past when serious scholars can pretend to have no politics. We make value choices at every stage of our work as researchers, speakers, writers, and teachers (Lemke, 2005). For this reason, research in related fields such as critical discourse analysis (Fairclough, 1995; van Dijk, 1998; Wodak, 2000) and critical media studies (Hall & Evans, 1999; Mirzoeff, 1998) has recognized that we cannot simply study media as artifacts and multimodal texts, not even with the addition of studies of how people read and use them. We must also inquire into their conditions of production, their institutional origins and functions, their circulation in the modern economy, and to whom their benefits accrue, directly and indirectly, economically and politically. (Lemke, 2005)

Who creates mass media, youth media, and educational media? And who does not? What institutions and what sectors of society benefit most and in what ways from the production, sale, circulation, and consumption of multimedia? These questions are not asked out of pure academic curiosity, and our students would not be much interested in this agenda if that were the only reason for it. We undertake this inquiry because we believe that we will uncover at least one component of the covert workings of injustice and the perpetuation of privilege and anti-democratic power in our society. (Lemke, 2005)

To be critical however is not just to be skeptical or to identify the workings of covert interests. It is also to open up alternatives, to provide the analytical basis for the creation of new kinds of meanings which can embody the hopes and dreams of people who do not choose to accept traditional literacy conventions, commercial genres, or the rational-consumer model of the future. A critical multimedia literacy curriculum will not be successful with students if it is only about analysis and critique. The dismal history of similar efforts to teach critical television viewing provides a clear warning. (Lemke, 2005)

Some political economy analyses reduce the meanings and effects of texts to rather circumscribed and reductive ideological functions, arguing that media culture merely reflects the ideology of the ruling economic elite that controls the culture industries and is nothing more than a vehicle for capitalist ideology. It is true that media culture overwhelmingly supports capitalist values, but it is also a site of intense struggle between different races, classes, gender, and social groups. Thus, in order to fully grasp the nature and effects of media culture, one needs to develop methods to analyze the full range of its meanings and effects. (Kellner, 2003)

Cultural studies promote a multiculturalist politics and media pedagogy that aims to make people sensitive to how relations of power and domination are “encoded” in cultural texts, such as those of television or film. Cultural studies are part of a critical media pedagogy that enables individuals to resist media manipulation and to increase their freedom and individuality. It can empower people to gain sovereignty over their culture and to be able to struggle for alternative cultures and political change. Cultural studies are thus not just another academic fad, but can be part of a struggle for a better society and a better life. (Kellner, 2003)

Media spectacles demonstrate who has power and who is powerless, who is allowed to exercise force and violence, and who is not. They dramatize and legitimate the power of the forces that be and show the powerless that they must stay in their places or be oppressed. The media are a profound and often misperceived source of cultural pedagogy: They contribute to educating us how to behave and what to think, feel, believe, fear, and desire — and what not to. The media are forms of pedagogy which teach us how to be men and women. They show us how to dress, look and consume; how to react to members of different social groups; how to be popular and successful and how to avoid failure; and how to conform to the dominant system of norms, values, practices, and institutions. (Kellner, 2003)

Because it has been neglected in many modes of recent cultural studies, it is important to stress the importance of analyzing cultural texts within their system of production and distribution, often referred to as the political economy of culture. Because of the demands of the format of radio or music television, for instance, most popular songs are three to five minutes, fitting into the format of the distribution system. An because of their control by giant corporations oriented primarily toward profit, film and television production in the U.S. is dominated by specific genres such as talk and game shows, soap operas, situation comedies, action/adventure series, reality TV, and so on. (Kellner, 2003)

This economic factor explains why there are cycles of certain genres and subgenres, sequel mania in the film industry, crossovers of popular films into television series, and a certain homogeneity in products constituted within systems of production marked by rigid generic codes, formulaic conventions, and well-defined ideological boundaries. The study of television in the United States, for instance, disclosed that takeover of the television networks by major transnational corporations and communications conglomerates was part of a “right turn” within U.S. society in the 1980s whereby powerful corporate groups won control of the state and the mainstream media (Kellner, 1990).

