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Educação & Sociedade

Print version ISSN 0101-7330On-line version ISSN 1678-4626

Educ. Soc. vol.29 no.104 Campinas Oct. 2008 



Critical media education, radical democracy, and the reconstruction of education



Douglas Kellner; Jeff Share




This article explores the theoretical underpinnings of critical media education and analyzes contrasting approaches to teaching it. Combining cultural studies with critical pedagogy, we argue for a critical media literacy that aims to expand the notion of literacy to include a wide range of forms of media culture, information and communication technologies and new media, as well as deepen the potential of literacy education to critically analyze relationships between media and audiences, information and power. A multiperspectivist approach addressing issues of gender, race, class and power is used to explore the interconnections of media literacy, cultural studies and critical pedagogy. Our version of critical media literacy integrates analysis with production and aims at empowering students to participate fully in their society and thus promotes radical democracy and social justice.

Key words: Media literacy - Critical media literacy - Media education - Critical pedagogy - Cultural studies - Radical democracy




Technological innovations, expansion of global media empires, an explosion of new media, and the unrestricted commercial targeting of children have all contributed to an environment where today's youth are growing up in a mediated world far different than any previous generation. While technological advancements have created new possibilities for the free flow of information, social networking and global activism, there is also the potential for corporations and governments to increase their control over media, restrict the flow of information, and appropriate these new tools for profit and control at the expense of free expression and democracy.

Most children born in the United States in this millennium have never known a time without the Internet, cellular phones or television.1 Over 98% of US households have at least one television set2 and about one third of young children live in households where the TV is on "always" or "most of the time" (Rideout, Vandewater & Wartella, 2003, p. 4). Before most children are six years of age, they spend about two hours per day with screen media,3 something that doubles by age eight, and before they are 18 they spend approximately 6½ hours daily with all types of media (Rideout, Roberts & Foehr, 2005).4 It is also estimated that nearly all young children in the US, "have products—clothes, toys, and the like—based on characters from TV shows or movies" (Rideout et al., 2003, p. 4). Since television programs, cellular phones, video games, music, and even toys have become major transmitters of culture, tellers as well as sellers of the stories of our time, it is now more than ever, that children need to learn how to critically question the messages that surround them and how to use the vast array of new tools available to express their own ideas and participate fully.

Victoria Carrington (2005) writes that the emergence of new media texts, "situate contemporary children in global flows of consumption, identity and information in ways unheard of in earlier generations…" (p. 22). For Carrington, understanding media as a flow is essential to understanding the culture in which today's youth are growing up. Tania Modleski describes Raymond Williams' concept of flow as the complex interactions and interrelations between various television programs and commercials (1982, p. 100). Beverle Houston explains, "The flow of, American television goes on for twenty-four hours a day, which is crucial in producing the idea that the text issues from an endless supply that is sourceless, natural, inexhaustible, and coextensive with psychological reality itself" (1984, p. 82). In the 21st century, this flow travels back and forth through old media and new information technologies alike. Houston states that media flow mobilizes desire and consumption in which the structured interruptions enhance the desire for endless consumption.

In the context of continuously expanding technological and economic transformation, critical media literacy is an imperative for participatory democracy because new information communication technologies and a market-based media culture have fragmented, connected, converged, diversified, homogenized, flattened, broadened, and reshaped the world. These changes have been reframing the way people think and restructuring societies at local and global levels (Castells, 2004; Jenkins, 2006).

While media education has evolved from many disciplines, an important arena of theoretical work for critical media literacy comes from the multidisciplinary field of cultural studies. This is a field of critical inquiry that began over a century ago in Europe and continues to grow with new critiques of media and society. From the 1930s through the 1960s, researchers at the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research used critical social theory to analyze how popular culture and the new tools of communication technology induce ideology and social control. In the 1960s, researchers at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham added to the earlier concerns of ideology with a more sophisticated understanding of the audience as active makers of meaning, not simply mirrors of an external reality. Applying concepts of semiotics, feminism, multiculturalism, and postmodernism, a dialectical understanding of political economy, textual analysis, and audience theory has evolved in which media and popular culture can be analyzed as dynamic forces that reproduce dominant ideologies as well as entertain, educate, and offer the possibilities for counter-hegemonic alternatives (see Kellner, 1995).

