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Selections from 'Mapping the Media: A Media Literacy Guidebook.


Media literacy has begun to blossom in American education. However, its development lags behind that in other countries. Critical thinking has become more established in mainstream education, yet it also continues to prompt some controversy.

This guidebook, Mapping the Media, combines media literacy and critical thinking in a practical manner that is compatible with more conventional curriculum. As you use it, your students will achieve a better ability to critically evaluate information provided by media and other sources.

When certain approaches in education are labeled "revolutionary" or "radical," we see both positive and negative effects. Some people embrace these approaches. Others resist, asking "what will we have to drop from the curriculum if we add these revolutionary approaches?"

Let me address those in the second category. Nothing needs to be dropped from your curriculum in order to include media literacy and critical thinking. Both can be integrated into what you are already doing in the areas of language arts, social studies, and many other courses. I think you will agree if you read the Instructions section of this guidebook and review the 16 assignments.

Including media literacy and critical thinking in your curriculum will actually strengthen it. You will develop students who are more interested in school, and are better question-askers and information-seekers. It will make teaching more fun.

Having made those arguments, let me tell you more about the background of media literacy and its approach to applying critical thinking to understanding media messages. Media literacy has been part of curriculum in schools in Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada for years. It has made in-roads into curriculum in certain areas of American education.

The Albuquerque Academy has done extensive work in New Mexico. The Center for Media Literacy in Los Angeles and the National Telemedia Council in Madison have worked with teachers throughout the country. Individuals such as David Considine from Appalachian State University, Kathleen Tyner of Strategies for Media Literacy, Renee Hobbs, and many others have done fine work at various educational levels.

Some basic premises are shared by most people involved in media literacy. First is that media education is important, and should be an essential part of education in the 21st Century, not just a frill. I will go even one step farther to say that since most of what we think we know about the world comes directly or indirectly through media, it is absolutely essential to better understand how those messages are produced and how to de-code them.

This guidebook will use slightly different terminology than some other works in media literacy, but it conforms to some basic premises of many of those who are working in the area:

* Media messages are constructions.

* Meanings of media messages are negotiated between the producer and consumer of those messages.

* Media present values and ideologies in their messages.

* Media are businesses with commercial concerns.

Critical Thinking Approach

This guidebook applies an approach to critical thinking to media messages that is based on general semantics. It would take another guidebook to fully explain the richness of general semantics. For those of you who are interested in learning more about it, see references in the bibliography section. I highly recommend it.

But for our purposes, we will highlight a few basic premises of general semantics and then move on. The analogy of map and territory lies at the heart of this approach. We as human communicators create "maps" with our language and other communication devices that will never equal the "territory" out there. Our maps will always be less than the territory because it is impossible to know everything and say everything about anything.

That territory out there also is constantly changing. To paraphrase one very wise philosopher, we "never step in the same river twice." Just about the time we think we've created a perfect map, the territory has changed.

This mapping process starts with our nervous system, before we even start using language. Once we have to start using language to construct our maps, the task of communication becomes even more challenging.

Students take to this map and territory analogy quite readily. You can use it to encourage them to question their own communication and that of others. We have devoted the first assignments to helping students grasp the map and territory analogy. Then we move on to applying it to media literacy.

What factors go into the creation of media maps? There are many, but we have broken them down into three basic areas:

Human Limitations

The human limitations of those who produce and consume the maps. Reporters, TV producers, or ad copywriters cannot put everything they want to say into their map. They will also bring their own backgrounds, limits in perception and communication, and other human limits to what they produce. The same can be said for the people who consume the map. They will form a map of the map based on their own limits.

Business Demands

The business demands and values of the media producer will affect the message. Media have a limited amount of time and space available to reach their audiences with a news story, commercial message, or entertainment story. They must make more money than they spend on producing the message. They also must try to assess what most members of their audience are interested in and want to read or view. Those factors influence how the map is constructed.

Media Process

The process a media message goes through influences the message. Media people often are referred to as "gatekeepers." Often things are left out as the various gates in the long process from the event to the map are opened and closed. Several assignments are devoted to understanding this process. Teachers also are encouraged to use some of the assignments to create Learning By Doing Units. Whether it's the creation of a storyboard, or writing of a news story, or videotaping a commercial, students learn a great deal about the process of media mapping by having to construct their own maps.

"Falling Into" Media Literacy

As a veteran journalist, and a senior lecturer in mass communication at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I never expected to work with middle school and high school students. In 1993, I published Media Maps & Myths, a book applying general semantics ideas to news media. My intended audience was college media students, working journalists, and to some degree the adult general reader.

But one of my students, Shawn Stapleton, now a working journalist, asked if I would help him with an independent study at Brown Deer Middle School in the Milwaukee suburbs. He wanted to take some of the ideas in the book and adapt them to classroom presentations for middle schoolers. Through this work, I met Terese Brecklin and Mary Ann Stadelman, two talented teachers who helped me further develop the presentations.

I spent the 1994-95 school year as the Artist-In-Education at Brown Deer. I have since gone to numerous schools and have developed media literacy courses for education students and teachers.

I am convinced the middle and high school levels of education are the most important for the introduction of media literacy and a general semantics approach to critical thinking.

Some studies show children will watch an estimated 15,000 hours of television by the time they have reached high school. They are bombarded with commercials, entertainment, and news messages. The very volume of consumption makes them think they understand media, yet testing of many students shows they do not critically evaluate those messages. They do not differentiate between stereotypes and reality, often do not challenge rhetorical and visual imagery, and do not always pick up details of the messages.

Federal government officials and others have expressed concerns about the effects of this uncritical consumption of media. They have worked with networks and other media producers to add educational hours on TV, curb violent content in shows, and make other improvements.

Yet, government intervention, or an over-simplified bashing of media, are not the routes to go. Instead, helping students become more critical consumers, and better evaluators of media maps, is a much better way.

Students today have access to more information than any students in history. Internet communication, the growth of cable TV and other technological advances have brought them innumerable choices. But to make intelligent choices, and to understand the maps they are consuming, they need to be educated in critical consumption.

This guidebook takes a hands-on, understandable approach. The assignments offer guidelines, yet leave room for teachers to be creative and "customize" the exercises into their curriculum. The Instructions section conveys why each assignment is included in the book, and demonstrates how each fits into an integrated approach to Mapping the Media.

Gregg Hoffmann is a veteran journalist, a senior lecturer at UW-Milwaukee and author of Media Maps & Myths. Hoffmann serves on the boards of the Institute of General Semantics, the International Society for General Semantics, and the Midwest Society for General Semantics. Author, artist, and editor Paul D. Johnston serves as Executive Director of ISGS. Copyright (C) 1997 by Gregg Hoffmann and Paul D. Johnston.
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Johnston, Paul D.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Dec 22, 1997
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