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Understanding the Hype: Media Literacy





Every day, we are bombarded with messages when we watch television, go online, or read newspapers and magazines. What do those messages mean? What is their purpose? How should we process media messages? Noted author, educator, and media literacy expert Catherine Gourley shared with Education World her thoughts about media literacy and its role in education. Gourley's book, Media Wizards: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Media Manipulations, introduces techniques to help students crack the codes of media messages.



"Media wizards are a creative bunch. They produce their messages using a warehouse of tools -- visual effects, sound effects, words that have positive or negative connotations, headlines that SCREAM!, and photographs that sensationalize. Some wizards speak in sound bites and advertising slogans. Others mouth media metaphors. But their words and their illusions aren't magic. They are simply messages, each constructed with a purpose -- to inform, to persuade, or to influence behavior."

--Media Wizards (1999) by Catherine Gourley, published by The Millbrook Press, Brookfield, Connecticut.

About the Author

Catherine Gourley is an award-winning author of books for children and young adults and an educator with a longstanding interest in media literacy. She served as a consultant for a special media literacy project sponsored by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and trained teachers in workshops presented by The Media Literacy Project. Gourley also worked with the Media Literacy Project to develop curriculum materials for Assignment: Media Literacy, an initiative sponsored by the Discovery Channel.

Gourley's award-winning books include two nonfiction books honored by the American Library Association (ALA). Wheels of Time, A Biography of Henry Ford, (Millbrook Press, 1997) was a Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA) Honor Book. Good Girl Work, (Millbrook Press, 1999), which relates stories of female child labor, was named by the ALA as one of the best nonfiction books published for young adult readers in 1999. Gourley's latest book, Media Wizards: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Media Manipulations (Twenty-First Century Books, A Division of Millbrook Press, 1999), offers techniques to help students understand messages presented in various types of media.

Catherine Gourley, the award-winning author of books for children, young adults, and educators, wrote that passage about a hot topic in education: media literacy. Gourley's book, Media Wizards: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Media Manipulations, offers techniques to help students understand messages presented in various types of media. Gourley took time to answer some questions from Education World about media literacy.

Education World: What prompted your interest in media literacy?

Catherine Gourley: Television commercials. That's probably where my interest started. When I was growing up, like most people, I could sing by memory dozens of advertising lingos: Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, Oh, what a relief it is! Stuff like that. Probably the commercial's message influenced me, but I remember being more interested in the rhymes and music and the visual gimmicks of those advertisements. Even print ads and billboards got my attention. I remember, again as a kid, staring in wonder at an image of a package of cigarettes with long, female legs in high heels -- no head or arms, mind you -- and thinking "What's that about?"

As I got older and began to recognize some of the construction techniques the advertisers were using, such as humor, I began to decode the messages. Then I understood that someone was trying to persuade or influence me to buy or do something. I didn't always agree.

When I was in college, I worked for a radio station (WBAX, an AM station in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania) and was actually the person who wrote some of the advertisements or was the "voice over" for a radio spot or an advertising skit. I recognized the construction techniques, and I was using them.

Later, my awareness of media constructions expanded to include looking critically at movies and television shows and especially at political advertisements.

EW: What is media literacy?

Gourley: Media literacy, in its simplest terms, is viewing or reading any media message, even newspaper and magazine articles, critically. A more detailed definition of media literacy involves five principles of knowledge:

  1. Media messages come in different formats, such as commercials or news articles or billboards.
  2. All media messages are created by someone for a specific purpose and target a specific audience or audiences.
  3. All media messages are constructions and the way they are constructed includes both words, images, and sounds.
  4. People interpret media messages differently, based on their own experiences and even prejudices.
  5. Each media message represents someone's social reality. In other words, just because something is printed and is real does not make it true.

EW: Why is media literacy important?

Gourley: If someone is trying to influence you to do something, vote a certain way or believe a specific thing, then you need to arm yourself against those influences. To just accept everything you see and read and hear as truth is to allow yourself to be manipulated. Just because someone tells you to buy a specific kind of toothpaste doesn't mean you should. In a democratic country such as the United States, media literacy is important because we need to be able to make informed decisions on our own if we are going to protect our freedom.

EW: What role should media literacy play in education?

Gourley: It plays a critical role, I think. When some parents and teachers hear the words media literacy, they may think that we're talking about showing movies in the classroom. That's the old notion of what media literacy is. Today, however, we live in a shrinking world. With the click of a mouse, we can send a message over the Internet within a millisecond. We have not only more media messages bombarding us but also new venues in which to receive those messages. They come at us not just through newspapers and magazines but also through radio, television, the Internet, posters slapped on the sides of buses, even on T-shirts. So, on one hand, teaching media literacy principles and decoding strategies is integral to teaching critical thinking. Most teachers would agree that's an important thing to teach in school.

In the higher grades, however, media literacy takes a different focus. The challenge for teachers becomes finding ways of incorporating media literacy into lessons about literature and history and science.

EW: What is the relationship between reading books and media literacy?

Gourley: Let's look at one example, the novel Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley -- or, if you prefer, the Harry Potter books, by R.K. Rowling. Books are a media message. They are also written by someone for a particular audience and with a purpose in mind. That purpose might be to inform, persuade, or express an opinion. The message of the book and how the author created it is something teachers have discussed forever in teaching and literature. To expand more into the media lit area, however, the teacher can include in his or her discussion how the book is packaged -- the cover art and design, the words selected for the title, and the book jacket. The teacher can also have students investigate how the book is being marketed -- who is selling it and how? What kinds of news articles or TV interviews or advertising gimmicks is the publisher using to get people to buy and/or read the book? The publisher is also exploring how readers -- whether they are kids, teachers, or parents -- react to the message of the book. The Harry Potter books, for example, are among the most challenged books, in terms of censorship, according to the American Library Association. Why? Who wants to censor the books and why? What arguments are [the censors] presenting? That is a terrific way for educators to bring a media focus to a literature lesson.

A fascinating and interactive activity for Frankenstein can involve looking at how different genres have interpreted Shelley's original story. Frankenstein a la Hollywood is significantly different from the original novel. Comic books also tell the story. TV sit-coms play off the story (Addams Family and The Munsters) ) as do all the Halloween cards and marketing minutiae associated with Halloween.

EW: At what age level should teachers begin introducing media literacy?

Gourley: I'm not a pre-school or an elementary educator, and I'm not certain about readiness levels. Certainly, elementary students can begin to decode media messages. Many elementary teachers have incorporated media lessons into their classrooms.

EW: In what ways can teachers use media literacy to teach awareness about drug and alcohol abuse?

Gourley: The same ways as indicated above. Choose a message -- whether it is a song lyric or a poster advertising a Britney Spears album -- and decode it. Who is creating the message and what does the creator want the consumer of this information to believe or to do? With all media messages, especially with those concerning drugs, the person must look at what is not being said in the message and ask why. For example, images of drug use in movies and TV shows, whether the drug is nicotine or alcohol or cocaine, frequently do not show the consequences of drug use. The drug use portrayed is usually associated with good times, being accepted and popular. The image doesn't show teens drinking, then driving and crashing. It doesn't show the unglamorous side of drug use.

Lois Lewis
Education World®
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Updated 11/05/2012