Media education that has evolved from cultural studies is defined less as a specific body of knowledge or set of skills, and more as a framework of conceptual understandings (Buckingham, 2003). Many people and organizations around the world have generated their own lists of concepts5 that vary in numbers and wording, but for the most part they all tend to coincide with at least five basic elements: 1) recognition of the construction of media and communication as a social process as opposed to accepting texts as isolated neutral or transparent conveyors of information; 2) some type of textual analysis that explores the languages, genres, codes, and conventions of the text; 3) an exploration of the role audiences play in negotiating meanings; 4) problematizing the process of representation to uncover and engage issues of ideology, power, and pleasure; 5) examination of the production, institutions and political economy that motivate and structure the media industries as corporate profit seeking businesses (see Kellner & Share, 2005).

Critical media literacy is an educational response that expands the notion of literacy to include different forms of mass communication, popular culture, and new technologies. It also deepens the potential of literacy education to critically analyze relationships between media and audiences, information, and power. Along with this mainstream analysis, alternative media production empowers students to create their own messages that can challenge media texts and narratives.

This article explores the theoretical underpinnings of critical media education, examines some of the obstacles for implementing progressive pedagogical changes, and provides examples of practical applications. A multiperspectivist approach addressing issues of gender, race, class, and power is used to explore the interconnections of media education, cultural studies, and critical pedagogy.



Many changes in the last couple of decades have contributed greatly to the need for critical media education. A new epistemological framework for media literacy education is now necessary because of the rapid growth of information communication technology, the expansion of free market global capitalism, and the escalating and vanishing linguistic and cultural diversity that is changing social environments at local as well as global levels.

Looking at the impact of globalization on identity, Manuel Castells (2004) asserts that people's lives are being shaped by the forces of the network society. He suggests that the interconnections between technology, economics, culture and identity are challenging, conflicting and impacting upon each other on a global scale.

Already in the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan argued that many of the characteristics of premodern oral culture will again rise up in importance as the instantaneous and continuous electronic age proves to be more similar to oral cultures of the ancient past than the last five centuries of typographic literacy. He wrote these ideas before the existence of cellular phones, the Internet, and HDTV, yet today as the World Wide Web and wireless communication become common place in most "First World" countries, as well as in many parts of the "Developing World," his words ring more true today than when he first wrote them a half century ago.

According to McLuhan (1964), before print literacy, humans were hunters and gatherers living in oral societies with tribal cultures that were unified, inclusive, auditory, organic, and had high levels of participation. With the invention of the phonetic alphabet, a new era began. Literacy caused the eye to replace the ear and the cosmic culture became fragmented and separated by a new system of repeatability and uniformity. In the fifteenth century these changes exploded with the invention of Gutenberg's printing press. McLuhan calls this the "mechanical age" and attributes the arrival of individualism, rationalism and nationalism to this new literate culture of homogeneity and lineal organization.

The next great change for humanity, according to McLuhan, came with the discovery of electricity and the invention of the telegraph. The new electronic age has and continues to cause an implosion within society that is returning humans to their earlier oral roots. This latest age of automation and cybernation takes us back to a more participatory, integral, decentralized and inclusive way of living. McLuhan asserts that electricity, with its speed and constancy, is the medium that created simultaneity, it is an extension of our central nervous system, "instantly interrelating every human experience" (p. 358). He suggests that all media are extensions of ourselves; the print is an extension of the eye as the wheel is an extension of the foot.

Now more than ever, we are seeing the transformation of societies into what McLuhan coined, the "global village," and the electronic age that he spoke of is in full force, reshaping societies and identities across the globe. For today's literate society to keep pace with the age of information, education must let go of curriculum that is separated by subjects and "changeover to an interrelation in know ledge," asserts McLuhan (p. 35). He asks,

"Would it not seem natural and necessary that the young be provided with at least as much training of perception in this graphic and photographic world as they get in the typographic? In fact, they need more training in graphics, because the art of casting and arranging actors in ads is both complex and forcefully insidious" (p. 230).

Adding economic and technological determinist perspectives to McLuhan's technological determinism, Thomas Friedman (2005) argues that at the turn of this millennium, humans entered the third major shift in globalizing change. He writes that the first great era of globalization began in 1492 when Columbus opened trade between the New World and the Old. During what Friedman calls Globalization 1.0, imperialism and religion drove global integration through brute force as colonizing countries deployed the labor power of exploited peoples until about 1800. The second era, Globalization 2.0, ran from about 1800-2000 and involved multinational companies expanding their markets and labor forces as industrialization reshaped the world. This second era benefited first from the decrease in transportation costs and later from the decrease in telecommunication costs, and was marked by the inventions of new hardware. Yet in the 21st century, Friedman claims that Globalization 3.0 is driven by innovative software and a global fiber-optic network, and asserts that the unique character of this era is "the newfound power for individuals to collaborate and compete globally." (p. 10).

