The Value of Media Literacy Education in the 21st Century: A Conversation with Tessa Jolls (Part Four)

TESSA: First and foremost, I totally agree your statement that there needs to be a process of continuous questioning of core assumptions and frameworks as we work through what, if anything, is different in the media environment today than at the time some of the founding work in media literacy was first produced — that is the essence of R&D.  But my caution is that R&D’s purpose is not to reinvent the wheel or throw the baby out with the bathwater (to use cliches that are also representations!) — it is to build upon what has come before, expand it and sometimes upend it.

My other caution is that pedagogy and practice generally fall well behind in teaching the new theories engendered through R&D —  your example of the state of the pedagogy at the time your wrote your white paper is certainly accurate! And this earlier pre-occupation with mass media in the practice was well behind the R&D of that time, because people like Masterman,  Barry Duncan and Kathleen Tyner had long envisioned media literacy education as going beyond mass media deconstruction and production. Definitely media literacy, in your words, should have “an expansion of concepts to be able to more fully capture the roles that these new media platforms and processes play in our lives.”  The cycle times between R&D ideas being discovered, disseminated, adopted and practiced are shrinking but still discouraging.


But theory and practice are two different arenas, and media literacy has NOT been taught. This is a major problem for R&D because this pedagogical omission has made it difficult for even researchers to distinguish between what is new and what has come before, and what is important to query as a foundation, and what is not.  So, for example, you are rightly questioning the role of representation — “about whether representation can stand in for the totality of the communication process,” as you said.   I agree, that is a highly important question to me as a person interested in R&D.  But just because researchers may be asking that question, does it mean that Pre-K-12 students shouldn’t be learning about representation and its role in media literacy?  Should we deny students learning about an idea that we ourselves have gained wisdom from?   I ask these questions as a person interested in both R&D and in pedagogy and practice. In the case of whether representation should be discussed in media literacy education, I happily agree with your saying “Absolutely!”


These basic questions of course lead to others:

  • How far into the R&D questions do everyday people want to go?
  • What might be useful and accessible to people in understanding their everyday relationship with media?
  • How much can people reasonably take in as they explore media literacy in formal and informal settings (keeping in mind that everyone is on a continuum in terms of their learning and their desires and abilities to understand and apply ideas).
  • How might teachers be taught to help students explore these ideas?


We must also note that while we are primarily addressing construction and participation, media literacy concerns itself with other arenas, which include:

  • The media diet (how much media users use and produce, what content, what quality, etc.)
  • Safety, privacy and security
  • Intellectual property use, copyright, etc.
  • Identity and consumerism
  • Issues like health, news, privacy/data and citizenship
  • Various frameworks like Paulo Freire’s empowerment spiral of awareness, analysis, reflection and action
  • Media effects
  • Media reform

But for our discussion, I think exploring the vocabulary and media literacy ideas around construction and participation may be most useful, since you agree with the idea (minus my inclusion of representation) that I stated earlier, “Construction must take place before participation is possible.”  As noted earlier but worth repeating, construction is a HUGE idea since even the universe and culture and our brains are constructed (though there’s lots of disagreement and speculation through the ages about who or what may be responsible for this phenomena).  But for those of us who like to understand how things are constructed, how they work and why they might be compelling for human beings, there are deconstruction processes that we can apply to the internet or to a fashionable dress.  There are MANY frames through which to explore construction, but in our case, we are exploring human relationships with media constructions and I agree with you that having relationships with media means engagement with media, and by extension participation with other human beings, directly or indirectly.


I like your (and Lisa Gitelman’s) example of a telephone call.  Using our construction vocabulary, a phone call is a construction that is facilitated through media, that has an audio “construct” or “text” that may or may not be captured in print or recorded  (I would also argue that the verbal and audio texts represent the callers at that moment in time) and that requires participation by humans who go through the process of constructing the call. I agree that other elements may be communicated between the parties besides words — the voice itself is a medium — the timber of the voice, the volume of the voice, the pacing of the words also provide evidence that may lead to inferences about emotion and other contextual elements surrounding and influencing the call.    Besides being a construct unto itself, the call has other outcomes — perhaps a decision about some action to be taken, like going to a movie,  or perhaps the callers feel more emotionally bonded — or maybe more emotionally distanced from each other.  After the call is completed, if we could roll back time or see a text or better yet, hear a recording, we could step back to formally analyze or deconstruct both the textual and contextual elements present during the call. We could see what media literacy elements are at work during the call and use this knowledge to construct another call differently, if we choose. On an informal level, people highly skilled in deconstructing messages automatically deconstruct calls — consciously or unconsciously — as they construct and engage using the telephone, and they interact accordingly to achieve their purposes in initiating the call.  High media literacy skills also call for high emotional and social literacy skills. — we need to “read” the whole context of the mediated experience while we are also constructing it.


