Reading the media

It’s not just about reading the words, but reading between the lines. What is the message of the article? What are its biases? These are questions that media literacy advocates encourage people to ask themselves. But how do they teach it?

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Media penetrates lives everyday. People are continuously influenced by what they see or hear in the media.

Related Links

English Language Arts Curriculum NS (PDF)
The guidelines for teaching media literacy in the Nova Scotia Language Arts Curriculum

Interview with John Pungente
Read an interview with one of Canada’s experts on media literacy

Media Awareness Network – Findings from recent studies

Media Awareness pamphlet
(PDF)
A booklet with tips and key concepts for those who wish to teach media literacy

Association for Media Literacy
Filled with pages of articles about media literacy

Asterisk* – Horton High School’s Online Magazine
Grade twelve media studies’ own media creation


By Jamie Lee

Allan Neilsen stands in front of his class at Mount Saint Vincent University with a photocopy of a newspaper advertisement on the overhead projector.

The former MT&T telephone company’s advertisement shows a 1950s era woman in office attire. She’s standing on a stool, clearly afraid of the telephone on the floor. The company is selling its new caller ID feature.

“What’s the company’s agenda?” Neilsen asks his students, many of whom are public school teachers.

The question launches a discussion of the advertisement’s purpose and what values the ad projects.

timelinejlc.pngThis is how Neilsen lays the basis for his half-year course on critical media literacy. Over the course of the term, he’ll go from analyzing advertisements to deconstructing news media texts.

Neilsen says each individual interprets messages in the media differently.

“All meaning is socially constructed,” he explains. “You can’t just pass information along from one person to another like a bag of oranges. [It’s] through experience, through doing that we come to understand.”

That’s why Neilsen developed one of the only courses in Nova Scotia universities for studying media. His students learn there are several factors to consider when they see or read something in the media, and how these factors often manipulate the reader or viewer. By practicing analysis, Neilsen says his students get in a habit of analyzing the media critically.

John Pungente, president of the Canadian Association of Media Education Organizations (CAMEO), says media literacy requires an informed and critical understanding of the nature, techniques, and impact of mass media.

“We teach our children to read, and to write, and to do mathematics and we have to teach them about the thing they spend the most of their time with,” Pungente explains. “We have to teach them about our culture.”

But not all of Neilsen’s students respond positively. “For others, it’s very unsettling because they tend to accept the world as it is and part of the problem is people . . . are so doggone busy, it’s hard to really engage in a critical, thoughtful fashion on an ongoing basis,” he says. “It’s damn hard work! It’s tiring work. At the end of the day, give me a break . . . I’m not going to sit down and deconstruct the news.”

The Association for Media Literacy-Nova Scotia, a member of CAMEO, was formed in 1992 to lobby against the Youth News Network.

YNN was a program funded by entertainment-based station MTV to place televisions in Nova Scotia classrooms. These televisions would broadcast a certain amount of MTV content to students each day. Many teachers and parents believed this would hurt students by letting MTV gain too much control over what students consume.

The Association for Media Literacy-Nova Scotia died about ten years ago after its successful lobby against YNN. There have been no formal organizations in Nova Scotia to promote media literacy since.

Media literacy became a popular topic of discussion in the 1980s; Ontario placed guidelines for media literacy into their curriculum in 1988. By 1999, it was established in curricula in all provinces.

Guidelines for teaching media literacy were included in the Nova Scotia curriculum for elementary and secondary schools in 1997.

According to internal research conducted by the Ottawa-based Media Awareness Network that surveyed 744 teachers in 2005, two in three teachers are teaching media literacy in the classroom. Ninety-four per cent of the teachers believe that media literacy is an important skill that students should learn.

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Teachers ask students to keep certain concepts in mind when looking at media. Pungente says media literacy advocates focus on eight points:

1. All media are constructions.
2. All media are versions of reality.
3. Viewers bring their own understanding to what they see in the media.
4. Media is business-based. Media companies are owned by individuals.
5. Media portray values and ideological messages. Media can censor values.
6. Media have social and political implications.
7. Form and content are related. How one media outlet portrays a story is different from another outlet.
8. There is art in media. Every outlet has a different look.

Neilsen also teaches his students to ask themselves questions when looking at media products. These include:

– What is the message?
– Who is sending the message?
– What is left out of the message?