His claim that the world is now less hierarchical with a more level playing field than ever before is overly ideological and optimistic; Friedman is too uncritical of inequalities and injustices of neo-liberal globalization (Klein, 2007). However, his assertion that "the world has been flattened by the convergence of ten major political events, innovations, and companies" (p. 48) is highly provocative and highlights many recent changes in society that are having a global impact. We do not agree with his utopian conclusion that the world is now flat and there is more equal opportunity, since one-third of the world's population still lives without electricity. Yet, Friedman's discussion of the major forces which have changed the world in just the last couple of decades, makes it clear that the 21st century is a different world and will continue to change due to the influences of new ICTs and global economic systems. The examples he describes of transformations in technology, society, and economy provide strong reasons for the need to change education and especially literacy practices. We believe that the type of changes that would best accommodate a globalized world perpetually transformed by technology include multiple literacies, of which critical media literacy is essential, as we argue below.

The diversity of ideas and people is increasing in countries, cities and classrooms as escalating amounts of information become available and larger numbers of people travel and immigrate across the globe. At the same time there is a reduction of diversity as cultural colonialization and commercial homogenization spreads throughout the global markets with the ease of new information communication technologies (ICTs). One example of the loss of diversity can be seen in UNESCO's warning that, "Over 50% of the world's 6000 languages are endangered" with one disappearing almost every other week.6 Joseph Lo Bianco (2000) states that "During this and the next decade there will be the greatest collapse of language diversity in all history." (p. 94). He attributes these changes to an emerging global system being generated by three principal forces: "The first is the almost universal phenomenon of market deregulation; the second is the advanced integration of international financial markets; and the third is the critical facilitating force of instantaneous communications" (p. 93).

One of the common themes running through many analyses of the changes in the relationship between media and society is a high degree of convergence that is occurring in numerous ways (Considine, 2003; Gutiérrez, 2003; Luke, 2006, Jenkins, 2006). Henry Jenkins (2006) insists that we are now living in a convergence culture, in which our socio-cultural practices are changing because of the influences of technology and economics, and convergence of old and new media. He explains, "Media convergence is more than simply a technological shift. Convergence alters the relationship between existing technologies, industries, markets, genres, and audiences" (p. 15). Jenkins highlights two major and often contradictory trends, one in which large media corporations threaten democracy by their concentration of ownership, giving less people a greater ability to push and amplify their limited content out to the masses while new media technologies have made it easier on a grassroots level for more people to pull, create and distribute much more diverse media content, thereby offering new opportunities for democracy. This dynamic push and pull of media is a key aspect of convergence and something Jenkins states,

"represents a paradigm shift - a move from medium-specific content toward content that flows across multiple media channels, toward the increased interdependence of communications systems, toward multiple ways of accessing media content, and toward ever more complex relations between top-down corporate media and bottom-up participatory culture" (p. 243).

These changes in technology and society are shaping the way people think and relate to media. Jenkins asserts that the larger problem for educators today is not the old notion of a digital divide that separates people based on limited access to the tools of communication, since more people have access today than ever before, but the larger problem today is a participation gap, "the unequal access to the opportunities, experiences, skills, and knowledge that will prepare youth for full participation in the world of tomorrow." (Jenkins et al., 2007, p. 3). Jenkins writes, "We need to rethink the goals of media education so that young people can come to think of themselves as cultural producers and participants and not simply as consumers, critical or otherwise" (2006, p. 259).

Framing the changes in technological and social terms, Carmen Luke (2006) argues for an expanded form of media literacy because of three increasingly growing levels of media convergence. One level of convergence is the functional ability of hardware devices to perform multiple tasks, such as a cell phone that can take and send pictures (still and moving images), play music, send and receive text messages, upload and download content online, play games, and can still be used for chatting. A second level of media convergence entails provider convergence which has been greatly enhanced by deregulations of media ownership and the numerous mergers and acquisitions of multinational media corporations. The horizontal and vertical integration of media companies allows fewer corporations the ability to control more different types of services and content (Bagdikian, 1997; McChesney, 2004). The ability of ICTs to perform more functions and the integration of media providers are creating what Marsha Kinder (1991) labels transmedia intertextuality.