With this scenario in mind, each of the Five Core Concepts of media literacy for media construction apply to this interpersonal communication/construction — the phone call:


CML’s Five Core Concepts of Media Literacy


1.  All media messages are constructed. (the construct or the call itself, using telephone media technology)

2.  Media messages are constructed using a creative language with its own rules.   (the “protocols,” terms or social norms such as “Hello” that Gitelman refers to;  the characteristics of telephone technology; and characteristics and use of the voice)

3.  Different people experience the same media message differently.  (each person will have different perceptions about the call  — or groups may or may not arrive at a consensus)

4.  Media messages have embedded values and points of view. (the “framing” of the call — what is included and what is excluded in the construct)

5.  Most media messages are organized to gain profit and/or power.  (the purpose of the call, with the caller exercising agency or power to achieve a purpose such as close bonding)


By necessity, I am being brief and I acknowledge that there could be many parsings in this example (a strength of media literacy education is acknowledgement that while people have individual skills, their understanding is often enhanced exponentially through participation with others).


CML’s expression of the Five Core Concepts are rooted in work by Masterman and Canadian media literacy pioneers including Barry Duncan and John Puengente in the 1980’s.  They are as relevant to telephone calls and mass media as they are to new media.  These concepts describe how media — any media — operate as a symbolic system.   When your white paper was published in 2006, I wondered whether these Concepts needed to be expanded. And from some of your comments here, it sounds like you are also questioning when you said ”What I would argue for is not the displacement of media literacy’s historic focus on representation but an expansion of concepts to be able to more fully capture the roles that these new media platforms and processes play in our lives.”  Your white paper certainly was groundbreaking and quite descriptive about new media literacy skills needed. Unfortunately, these Core Concepts — which have served as a foundational frame for media literacy in numerous parts of the world — were not cited in the 2006 white paper and this may be continuing to cause confusion and unintended consequences, even now.


As researchers and developers in the field, we must constantly test the Core Concepts to see whether they are still universally valid and descriptive of all forms of media.  It is this basic description of a global media system at work that distinguishes media literacy from other communications fields, and they provide a rallying point around which institutionalizing media literacy becomes possible.  The Core Concepts capture the fundamental understanding that has long been missing in our culture and in the Pre-K-12 +++ education system (I might add that I have spoken to many graduate students who have no idea about what the Core Concepts are or how to apply them, which is highly disappointing and also telling). The Concepts provide the basis for pedagogy that can be built around them. It is important to emphasize this distinction between describing how media operate as a symbolic system — the theoretical description of media embodied in the Five Core Concepts — and how individuals and groups use and experience the media — the practice, the skills, the applications of the theory. There are many frames, especially in the pedagogy and practice arenas, that may apply and further media literacy.


Before he died in 2012, the great Canadian pioneer Barry Duncan (founder of the Canadian Association for Media Literacy), called for action in his 2010 Voices of Media Literacy interview:


“You get all of these competing literacies, and that is not a bad thing…but there needs to be a way to bridge these and that has not successfully happened. Critical pedagogy has a lot to offer…I want to see (it) having a major role in bringing the key ideas both of traditional media and new media — of bringing them together and making all of these things as meaningful in the curriculum. The so-called convergence and the culture of connectivity — all of the new directions — all of that has to be reconciled with the traditional. And if we do a good job at that we will be successful.

“If you look at the … Key Concepts — there are groups out there that are doing some aspect of it. But the danger is that the richness of the aesthetic, ideological, commercial — if they are not explored then we leave the major things out of the model(s) that are needed … to acknowledge the complexity.”



Henry: First, let me say how artful I think you were at showing how the core concepts of media literacy apply to the telephone call. I would not disagree, though as I said before, I am not sure that they capture everything that is going on there. We’ve, for example, found it very generative to look at our NML skills alongside the research on emotional intelligence, which has helped us to really focus on the interpersonal and affective dimensions of social media, and there are issues about social norms around privacy and disclosure, which can be characterized in terms of conventions of communication, but perhaps not, of representation per se. So, I am always going to be the guy who kicks the tires.

Part of what I admire about the Core Concepts — and there is much to admire here — is that they represent a compromise or coalition between different generations of theorists and activists who were advocating media literacy. I have always loved the quote from Bob McCannon, which Renee Hobbs shared in her “Seven Great Debates in the Media Literacy Movement” essay: “Whenever media literacy educators get together, they always circle the wagons– and shoot in!”

If we look closely, we see in those core concepts aspects of semiotics (“All media messages are constructed,”) McLuhanism (“Media have embedded values and points of view”), film appreciation (“Media messages are constructed using a creative language with its own rules,”) British Cultural Studies (“Different people experience the same media message differently”) and Critical Studies (“Most media messages are organized to gain profit and/or power”). As a political document, a truce of sorts, it is brilliant. As an intellectual document, it also is incredibly valuable as a starting point for defining media literacy and explaining why it is an essential set of concepts for our times.

