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A media literacy project on violence and conflict.


A description of a short curriculum on the topic of media violence and interpersonal conflict is provided in relationship to a number of expressed goals. College students worked in groups to develop and present the curriculum to local sixth-grade classes, including discussion questions, role-playing, and a video production exercise. The results of two means of assessment are discussed, a comparison of pre- and post-program responses to a series of open-ended questions and analyses of a television program clip.


After much disagreement, scholars and practitioners have agreed to define media literacy as the ability to analyze, access, and evaluate media in a variety of forms (Aufderheide, 1997). Media literacy, then, includes the study of media, their characteristics as well as their relationships to both audiences and other social forces, and the development of media use skills. A small set of guiding principles has also been derived (Aufderheide, 1997). These include the notion that media construct and are constructions of reality, that media contain embedded values, that different audience members respond differently to media, that media operate with a commercial imperative, and that each medium has its own codes, conventions, and aesthetics. These principles of media literacy--in addition to a desire to bridge media analysis with real-world social interactions--form the foundation on which our case study is based.

The Media Literacy and Violence Prevention Project

In Spring 2003, the Media Literacy and Violence Prevention Project (MLVPP) was conducted. Twenty university students, who received an extra Community Service Learning credit, met weekly to design and discuss curricular materials before implementing a conflict resolution and media literacy program in five sixth-grade classrooms. [1] University students in teams of four made six one-hour visits to the classrooms, with ninety sixth-grade students participating. A reading packet, together with a composite tape of video clips from TV programs, video games, and films, was created to guide discussion.

The curriculum covered two intertwined elements. The section on interpersonal conflict resolution asked the sixth graders to think of ways of defining and dealing with real conflicts that surface in their everyday lives. Two ways for resolving conflicts that are appropriate for this age group, the LTA and the lens models (Wilmot & Hocker, 2000), were introduced. LTA stood for listen to the other party when in conflict, think about points of view, options, consequences, and then act. The lens model suggests that people in conflict should consider one another's perspective. Students were asked to think of non-violent and realistic ways to solve the conflicts they saw in the selection of video clips as well those they experienced in their daily lives. They contrasted the ways that conflicts are resolved in media with the ways that real conflicts play out.

The section on media violence focused on ways of depicting violence in the media and how audiences may respond. Four features identified by Wilson and colleagues (1996) as those that increase the likelihood of developing favorable attitudes about aggression were introduced. These features are: violence that is rewarded, violence that is justified, violence perpetrated by appealing characters, and violence without consequences. Each feature was defined in the reading packet, discussed, and identified in the clips. Students were encouraged to see that not all ways of depicting violence send a favorable message about aggression and that creators of television programs have a host of choices about how to tell a story.

Finally, a video production element was also included in this curriculum. The sixth graders were trained to use a video camera to create a skit. Each group wrote, assigned parts, and acted out a non-violent resolution to a conflict that they had experienced. The final session was devoted to viewing and analyzing their productions.

The Goals of the Project at Hand

Our overarching goal was to foster critical thinking and the development of critical attitudes in the sixth graders (Wright, 2002), formed by the process of "applying, analyzing, and evaluating information" (Ruminski & Hanks, 1995, p. 5). Students were asked to apply information that they had learned about media violence and conflict mediation to answer questionnaire items as well as to complete a media clip analysis exercise. They were asked to consider their own attitudes in order to analyze the media. Finally, they were asked to evaluate particular media practices and depictions as well as particular ways to address real-life conflict through responding to questionnaire items.

This project combined the presentation of information gleaned from media effects and interpersonal communication research with an interactive dialogue in which students' own views about and experiences with the topic were invited. The college students who were the media literacy facilitators discussed with the sixth graders material that they had been learning in their courses about differing factors in the portrayal of violence, possible effects of viewing violence, and models used in conflict mediation. The prevailing philosophy was that a mutually beneficial exchange of information, expertise, and opinions would occur. The MLVPP offered a unique approach to both media literacy and conflict resolution through teaching students critical thinking and relating those thought processes to everyday actions in their lives. Critical thinking about the perceived and real consequences of violent actions as portrayed in the media were connected to the consequences of interpersonal conflict behaviors in the classroom, on the playground, and at home. In this manner, critical thinking skills are not abstract but are connected and applicable to a variety of interpersonal and mediated contexts. Our goals for the project were multilevel, and included the following areas:

* To enhance the skills of university students and sixth graders in reading the media as constructed and constructive of their realities.

* To offer students specific tools for critically interpreting the portrayals of interpersonal violence on television.

* To help students think critically about the similarities and differences between their own styles of conflict resolution and those portrayed in the media.

* To have students bring their own experiences and concerns into the program as a foundation for application and discussion.

* To test and apply academic theories about media, media literacy, and interpersonal conflict in a community setting.