According to Luke, the third level of media convergence is a consequence of the two previously mentioned that have had the effect of creating "a much tighter synergy between previously disparate industries, between knowledge and information, consumerism, popular culture, entertainment, communication, and education" (2006, p. 5). As politics, news and entertainment converge into new forms of media, an entire spectator culture is evolving. Spectacle itself is becoming one of the organizing principles of the economy, polity, society, and everyday life (Kellner, 2003 and 2007). In order to grab larger audiences and increase profit and power, the culture industries aggressively create and promote a synthesized spectacle-centered media culture.

James Paul Gee (2000) suggests that technological innovations and hyper-competitive global "fast capitalism" are creating a new type of individual whom he calls the "portfolio person" (p. 43). Gee explains that the idea of 'expertise' has moved "away from 'disciplinary' or academic expertise to a broader notion more compatible with the new capitalist world view" (p. 48). He writes that this business orientation, much like Friedman's flat world perspective, emphasizes

"efficient problem solving, productivity, innovation, adaptation, and non-authoritarian distributed systems…In the new capitalism, it is not really important what individuals know on their own, but rather what that they can do with others collaboratively to effectively add 'value' to the enterprise" (p. 49).

A problem with this education of the portfolio person is that it is based on a cognitive notion of knowledge workers who have the facility of "higher order thinking" but lack the ability to think critiquely. Gee describes critiquely as the ability "to understand and critique systems of power and injustice" (p. 62). The inability to understand or empathize with marginalized, poor and oppressed people is a major problem of this fast capitalism epistemology.

Another problem with the model that creates the portfolio person is that it advantages most the children from dominant positions in society (ie. white, male, middle or upper class), who have easier access to this expertise and "school language" based on their lifeworld experiences and privileges. It is much easier to bridge the home culture to the public school domain for students who have been exposed to white middle class values such as reading children's literature from an early age or visiting museums and art galleries. The common deficit thinking approach that many educators internalize, undervalues the cultural assets that minority and poor students bring to school and often frame those resources as problems to be overcome (Valencia & Solorzano, 2004). Gee writes,

"We rarely build on their experiences and on their very real distinctive lifeworld knowledge. In fact, they are often asked, in the process of being exposed to specialist domains, to deny the value of their lifeworlds and their communities in reference to those of more advantaged children (p. 66).

To counteract the problems of inequality and lack of social critique, Gee promotes a Bill of Rights for all students that includes four pedagogical principles: situated practices, overt instruction, critical framing and transformative practice. He writes, "These principles seek to produce people who can function in the new capitalism, but in a much more meta-aware and political fashion than forms of new-capitalist-complicit schooling" (p. 67). The situated practice can help value the different cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1986) students bring into the classroom as child-centered experiential practices allow students to discover connections between their lifeworlds and school. A major aspect of these principles is a metacognitive awareness about the interconnections of thinking, knowledge and power relations. The need for some overt instruction and critical framing assures that students will engage with texts critiquely to understand the interconnections and systems of power.

The fourth principle of transformed practice suggests that education must involve acting on learning and empower students to use and transform knowledge. When Gee's fourth principle of transformative practice is built on critical framing, then Jenkins' goal of bridging the participation gap can become a reconstruction of education promoting critical media literacy. In a report funded by the MacArthur Foundation, Jenkins and others assert the need for teaching

"new media literacies: a set of cultural competencies and social skills that young people need in the new media landscape. Participatory culture shifts the focus of literacy from one of individual expression to community involvement. The new literacies almost all involve social skills developed through collaboration and networking. These skills build on the foundation of traditional literacy, research skills, technical skills, and critical analysis skills taught in the classroom" (Jenkins et al., 2007, p. 4).



In spite of the fact that media education in the US is in its infancy there is already debate about why and how to teach it (Hobbs, 1998). We have divided the field of media pedagogy into four general approaches in order to better explain the necessary elements of critical media literacy (Kellner, 1998; Kellner & Share, 2005).

One approach to media education comes out of a fear of media and aims to protect or inoculate people against the dangers of media manipulation and addiction. This protectionistapproach posits media audiences as passive victims and values traditional print culture over media culture as exemplified by Neil Postman (1985) in Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman warns that TV has attained the power to control education because it dominates the attention, time, and cognitive habits of the youth. Many activists on both sides of the political spectrum come to media education as a way to push their agenda through blaming the media. Some conservatives blame the media for causing teen pregnancies and the destruction of family values while some on the left criticize the media for rampant consumerism and making children materialistic. From her research with preschool teachers/childcare providers, Ellen Seiter (2002) found this fear of media and popular culture greatest at middle and upper socio-economic levels. She writes, "the media are deemed most powerful by those working and living in situations of relative privilege; in the poorest center the media are seen as only one factor—less significant than the part played by poverty, by parental absence, and by violence" (pp. 59-60).