 I would personally qualify or modify some of these phrasings — for example, my work stresses the collective dimensions of meaning-making rather than the individual and for me, the focus on “different people” rather than “different audiences” here tends to focus more on idiosyncratic interpretations (always good as conversation fodder) rather than socially-embedded interpretations. I would argue that as forms of social and mobile media become more central to the field, we need a broader array of different motives to consider beyond power and profit or we will end up with a very cynical (rather than skeptical) understanding of the role media plays in human relations.  You turned to social bonding above in addressing what happens when we look at telephone calls, and it is important to think about those dimensions of digital culture that function more like a gift economy than like commodity culture. I might add something that stressed the ways that media mediates different kinds of social relations between people who participate in its exchange, which might cover much of what I was arguing for above in terms of pushing beyond representation as a category or I might stress the ways that media impact each other in a more systemic way, which is to my mind at the heart of what I call comparative media studies. These are areas where we have seen new theoretical breakthroughs since the five core concepts were formulated. I would describe such questioning as aimed at renewing and refreshing the core concepts, not overturning them. But, as a starting point, sure — great concepts and ones that should ideally inform our work.


I am sorry that you felt the exclusion of the core concepts in the white paper may have led to such unintended consequences. I can see your point and suspect you may be right. At the time, I had imagined the white paper being read by people who already were immersed in the ML movement, but I had not anticipated how many others would come to ML work through that document. And that goes back to your larger statement that ML skills are still NOT being taught in schools, so how can we take them as granted in the subsequent work we do. I had meant for our statement to be that we needed traditional literacy, media literacy, technical skills, and research skills NOW MORE THAN EVER, but that there were ALSO now other skills we should be working to achieve and that this document was primarily identifying what those skills were, why they were important, and how they should be taught. This goes hand in hand with my sense that what we need is a paradigm shift and not simply adding a few more things to an already crowded curriculum.


You are right that educational practice will mostly lag behind research, except in this case, we’ve discovered that teachers have recognized the need to respond quickly to the changes they were seeing in young people’s lives, that many of them were hungry for research that addressed the impact of digital media, and that there have been large numbers of early adapters and adopters out there who were ready to respond to the call. What the DML movement is now recognizing is what the ML movement understood all the time: that to be scalable and sustainable we need to move beyond the culture of early adopters/adapters and reach teachers who will need more basic materials, more fully developed practices, in order to bring these ideas into their classrooms. We need to turn the early recruits into mentors for other teachers, but even this, will not make media literacy something that is embedded in the educational system as a whole.  In our own work, we are seeing the best way to achieve that goal is to work with people who have much more experience working in schools than we have, and so we find ourselves exploring partnerships with groups like Facing History and Ourselves, the National Writer’s Project, Project Look Sharp, or your organization. Your Core Concepts and especially your Key Questions provide just such a framework which has been adapted easily as a template into the design of classroom activities, which can be used by teachers who are not necessarily interested in designing and developing their own lesson plans or even delving too deeply into the theoretical nuances. This would seem to be the point where these worlds are going to rejoin again.


You raise a key point above when you suggest those of us who are doing advanced research and development sometimes take these core concepts for granted, forgetting how hard we worked to achieve this understanding, or how empowering it was when we did.  My worry is that within the ML world, rather than being under constant revision, as you suggest above, these core concepts and questions have sometimes taken on the quality of articles of faith and on a knee-jerk level, that makes me bristle, since I was raised a Southern Baptist and have worked hard since to clear my mind of any and all kinds of  “one true way” dogma. I’ve certainly felt pressure to swear allegiance to these collective statements, and I have resisted doing so, not because I disagree in any fundamental way with this framework, as my comments above suggest, but because I want to be free to test, challenge, and question the core tenants of a field as the media environment changes.

The minute these become a set of answers rather than a set of questions, the ML field starts to rigidify and part of what is exciting about the DML efforts is that they are bringing new energy, new passion, and new intellectual curiosity into this space as they sort through competing ideas about how schools should prepare young people for participation in the new media landscape. So, we can expect more pushing and pulling on the basic frameworks that come before us, but that puts a burden on those of us in the DML world to learn and understand that work, and I would agree there are many who have not become familiar with those concepts. My co-authors, Tara McPherson, Jane Shattuc, and I wrote in the Introduction to Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture, about another field — cultural studies: “If change in the academy has often been likened to an oedipal conflict in which the sons and daughters kill their parents in order to make room for their own accomplishments, we are hoping for something closer to a family reunion where squabbles may surface but where a strong sense of community and tradition is reaffirmed over potato salad and barbecue.”  I am hoping our exchange has made some progress towards that kind of mutual understanding here.