* To build on and enhance students' skills for managing interpersonal conflict in their lives.

Assessment: Pre- and Post-Program Open-Ended Survey Responses

One of our means of assessing the sixth graders was to compare their responses to a questionnaire completed before our program had begun to one completed after our program had ended. [2] In one open-ended question, the students were asked what they thought of when asked to define the term "conflict." Responses before and after the program contained some similarities, with the majority of students using terms such as "disagreement," "misunderstanding," "argument," and "issues or problems between two people" to describe the term. However, after the program, a greater number of sixth graders mentioned that conflicts could be verbal or non-verbal, a point raised in the program. Examples include, "I think of people having an argument, not always physical;" and "I think of fighting, verbal or physical, when I hear the word conflict." Responses after the program also tended to include the issue of resolution, which was also a central focus of the program. Examples include, "Conflict to me means a problem that can usually be solved in a non-violent way;" and "I think of mediation and conflict resolution."

Another open-ended question asked the sixth graders: "How many different ways can you think of to resolve a conflict?" Before the program, responses were relatively simple and undeveloped. Examples among pre-program responses include "You can resolve a conflict with a 'solution';" and "Walk away and ignore the problem." After the MLVPP, the sixth graders elaborated more and many drew on the models that they had learned in class. Examples include, "LTA. Lens Model. Looking at both sides of the story. Apologizing;" "Come up with an idea you both like ... Apologize and finally take the blame if it was your fault;" "Use LTA, Lens Model, something like that;" and "To resolve a conflict, you could talk to them, write a note, think like you are in their shoes." Here we see that the program did appear to give the sixth graders "tools" to use to consider conflict in their lives. These tools, newly acquired through participation in the program, are specific models for (and the corresponding terms associated with) ways of mediating conflict.

An additional open-ended question asked the sixth graders to consider how television violence differs from real-world violence. Before the program began, responses emphasized relatively obvious incongruities, such as that television is simply not real. Examples include, "On TV, it is fake;" and "TV is not real, and actors play in place of a real response." After the MLVPP, responses were more sophisticated, and, again, applied the language introduced in the program. Examples include, "Violence on TV usually doesn't show the 'aftermath' of the victim;" "TV violence goes away the minute the director stops shooting, but real life violence results in many consequences;" and "In TV no one gets seriously hurt and hardly ever punished." Thus, the concepts of consequences and rewards/punishments--introduced and defined in the curriculum--had a central place in post-program responses. Again, we see that the program appears to have supplied language and concepts to facilitate the critical analysis of media messages and processes. The post-program responses demonstrate an ability to apply the concepts discussed in the program in an analysis of media representations of violence and "real-life" violence, thereby suggesting that critical thinking processes had been set into motion.

The sixth graders' post-program responses also reflect some of the guiding principles of media literacy (Aufderheide, 1997). Their observations pointed to ways in which television content was an artificial construction by contrasting it with real-life interactions. In doing so, they successfully made connections between interpersonal and mass communication, thereby meeting an additional goal of the program. They discussed the values embedded in representations of violence and conflict by focusing on what was included in such depictions and what was left out (e.g., realistic consequences). They speculated about the responses of audiences to the content, thereby engaging with the principle pertaining to the relationship between media texts and audience interpretations.

Assessment: Analysis of a Media Clip

As another means of assessment, we asked the sixth graders to view a television clip before and after the program, and "write down anything that is important or interesting to note." The clip was from the cartoon "Jonny Quest," featuring a scene in which Jonny and the rest of his team are confronted by a group of criminals who physically attack them (punching, kicking, etc.).

In the pre-program written responses to the clip, most of the sixth graders noted the presence of violence and provided a description of the scenes. Examples include, "Bad guy rip phone off wall. Man gets knocked out. Big fight;" "Violence shows people getting beaten up. Knife;" "Threatening, breaking and entering; lots of violence; knife. I thought for a cartoon it had a lot of violence in it." The latter quote shows that in addition to description of the action, some sixth graders formed judgments of the content in their pre-program responses, thus pointing to the pre-existing ability of a number of the sixth graders to critically analyze the clip.

The post-program responses more frequently went beyond notation of the violence and provided analysis of the conflict, application of the language introduced in the program, and evaluations of the depiction, thereby evidencing critical thinking. Students raised issues of consequences ("People did something bad and there wasn't a consequence;" "Fake. Didn't show the poor people getting hurt in fighting scene;" and "There would be blood ... broken bones or stuff like that."), rewards and punishments ("It was too violent but the guy is obviously gonna get away;'" "I think it was very fake and extremely violent ... but the police would be all over it in real life;" "It's kind of rewarded violence because he gets rewarded for what he did."), justified violence ("It's violent and it's justified because the people kidnapped his father;" and "Justified. Shows beating up people is 'fun'."), and likeable characters ("The good guys always win;" "The good guy never dies or loses a fight;" and "It was pretty violent. It probably would affect kids that watch it and look up to Johnny Quest"). These responses demonstrate two of the central principles of media literacy, media as a social construction and values embedded in media content. They also demonstrate that the program seems to have provided the sixth graders with tools--specific concepts, words, and phrases--to use to engage in critical analysis of media.