While we recognize that media contribute to and at times cause many social problems, we take issue with a protectionist approach because of its anti-media bias which over-simplifies the complexity of our relationship with media and takes away the potential for empowerment that critical pedagogy and alternative media production offer. When the understanding of media effects is contextualized within its social and historical dynamics then issues of power and ideology are extremely useful to media education to explore the interconnections between information and power (Ferguson, 2004). Critics of this anti-media approach suggest that it will cause students to either regurgitate "politically correct" responses to media critique or reject the ideas of media literacy altogether (Buckingham, 1994). Aspects of a protectionist approach can be useful when they address the naturalizing processes of ideology and the interrelationships with social injustice, but it is deeply flawed when it does so through dogmatic orthodoxy and undemocratic pedagogy.

A second approach to teaching about media can be seen in media arts education, where students are taught to value the aesthetic qualities of media and the arts while using their creativity for self-expression through creating art and media. These programs can be found most often inside schools as stand-alone classes or outside of the classroom in community-based or after-school programs. While many of these programs are excellent examples of critical media literacy as we describe later in this chapter, we have concerns with the media arts approach that favors individualistic self-expression over socially conscious analysis and alternative media production. Many of these programs tend to unproblematically teach students the technical skills to merely reproduce hegemonic representations with little awareness of ideological implications or any type of social critique. Feminist standpoint theorists explain that coming to voice is important for people who have seldom been allowed to speak for themselves, but without critical analysis it is not enough (Collins, 2004; Harding, 2004; Hartsock, 1997). Critical analysis that explores and exposes the structures of oppression is essential because merely coming to voice is something any racist or sexist group of people can also claim. Spaces must be opened up and opportunities created so that people in marginalized positions have the opportunity to collectively struggle against oppression, to voice their concerns, and create their own representations.

Incorporating the arts and media production into education offers the potential for making learning more experiential, hands-on, creative, expressive, and fun. Media arts education can bring pleasure and popular culture into mainstream education thereby making school more motivating and relevant to students. When this approach moves beyond technical production skills or relativist art appreciation and is steeped in cultural studies and critical pedagogy that address issues of gender, race, class, sexuality, and power, it holds dramatic potential for transformative critical media literacy.

A third approach to media education can be found in the media literacy movement in the US. While the movement is relatively small,7 it has made some inroads into mainstream educational institutions and established two national membership organizations in the US. According to the definition of media literacy provided by one of the two national media literacy organizations, The Alliance for a Media Literate America, "media literacy is seen to consist of a series of communication competencies, including the ability to ACCESS, ANALYZE, EVALUATE, and COMMUNICATE."8 This approach attempts to expand the notion of literacy to include popular culture and multiple forms of media (music, video, Internet, advertising, etc.) while still working within a print literacy tradition.

While we agree with the need to begin with these ideas of expanding our understanding of how we communicate with more than just printed words, this is not enough to bring about a democratic reconstruction of education and society. Robert Ferguson (1998) uses the metaphor of an iceberg to explain the need for critical media analysis. Many educators working under an apolitical media literacy framework guide their students to only analyze the obvious and overt tip of the iceberg they see sticking out of the water. Ferguson asserts that this is a problem because "The vast bulk which is not immediately visible is the intellectual, historical and analytical base without which media analysis runs the risk of becoming superficial, mechanical or glib" (p. 2). The critical component of media literacy must transform literacy education into an exploration of the role of language and communication to define relationships of power and domination because below the surface of that iceberg lies deeply embedded ideological notions of white supremacy, capitalist patriarchy, classism, homophobia, and other oppressive myths.

Many media educators working from this approach, openly express the belief that education can and should be politically neutral and that their job is to objectively expose students to media content without questioning ideology and issues of power. Henry Giroux writes, "The notion that theory, facts, and inquiry can be objectively determined and used falls prey to a set of values that are both conservative and mystifying in their political orientation" (1997, p. 11). The rejection of the idea that education or information can be neutral and value free is essential for critical inquiry to address social injustice and inequality through transformative pedagogy based on praxis (reflection and action). Giroux asserts, "Education is not training, and learning at its best is connected to the imperatives of social responsibility and political agency" (2001, p. xxiv).

