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by Patricia Aufderheide

We know about the world primarily from the media. But the media don't simply give us the world. They interpret reality, tailor it, perform it. In order to be responsible citizens, we need to be media literate. To help you engage in that process, here are eight "key concepts" of media literacy.

1. All media are constructions. Media do not simply reflect reality. They present productions, which have specific purposes. The success of these productions lies in their apparent naturalness. They don't look like constructions. But they are, and many different constraints and decisions have gone into why they look the way they do.

2. The media construct reality. While they themselves are constructions, media productions also construct within each of our heads a notion of the real. We each carry within us a model of reality, based on our observations and experiences. Using that model, we believe that we're capable of distinguishing truth from lies, and are confident that we won't let "them" pull the wool over our eyes. But much of our model of reality comes from the media we've seen, or that other people whom we take as models (our parents, our teachers) have seen. So it's not as easy as it might seem to draw the line between personal lived experience and the world of "the media." In fact, the media are constructing our sense of reality each day.

3. Audiences negotiate meaning in media. Even though media carry messages, they aren't received by everybody the same way. When you like a movie your friend hated, that's pretty clear. Each of us 'filters' meaning through our different experiences: our socio-economic status, cultural background, gender, whether we're tired, whether we know somebody involved in the story. But some meanings end up being more widely accepted than others, a fact that reflects the relative clout, or social power, of the filters which affect our different readings.

4. Media have commercial implications. Most media production in this country is a business, and must make a profit. Even the so-called "public" media - public television, public radio - have to raise money to survive. When you decode the media, you need to ask yourself: Who paid for this? What's the economic structure underpinning this piece of work? When the producer or writer or director chose the subject and began production, how did financial pressures affect his or her choices?

Mass media do not speak to individuals, but to groups of people - in fact, to demographic markets. You are part of several demographic markets - young people, men or women, people of your region, people with your particular hobby, etc. The more money you have to spend within any particular demographic, the more valuable you are to mass media's marketers.

Mass media's commercial implications also involve ownership in another way. If the same company owns a record company, a movie studio, a cable service, network television, videocassette recording and book and magazine publications (as does Time Warner), it has a powerful ability to control what is produced, distributed and therefore, seen.

5. Media contain ideological and value messages. A media literate person is always aware that media texts carry values and have ideological implications. (Ideology in this sense means the set of assumptions for what we think is normal.) A media literate person does not complain that something is biased; he or she searches out the bias, the assumptions, the values in everything that's made. It's all made by people after all, who interpret the world according to their own values and assumptions. Most often, the media affirm the world as it is, the status quo, the received wisdom, whatever is thought of by the media makers as the consensus. And they become reinforcers of that status quo as a result.

Because media mostly reinforce the status quo, the fact that they carry values may seem almost invisible, or ordinary, or not worth noting. It becomes clearer that they carry those values when you disagree with them.

6. Media have social and political implications. Because media construct reality, under economic terms that shape their messages, and powerfully transmit values, they have important social and political effects on our lives together in society and as members of the public.

7. Form and content are closely related in media. Each medium has its own distinctive characteristics. You will get a very different experience of a major event by reading the newspapers, watching TV, listening to the radio, going A media literate person asks: What about the form of this medium influences the content? Is that formal capacity being exploited well, or is it being wasted? What about the form limits the content?

8. Each medium has a unique aesthetic form. Understanding how to "read" the media also means understanding that they are each art forms as well as information transmitters. We pay attention, in writing, to the well-crafted phrase, the vivid quote, the tightly structured argument. We appreciate editing that sharpens contrasts and makes our heart skip a beat in audio, video and film. We understand the power of a camera to shape our own point of view on entering a scene. When we see how media are constructed, we are able to judge their aesthetic value. We ask two sets of related questions: Did it entertain me, keep my attention, involve me - and how did it do that? Did it tell me more about the world, human affairs, and my part in it - and how did it do that?

(Patricia Aufderheide is a professor in the School of Communication at American University in Washington, D.C.; concepts drawn from Media Literacy: Resource Guide, Ontario Ministry of Education, 1989, and the work of many teachers)

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