For example, during the 1980s all three networks were taken over by major corporate conglomerates: ABC was taken over in 1985 by Capital Cities, NBC was taken over by GE, and CBS was taken over by the Tisch Financial Group. Both ABC and NBC sought corporate mergers and this motivation, along with other benefits derived from Reaganism, might well have influenced them to downplay criticisms of Reagan and to generally support his conservative programs, military adventures, and simulated presidency (Kellner, 2003). Corporate conglomeratization has intensified further and today AOL and Time Warner, Disney, and other global media conglomerates control ever more domains of the production and distribution of culture (McChesney 2000).

In this global context, one cannot really analyze the role of the media in the Gulf war, for instance, without analyzing the production and political economy of news and information, as well as the actual text of the Gulf war and its reception by its audience (see Kellner, 1992). Likewise, the ownership by conservative corporations of dominant media corporations helps explain mainstream media support of the Bush administration and their policies, such as the war in Afghanistan (Kellner 2001 – 2003).


Media Filtering

In the NY Times article on The Filter Bubble – “What the Internet Is Hiding from You” by Eli Pariser, “Just Google it!” has become a common cyber-snobbish response to questions that seem too trivial to merit a human conversation. Pariser asks, “But is it really an answer? Now that more and more Internet sites are tailoring their services to the idiosyncrasies of individual users, queries for “climate change,” “stem cells” and even “pizza” may yield different outcomes for different people. This may be an era when we are increasingly entitled to our own facts — but should we also be entitled to our own search results?”

Google now looks at your previous queries (and the clicks that follow) and refines its search results accordingly. This excessive personalization could be one of the Internet’s most pernicious effects on the public sphere. Pariser worries that technology companies are already silently doing this. Personalization filters serve up a kind of invisible auto-propaganda, indoctrinating us with our own ideas, amplifying our desire for things that are familiar and leaving us oblivious to the dangers lurking in the dark territory of the unknown. Pariser wants companies to become more transparent about their filtering practices and to introduce more diversity into their search results and recommendations. The rest of the book will be examined in following Reflective Blogs.


The Filter Bubble

For similar reasons, a filtered environment could have consequences for curiosity. According to psychologist George Lowenstein, curiosity is aroused when we’re presented with an “information gap.” It’s a sensation of deprivation: A present’s wrapping deprives us of the knowledge of what’s in it, and as a result we become curious about its contents. But to feel curiosity, we have to be conscious that something’s being hidden.

As University of Virginia media studies professor and Google expert Siva Vaidhyana writes in “The Googlization of Everything”:

Learning is by definition an encounter with what you don’t know, what you haven’t thought of, what you couldn’t conceive, and what you never understood or entertained as possible. It’s an encounter with what’s other— even with otherness as such. By definition, ingenuity comes from the juxtaposition of ideas that are far apart, and relevance comes from finding ideas that are similar. Creativity is a context-dependent trait: We’re more likely to come up with new ideas in some environments than in others; the contexts that filtering creates aren’t the ones best suited to creative thinking… a more passive approach to acquiring information, which is at odds with the kind of exploration that leads to discovery.

 So is Larry Page’s insight to apply the technique of academic citation to search. “Discovery often means simply the uncovering of something which has always been there but was hidden from the eye by the blinkers of habit,” And Koestler wrote creativity “uncovers, selects, re-shuffles, combines, and synthesizes already existing facts, ideas, faculties, (and) skills.”


Stifling Creativity

When problems become acute enough for enough people, the argument goes, the random recombination of ideas in millions of heads will tend to produce a solution. In fact, it’ll tend to produce the same solution in multiple different heads around the same time. The way we selectively combine ideas isn’t always blind: As Eysenck’s “solution horizon” suggests, we don’t try to solve our problems by combining every single idea with every other idea in our heads.

The solution horizon delimits where we stop searching. When we’re instructed to “think outside the box,” the box represents the solution horizon, the limit of the conceptual area that we’re operating in. (Of course, solution horizons that are too wide are a problem, too, because more ideas mean exponentially more combinations.) The word serendipity originates with the fairy tale “The Three Princes of Serendip,” who are continually setting out in search of one thing and finding another. In what researchers call the evolutionary view of innovation, this element of random chance isn’t just fortuitous, it’s necessary. Innovation requires serendipity.

But when it comes to really new ideas, innovation is in fact often blind. But in moments of major change, when our whole way of looking at the world shifts and recalibrates, serendipity is often at work. “Blind discovery is a necessary condition for scientific revolution,” they write, for a simple reason: The Einsteins and Copernicuses and Pasteurs of the world often have no idea what they’re looking for. The biggest breakthroughs are sometimes the ones that we least expect. For a quantified system like a personal filter, it’s nearly impossible to sort the usefully serendipitous and randomly provocative from the just plain irrelevant.