The mainstream appeal of the media literacy movement in the US, something that it is only just starting to develop, can probably be linked to its conservative base that does not engage the political dimensions of education and especially literacy. While this ambiguous non-partisan stance helps the dissemination of media education, thereby making some of the ideas available to more students, it also waters down the transformative potential for media education to become a powerful tool to challenge oppression and strengthen democracy. The media literacy movement has done excellent work in promoting important concepts of semiotics and intertextuality, as well as bringing popular culture into public education. However, without critical pedagogy and cultural studies, media literacy risks becoming another cookbook of conventional ideas that only improve the social reproductive function of education.

The type of critical media literacy that we propose includes aspects of the three previous models, but focuses on ideology critique and analyzing the politics of representation of the crucial dimensions of gender, race, class, and sexuality within political economy and social relations of mainstream corporate media production, as well as expanding textual analysis to include issues of social context, control, resistance, and pleasure, and promoting alternative media production. A critical media literacy approach also expands literacy to include information literacy, technical literacy, multimodal literacy, and other attempts to broaden print literacy concepts to include different tools and modes of communicating (Kellner, 1998). In addition to these elements, critical media literacy brings an understanding of ideology, power, and domination that challenges relativist and apolitical notions of most media education in order to guide teachers and students in their explorations of how power and information are always linked. This approach embraces the notion of the audience as active in the process of making meaning, as a cultural struggle between dominant readings, oppositional readings or negotiated readings (Ang, 2002; Hall, 1980).

Critical media literacy thus constitutes a critique of mainstream approaches to literacy and a political project for democratic social change. This involves a multiperspectival critical inquiry, of popular culture and the cultural industries, that addresses issues of class, race, gender, sexuality, and power and also promotes the production of alternative counter-hegemonic media. Media and information communication technology can be tools for empowerment when people who are most often marginalized or misrepresented in the mainstream media receive the opportunity to use these tools to tell their stories and express their concerns. For members of the dominant group, critical media literacy offers an opportunity to engage with the social realities that the majority of the world is experiencing. The new technologies of communication are powerful tools that can liberate or dominate, manipulate, or enlighten and it is imperative that educators teach their students how to use and critically analyze these media (Kellner, 2004).

The different approaches to media education are not rigid pedagogical models as much as they are interpretive reference points from which educators frame their concerns, goals, and strategies. Calling for critical media literacy is important to identify the elements and objectives necessary for good media pedagogy. Alan Luke and Peter Freebody have been developing a dynamic understanding of literacy as a social practice where critical competence is one of the necessary practices. This framing of literacy as a family of practices in which multiple practices are crucial and none alone are enough, fits well into our multiperspectival approach to critical media literacy. Luke and Freebody (1999) write that effective literacy requires four basic roles that allow learners to "break the code...participate in understanding and composing...use texts functionally...[and] critically analyze and transform texts by acting on knowledge that texts are not ideologically natural or neutral." This normative approach offers the flexibility for literacy education to explore and critically engage students with the pedagogy that will work best for each teacher in their own unique situation with the different social and cultural needs and interests of his or her students and local community.

When educators teach students critical media literacy, they often begin with media arts activities or simple decoding of media texts in the mode of the established media literacy movement with discussion of how audiences receive media messages. But critical media literacy also engages students in exploring the depths of the iceberg with critical questions to challenge "common-sense" assumptions and redesign alternative media arts production with negotiated and oppositional interpretations. The goal should be to move toward critical media literacy with the understanding of literacy as a social process that requires breadth and depth, while planting seeds and scaffolding the steps for transformative pedagogy.

For example, in her course on critical media literacy at UCLA, Rhonda Hammer has her students work in teams to create their own counter-hegemonic videos and/or web sites that explore issues they feel are under-represented or misrepresented in the mainstream media (see Hammer, 2006).9 During the short ten-week quarter, her students produce alternative media productions that challenge the "common-sense" assumptions about a wide assortment of issues dealing with gender, ethnicity, sexuality, politics, power, and pleasure. Through the dialectic of theory and practice her students create critical alternative media while engaging the core concepts of critical media literacy as they apply to audience, text, and context.



Critical media literacy in our conception is tied to the project of radical democracy and is concerned to develop skills that will enhance democratization and civic participation. It takes a comprehensive approach that teaches critical skills and how to use media as instruments of social communication and change. The technologies of communication are becoming more and more accessible to young people and ordinary citizens, and can be used to promote education, democratic self-expression, and social justice. Technologies that could help produce the end of participatory democracy, by transforming politics into media spectacles and the battle of images, and by turning spectators into passive consumers, could also be used to help invigorate democratic debate and participation.

