For the June Nest newsletter, we interviewed Sri Craven, an Associate Professor in the Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Portland State University. Sri teaches university level courses and conducts research on the history of gender from global historical perspectives. She is trained in literary and feminist critical studies. Sri took some time to answer questions we had about media literacy education and the impact media has on our youth.
NEST: What influenced you to become involved in media literacy education?
Sri Craven: I routinely teach media analysis in my gender studies college courses [at Portland State University, Portland, Oregon]. My sense that media is important emerged organically from my training in literary and gender and sexuality studies, where we talk so much about 'representation,' or the idea that what we consider 'reality' is, in fact, shaped by various modes of representation, of which media is but one. We are unable to really make sense of these other modes as children, and, perhaps even as adults! Given that, media forms such as television, print, the movies, and, now, web-based platforms become our go-to ways of understanding representation, and, since they are more easily apprehended by most people, learning to sift through their messages through their carefully constructed structure and content is essential to an education. I don't mean education in the sense of a degree alone, or an academic course, but rather, the ability to understand, think, and act based on the evidence for a particular argument, proposition, or idea.
What are some of the profound impacts of mass media?
Not surprisingly - and, too many scholars have written about this for over a century now - the ability to shape individual and mass thinking in certain directions that are in line with political powers. Mass media is not always used only for more over forms of control and direction such as in military propaganda, but also in covert and harder to challenge ways such as rendering some ideas desirable even if they are, in the ultimate analysis, very harmful. For example, media's ability to shape women's and girls' lives toward heterosexual marriage and motherhood rather than financial independence and a life free from the unpaid work of mothering and care giving is profoundly shaping women's and men's chances to live free from the more harmful social notions of financial dependence, and adding further pressure on an already damaged ecosystem. There are many, many other such examples that I encourage students and the general public to be thinking about each time we consume any media content.
What would you say are some of the barriers to media literacy education?
Questions of access are never far away when we think about education in its more formal sense. As schools and colleges face budget cuts, and as support for the humanities declines, we have to think about how we might continue to procure materials that are helpful in teaching critical thinking and analytical skills in reading and consuming media. We also need to be mindful of the funding needed to train primary and high school teachers, in addition to college lecturers and professors in this important arena.
Certainly, there is a distinction to be made and understood in the context of people having access to media in western countries, and the literacy they can receive to decode media, and approach it more critically than as willing consumers who may ultimately be not well served by media messages. This means understanding and correcting the K-12 school systems in the U.S., for instance, and ensuring that there is a basic standard to be met regarding media literacy, encouraging bringing in guest teachers and donating funds to help achieve parity across the class groups represented by different types of public schools.
In addition to funding, it is imperative that we also de-link religious beliefs from education, especially when religious ideas are used to prevent media literacy. It is important to hold in our minds that just because we have religious proscriptions against media does not mean those who follow the faith in question do not access those forms of media.
And, finally, it is important for us to remember that globally not all people have access to media forms more easily available to the middle and wealthy classes in the west. Not having a worldwide standard to be maintained - in similar spirit to non-nuclear proliferation; environmental guidelines; etc. - in the case of media literacy is tantamount to a failure to address something that is as dangerous as arms, nuclear warfare, and pandemics.
Many schools and parents are starting to understand the importance of media literacy. How can we encourage youth to add their voice to the conversation?
Ask any youth what they spend the majority of their time doing per day, and the answer is consuming media! Ask any youth where they get the bulk of their "information" about the world from, and the answer is media! So, it would be best to start there. Each school year - in K-12, and in college - having youth engage in a piece of "community or civic engagement"/ "activism"/ "change" that is focused centrally on media is a great way to get youth involved in this conversation about media literacy. In my own classes, I have made space for collage and formal presentations on issues of concern in the media for young people (examples have included "the representation of women as celebrities and their bodies rather than politics, law, and education"; "toxic masculinity"; "dangers of body image"; "unnecessary consumer spending"; "hypersexualization of girls"; "talk without evidence").
I would also advocate having students conduct media literacy talks in student groups, where interested groups can make presentations on various aspects of the media that are harmful to students. Youth can also check out and screen the hundreds of critical documentaries that promote media literacy by doing some research through school/college/public libraries, with their faculty, with the help of families and friends. Yet another way to add your voice would be to have cohort members and classroom communities make a list of "hot button" issues that you are confused by in the media, and request teachers, tutors, coaches, mentors, and care givers help understand them. If you have no one in your immediate environment in K-12 that can do that, send out emails to college faculty, or ask your own teachers to reach out to college faculty to come and give guest presentations in which they can help address your hot button issues. Raise your voice as individuals, as a group, and be heard, so you can be helped and supported!
Anything else you would like to add?
It is extremely important that we learn the value of evidence-based arguments. Let us be mindful of not accepting hearsay in the media, and being responsible for disseminating it in our turn, whether by word of mouth, or through other online or other communication channels we use. Every time the media presents us with something, we should ask a) who is saying this; b) what is the person's background (educational qualifications, institution, professional pathway, employer, employer credibility); c) what is the background for what content being discussed; d) is the person providing clear evidence (not vague statistics, not quotes without attributing it to a clear source that each of us can look up and verify); d) is the person presenting a solution that is in line with a clear sense of c & d; e) if not a solution, what is the person's ultimate point, and is that point in line with c & d; and, f) how does the news item relate to the person's employer?
Of course, I encourage you to make a list of other questions you might come up with that will help us read media from a much more critical viewpoint rather than merely allowing media to wash over us, cloud us, and have us not think for ourselves! Share your list with as many people as you know, share it with teachers and peers, community members, online and other communication sources! Let's use media to make media better for everyone, and stop the ongoing ways in which media forms are misused to proliferate some very dangerous messages about and for so many individuals and groups!