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Shannon McPherson, a teacher at Astral Drive Junior High School in Cole Harbour, is taking Neilsen’s class this year. She has always been in the habit of analyzing the media and wants to take his ideas to her own class. She says Neilsen’s teaching methods are untraditional. He encourages the class to think outside the box.

“If there’s no one to read the text, is it text?” McPherson remembers Neilsen asking.lee2_01.jpg

This got her thinking. “That’s controversial because I think a lot of people would say [a] magazine sitting on the table is a text. But Allan’s philosophy is that . . . it’s not reading and it’s not a text until someone interacts with it and makes meaning with it.”

In the Nova Scotia curriculum, media literacy is part of the language arts program. English, social sciences, and history teachers incorporate media analysis in their lessons.

At Armbrae Academy, a private school in Halifax, headmaster Gary O’Meara teaches grade twelve economics. According to O’Meara, Armbrae follows the provincial curriculum, then goes above and beyond. In class, he analyzes articles from publications like the Economist and Slate magazine to look at economic issues in current events. The class discusses what biases the writer or publication may have and how that influences the article.

O’Meara says students can then filter what they read — that is, distinguish between what is fact and what is actually an opinion.

“A lot of kids . . . think, ‘Oh, it’s in a magazine, it’s in a paper — it must be right’,” O’Meara says. Instead, he shows his students that even inaccurate information can be republished again and again. He takes a story and looks at it in different media to compare how similar they are. He finds that no one questions the accuracy of articles.

O’Meara says it’s practical to have media literacy embedded within the curriculum. Class schedules are already packed. To introduce a media studies class is to do so at the expense of another subject. With limited resources, the school must choose what classes deserve more focused attention.

“You’re not going to fit geology into all your other courses. Media studies, on the other hand, you could. And we do,” O’Meara adds.

Peter Smith is a consultant at the Nova Scotia Department of Education. A former language arts and drama teacher, he says teachers are already swamped with following new concepts. He recognizes that media studies can be overlooked depending on whether the teacher has enough grasp on media analysis to teach it.

“In some classrooms I’d say I would be disappointed with the attention that media gets, and in other classes there’d be wonderful experiences. It all probably comes out in the end fairly even,” says Smith.

“We have guidelines within the curriculum and there’s enough flexibility that as students encounter different teachers in their journey through school, they meet all those characters who have different passions — that’s what makes learning rich.”

Smith also agrees that embedding media studies in other subjects is the way to encourage students to practice critical analysis.

“In a dedicated course, students have a choice. They can walk away from it or they can walk towards it. It’s almost like preaching to the converted — those who had a passion for it and a gift for understanding how media works would be drawn to that course. And those who are the most naïve consumers and the most likely to be misled by deliberately misleading media products wouldn’t go anywhere near it,” he explains.

But Smith also notes that in some schools, teachers have such a great interest in media literacy that they take the initiative to develop separate courses.

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Scott Bennett created a media studies class for grade twelve students at Horton High School in Wolfville. The class analyzes how people are manipulated by the media. Bennett provides media experts’ publications for his students to read and engages them in activities to help them understand the issues. They also create their own online magazine to get a first hand experience at manipulating media.

Even though Bennett felt it was important to start a separate media studies course, he says it should still be a part of other language arts classes.

“Literacy across the curriculum doesn’t mean that you can get rid of English classes because people are reading in science and math,” he points out.

A specialized course like his gives students the option to pursue more in-depth interest.

“For the student who is interested in that type of topic, there’s no doubt that there should be an environment or an opportunity for them to do that. For example, look at grade ten science — gives you a taste of biology, it gives you a taste of physics, it gives you a taste of chemistry. If you’re interested in one of those streams you can explore it further through more advanced science courses that break up after that when you go into grade eleven and twelve,” he explains.

Back when he was a teacher, Smith brought media to unlikely places. He asked students to read through papers to pick an important current issue on which to base the class play.

Smith says that students prefer analyzing media when it’s incorporated in another subject like his drama class. For example, if there’s a major event, he and his students looked at how the event was covered in the newspapers and on television. But if he tried to dedicate a week to analyzing newspapers, students groaned, he says.

Smith is working with Bennett and another teacher at Horton High School to build a new Association for Media Literacy in Nova Scotia. Smith believes that through a formal organization, more of the public will start to notice that media literacy is a serious topic for discussion.

“It’s not just an educators’ issue. It’s a social issue,” he says.