Indeed, teaching critical media literacy should be a participatory, collaborative project. Watching television shows or films together could promote productive discussions between teachers and students (or parents and children), with emphasis on eliciting student views, producing a variety of interpretations of media texts, and teaching basic principles of hermeneutics and criticism. Students and youth are often more media savvy, knowledgeable, and immersed in media culture than their teachers, and can contribute to the educational process through sharing their ideas, perceptions, and insights. Along with critical discussion, debate, and analysis, teachers ought to be guiding students in an inquiry process that deepens their critical exploration of issues that affect them and society. Since media culture is often part and parcel of students' identity and a most powerful cultural experience, teachers must be sensitive in criticizing artifacts and perceptions that students hold dear, yet an atmosphere of critical respect for difference and inquiry into the nature and effects of media culture should be promoted (Luke, 1997).

A major challenge in developing critical media literacy, however, results from the fact that it is not a pedagogy in the traditional sense with firmly-established principles, a canon of texts, and tried-and-true teaching procedures. It requires a democratic pedagogy, which involves teachers sharing power with students as they join together in the process of unveiling myths, challenging hegemony, and searching for methods of producing their own alternative media. Critical media pedagogy in the US is in its infancy; it is just beginning to produce results, and is more open and experimental than established print-oriented pedagogy.10 Moreover, the material of media culture is so polymorphous, multivalent, and polysemic, that it necessitates sensitivity to different readings, interpretations, perceptions of the complex images, scenes, narratives, meanings, and messages of media culture which in its own ways is as complex and challenging to critically decipher as book culture.

Teaching critical media literacy involves occupation of a site above the dichotomy of fandom and censor. One can teach how media culture provides significant statements or insights about the social world, empowering visions of gender, race, and class, or complex aesthetic structures and practices, thereby putting a positive spin on how it can provide significant contributions to education. Yet we ought to indicate also how media culture can advance sexism, racism, ethnocentrism, homophobia, and other forms of prejudice, as well as misinformation, problematic ideologies, and questionable values, accordingly promoting a dialectical approach to media.

The core concepts of media literacy are most relevant to progressive and transformative education when taught through a democratic approach with critical pedagogy that follows the ideas of progressive educators like John Dewey and Paulo Freire. Over a century ago, Dewey championed education for democracy and placed emphasis on active learning, experimentation, and problem solving. Dewey's pragmatic approach connects theory with practice and requires students to similarly connect reflection with action (1916/1997). Using a problem-posing pedagogy, Freire (1970) calls for critical consciousness that involves perception of concrete situations and problems, as well as action against oppression. The problem-posing alternative that Freire exercises requires dialogical communication between students and teachers where both are learning and teaching each other. This necessitates praxis, critical reflection together with action to transform society. For this reason, media education should involve both critical analysis and critical student media production.

Len Masterman (1994) declared that the goal for media education should be critical autonomy, so that students will want to critically question media when they are not with their teacher. Robert Ferguson (2001) suggested that students must also learn critical solidarity because one is never truly autonomous and information does not exist in isolation, it is always linked to hierarchical relationships of power. By combining the ideals of critical autonomy with critical solidarity we propose a model for radical democracy that promotes independence and interdependence but moves away from an uncritical dependency on media. When media is seen as merely transparent windows, the messages become naturalized, we become complacent and democracy ceases to be representative. Our dependency on media surrenders our active participation and civic duties to question, challenge, and correct social injustices. Radical democracy depends on individuals caring about each other, involved in social issues, and working together to build a more egalitarian less oppressive society.

Many community-based after school programs like Educational Video Center (EVC) in New York City and REACH LA in Los Angeles offer excellent examples for how media production can be taught as an essential component of critical media literacy. Both programs involve inner-city youth in video production activities in which the students explore their concerns and create their own alternative media to challenge the dominant representations. Founder and Executive Director of EVC, Steven Goodman (2003) writes,

"This approach to critical literacy links media analysis to production; learning about the world is directly linked to the possibility of changing it. Command of literacy in this sense is not only a matter of performing well on standardized tests; it is a prerequisite for self-representation and autonomous citizenship" (p. 3).