The second way in which the filter bubble can dampen creativity is by removing some of the diversity that prompts us to think in new and innovative ways. Duncker’s test gets at one of the key impediments to creativity, what early creativity researcher George Katona described as the reluctance to “break perceptual set.” When you’re handed a box full of tacks, you’ll tend to register the box itself as a container. In study after study, creative people tend to see things in many different ways and put them in what researcher Arthur Cropley calls “wide categories.”

It’s not just artists and writers who use wide categories. As Cropley points out in “Creativity in Education and Learning,” the physicist Niels Bohr famously demonstrated this type of creative dexterity when he was given a university exam at the University of Copenhagen in 1905. But the episode also explains why Bohr was such a brilliant innovator: His ability to see objects and concepts in many different ways made it easier for him to use them to solve problems.

The kind of categorical openness that supports creativity also correlates with certain kinds of luck. As it turns out, being around people and ideas unlike oneself is one of the best ways to cultivate this sense of open-mindedness and wide categories. Psychologists Charlan Nemeth and Julianne Kwan discovered that bi-linguists are more creative than mono-linguists— perhaps because they have to get used to the proposition that things can be viewed in several different ways.

In “Where Good Ideas Come From,” science author Steven Johnson offers a “natural history of innovation,” in which he inventories and elegantly illustrates how creativity arises. Creative environments often rely on “liquid networks” where different ideas can collide in different configurations. They arrive through serendipity – we set out looking for the answer to one problem and find another – and as a result, ideas emerge frequently in places where random collision is more likely to occur. “Innovative environments,” he writes, “are better at helping their inhabitants explore the adjacent possible” – the bisociated area in which existing ideas combine to produce new ones – “because they expose a wide and diverse sample of spare parts— mechanical or conceptual—and they encourage novel ways of recombining those parts.”

There’s no question that Johnson was right: The old, unpersonalized web offered an environment of unparalleled richness and diversity. “Visit the ‘serendipity’ article in Wikipedia,” he writes, and “you are one click away from entries on LSD, Teflon, Parkinson’s disease, Sri Lanka, Isaac Newton, and about two hundred other topics of comparable diversity.” Serendipity is the process of stumbling across the unintended.

Creativity experts mostly agree that it’s a process with at least two key parts: Producing novelty requires a lot of divergent, generative thinking – the reshuffling and recombining that Koestler describes. Then there’s a winnowing process – convergent thinking – as we survey the options for one that’ll fit the situation. The serendipitous Web attributes that Johnson praises – the way one can hop from article to article on Wikipedia – are friendly to the divergent part of that process.


Teaching Multimedia Literacy

Critical multimedia literacy needs to be taught as creation, as authoring, as production, in the context of analysis of existing models and genres. We need to help students see how they could create multimedia different from the media that are sold to them, or offered “free.” In the age of television, it was not possible, with rare exceptions, to teach media production, and even when the media were produced they were not, in the student’s eyes, “real television” (Lemke, 2005).

Today and in the near future it will be much more realistic for all interested students to be critically creative with multimedia. To create with greater awareness that the genres and models they imitate have histories of serving particular interests and reinforcing particular beliefs and values. To create, when they choose, against those traditions as well as with them. (Lemke, 2005)

Critical multimedia literacy is about all media. It is not an addition to studies of textual print literacy, it is a re-conceptualization of what literacy itself means now and in our student’s future lives. It is as much about factual, scientific, technical, and bureaucratic literacies as it is about literate worlds of the imagination. It is as much about the rhetoric of persuading people regarding belief, values, and action as it is about presenting information or building virtual worlds. It will need to be articulated in relationship to every other subject and area of the curriculum just as the current literacy curriculum does. (Lemke, 2005)

Above all, it will need to be grounded in research:

On how meanings are made across multiple media and modalities, on the role media play in the larger society, and on how to teach critical multimedia literacy not just as critique but as a resource for the creation of alternative practices, values, and lifestyles. (Lemke, 2005)

The core intellectual tools exist to define and carry out successful research agendas for building a critical multimedia literacy curriculum. There are important social, intellectual, and political reasons for making this work a high priority. It is an effort to which many of us can and must contribute for it to succeed. (Lemke, 2005)



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