Teaching Media Literacy From a Cultural Studies Perspective

Teaching Media Literacy From a Cultural Studies Perspective

Jeffrey St. Onge
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-4059-5.ch008
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This chapter outlines an approach to teaching media literacy from the perspective of cultural studies. It argues that this perspective is especially well-equipped to meet the challenges and demands of media literacy in the twenty-first century, and as such would be of use to scholars in multiple disciplines. Briefly, the course examines the various ways that media shape public culture by analyzing histories of propaganda, public relations, and news framing. In addition, students consider the role of social media in their lives through a focus on the variety of ways in which media shape messages. The chapter describes the logic of the course, key readings, and primary assignments geared toward synthesis of media concepts, democracy, and culture.
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Recent events and cultural discussions about the role of media in United States and European politics have amplified conversations about the necessity of media literacy as a component of higher education. At the broad, political level, western democracies have been plagued by problems of “fake news,” echo chambers, and the widespread manipulation of media for propagandistic purposes. Information networks have become exponentially crowded, and the typical citizen is ill-equipped to navigate this complex environment marked by a blend of news, entertainment, and social media. As Viner (2016) argues, the social media-driven news environment blurs lines “between truth and falsehood, fact and rumor, kindness and cruelty; between the…connected and the alienated; between the open platform of the web…and the gated enclosures of Facebook and other social networks; between an informed public and a misguided mob.” At the personal level, humans are more connected than ever, and media has become for most a primary interface with the world. Educators grapple with the inability of students to disconnect from the mediated world for any extended period of time, and of course this is a condition not unique to students (Lang, 2017; Purcell et al., 2012). The average American spends over 10 hours each day involved with some kind of media, typically a mix between social media, television, radio, newspapers, films, and video games (Howard, 2016). It would be impossible for future historians or sociologists to study the current time period without giving primary attention to the omnipresence of social and traditional media.

Media literacy education, then, is of utmost importance in contemporary culture. It is clear that universities (and, likely, primary and secondary schools) should invest in media and information literacy courses in order to prepare students to be both citizens and workers in contemporary society. Indeed, there are a number of texts geared toward the research and pedagogy of media, and interest in the subject spans a broad range of scholarly fields (e.g., Hoechsmann & Poyntz, 2012; Silverblatt, Ferry, & Finan, 2009). One challenge for educators is defining the scope and direction of media literacy education, which can have emphases including digital literacy, concerns about privacy and data online, media production, the role and use of media in pedagogy, and engagement in civic life (De Abreu, Mihailidis, Lee, Melki, & McDougall, 2017). U.S. culture tends to frame education in neoliberal terms where skills are valuable insofar as they contribute to economic success, but media literacy is not primarily concerned with teaching technical skills (Giroux, 2014). Rather, it is more accurately aimed at developing a broad understanding of the role of media in social life (De Abreu & Mihailidis, 2013). Some key questions emerge in defining the course: what exactly is media literacy, and what are best practices in teaching it? What should students learn about the subject, and how can educators both provide a basic vocabulary for understanding media and instill an ethos of media critique that prepares students for life after college? There are no simple answers to these questions, and the multifaceted nature of the mediated environment ensures a variety of equally valid and important pedagogical perspectives.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Information Literacy: The ability to critically evaluate news and other information for veracity, bias, and intent.

Public Relations: The practice of cultivating public sentiment about a product, person, or idea.

Spin: The shaping of information for certain ends.

Democracy: A system of self-government that requires citizen engagement and active participation.

Fake News: News stories that are demonstrably false yet spread as true information.

Advertising: The practice of communicating information about a product, person, or idea.

Media Literacy: The ability to critically understand and evaluate different forms of media and understand their cultural and communicative elements.

Everyday Life: A concept related to cultural studies that encourages scholars to pay attention to the daily, lived realities of individuals.

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