As we can see in the last quote above, some of the sixth graders' responses demonstrated a concern for the potential effects on audiences of this portrayal, illustrating another media literacy principle. Additional examples include, "... It doesn't show real life. But this is bad for little kids because they think this can really happen;" "It's a children's show so it could effect (sic) little kids;" "I think that somebody could get affected by that clip;" and "This is a kid's show! It is so violent! ... This is also a fake show, but little kids who watch won't know."

The sixth graders' responses also demonstrated an integration of interpersonal conflict mediation and the analysis of media violence. Examples include, "In the clip there was a lot of fighting. It could have been resolved in a different way. Not by almost killing him;" "There was a lot of violence. The conflicts could have been resolved peacefully;" "There was a person trying to kill someone. That shouldn't be the way to solve something like that;" and "One of the men used violence to solve his problem and that wasn't right. They should have talked it out."


The curriculum that we have designed, implemented, and assessed attempts to provide sixth graders with information that may be useful to them as they negotiate media and conflict in their lives. This information took shape from the major conclusions that have been reached in mass and interpersonal communication research regarding the ways that violence is depicted in the media, the potential consequences of those depictions, and the means of addressing real-life conflicts. Yet, the curriculum also sought to spark open, authentic dialogue about the topic, drawing from the expressed observations and points of view of the sixth graders.

We sought to ground the critical discussions of media that occur in media literacy in real-life social interactions, in order to ensure that the links between media practices and messages and the everyday lives of individuals are recognized. It is our view that a weakness of media literacy lies in its potential to identify criticisms of practices and texts about which individuals may feel powerless to change. Media industries may seem too powerful and media practices too "natural" for students to feel that anything valuable or tangible can be gained by critically analyzing media. Yet, by linking media critique with interpersonal lives, an outlet for empowerment is provided. If students believe that too many conflicts on television are resolved through physical violence, they can question the ways that they manage conflicts in their own lives and consider peaceful resolutions. If students believe that gender stereotypes abound in the media, they can use their own interactions to encourage their friends and families to open up their attitudes about "gender-appropriate" roles. If students feel that the media present a dangerously thin beauty ideal for women, they can attempt in their social interactions to avoid complimenting their female friends on weight loss. In these ways, a connection between media and interpersonal, social interactions provides an outlet for students to feel that they can make a difference.


[1] While the in-school presentations took place, all university-based participants met weekly in a colloquium to reflect on the program, to problem solve, and to plan for subsequent sessions. Faculty members and graduate students observed the in-school sessions and all parties gave feedback. The faculty members had also met initially with the teachers to get their input on the program.

[2] The pre-program questionnaire was designed to measure pre-existing attitudes and thinking about the topic. Those responses were compared with the responses reported after the media literacy visits to determine whether any change occurred. Because there is no control group, we cannot claim unambiguously that changes in responses before compared to after the program were caused by the media literacy instruction. However, practically speaking, it would be difficult to fathom a factor besides the program that would simultaneously shape the knowledge and attitudes of 90 sixth graders in five different classrooms in three separate towns. Therefore, we present our pre- and post-program comparisons with a fair degree of confidence that they are, indeed, largely attributable to the students' participation in the program.


Aufderheide, Patricia. (1997). Media literacy: From a report of the national leadership conference on media literacy. In Robert Kubey (Ed.), Media literacy in the information age: Current perspectives. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction (pp. 79-86).

Ruminski, Henry J., & Hanks, William E. (1995). Critical thinking lacks definition and uniform evaluation criteria. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 50(3), 4-12.

Wilmot, William W., & Hocker, Joyce L. (2000). Interpersonal conflict (7th ed.). Boston: McGraw Hill.

Wilson, Barbara J., Kunkel, Dale, Linz, Daniel, Potter, W. James, Donnerstein, Edward, Smith, Stacy L., Blumenthal, Eva, & Gray, Tim. (1996). National television violence study: Executive summary, 1994-95. Studio City, CA: Mediascope.

Wright, Ian. (2002). Challenging students with the tools of critical thinking. The Social Studies, 93(6), 257-261.

Erica Scharrer, University of Massachusetts Amherst Leda Cooks, University of Massachusetts Amherst Qianqing Ren, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Scharrer, Ph.D., and Cooks, Ph.D., are faculty members and Ren is a doctoral student in the Department of Communication.
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Author:Ren, Qianqing
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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