Media production at REACH LA is more than just teaching isolated skills, it is part of a structured program based on key pedagogical practices that personalize and politicize the youth and their messages. Combining the analytical skills to deconstruct mainstream media with the artistic and technical skills to construct alternative counter-hegemonic media becomes a natural process. In the Computer-Active and Digital Arts-Active programs, students learn video production, animation, digital arts, web site creation and maintenance, as well as the skills necessary to produce an annual teen magazine called REACH for Me. These technical skills incorporate their poetry, artwork, and short stories in public service campaigns for the larger goal of affecting change in their communities. Consistent with critical pedagogy, the students move from being objects of other people's research and media representations to becoming subjects empowered to tell their own stories and collectively challenge dominant oppressive myths. Goodman insists that

"these possibilities can only be fully realized if the programs' guiding principles are based on a youth empowerment model; that is, teaching kids critical literacy requires that programs value and engage them as active participants in community problem-solving and as full partners in their own learning and growth" (p. 103).

REACH LA follows a Freireian problem-posing philosophy by helping students focus on problematic issues for them such as HIV/AIDS, homophobia, and racism. EVC has a different focus yet a similar approach as Goodman explains,

"in addition to the myriad individual 'life skills' that are typically offered to at-risk kids, they need to be engaged in the study of the systemic roadblocks in their way—such as police brutality, unequal educational resources, substandard housing, and so on—and what sort of collective action they might take to move those roadblocks aside" (p. 3).

It is these types of real-world connections that Dewey wrote about almost a century ago. This is the way to make education meaningful to students and empower them to become active participants necessary for radical democracy.



Literacy instruction needs to change and media education must come from both the top down and the bottom up. Literacy must be reframed to expand the definition of a text to include new modes of communication and popular culture to enhance our critical analytical processes to explore audience reception, learn to critically read and create media texts, and aim at social justice, as well as grasping the political, economic, historical, and social contexts within which all messages are written and read.

Cultural studies and critical pedagogy offer the theoretical background to inform practice that can transform education and society. To move forward with media education based on critical media literacy we need to lobby for better funding for education, especially where it is needed most in the inner cities. We need to challenge the false wisdom of high stakes testing and deficit thinking, as well as to train teachers in critical pedagogy and empower them to use their creativity more than the scripted curricula. In addition, we need conferences, teacher education, and continuing professional development that teach cultural studies, critical pedagogy, and practical applications for how to engage students in the classroom with critical media literacy concepts.

We recommend that media education programs be instituted from preschool to university and that linking media literacy with production become a regular practice. Standards for media literacy programs should include criticizing the ways that media reproduce racism, sexism, homophobia, and other prejudices and encouraging students to find their own voices in critiquing media culture and producing alternative representations. Media education should be connected with education for democracy where students are encouraged to become informed and media literate participants in their societies. Further, media literacy should be linked with information literacy, technological literacy, the arts, and the social sciences. Critical media literacy should be a common thread that runs through all curricular areas since it deals with communication and society.

Currently, media literacy policy in the US is in its formative years and has advanced little during the Bush-Cheney era. Policy challenges include overcoming the conservative and neo-liberal hegemony and coming up with democratic and progressive alternatives. Federal and state grants for experimental projects in media literacy can be extremely beneficial and should be pursued by educators.11 National and state conferences that specifically address the teaching of critical media literacy can provide excellent places for progressive educators and policy makers to unite and work together, sharing and building a movement. Parent groups should provide their members with resources and discussions to address the concerns they have about media and how they can teach critical media literacy in the home. Parent organizations should also use their collective power to influence school curriculum and lobby congress in support of progressive education.

The task for educators and researchers is to engage in a new type of literacy education, from pre-school to higher education that incorporates new information communication technologies, media, and popular culture with critical pedagogy. This work must challenge dominant ideologies and empower youth to unveil the myths through creating their own alternative representations that empower their own voices and struggles for social justice. The goal of this project is to help students transform themselves into socially active citizens and at the same time transform society into a less oppressive and more egalitarian democracy.



1 While all people born in this millennium have been alive since the invention of the Internet, cellular phones and television, this does not mean that everyone can access this technology. Since approximately one third (about two billion) of the world's population still live without electricity, it is important to remember that billions of people are being left behind the so-called technological revolution.
2 The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 98.2% of all US households have at least one television set in 2001. Statistics available online:
3 This data is based on random telephone interviews in 2003 with 1,065 parents of children between six months and six years of age. "Screen media" refers to watching TV, watching videos/DVDs, using a computer and playing video games. This research was reported in the Kaiser Family Foundation Zero to Six study.
4 The number of hours spent with media is based on questionnaires from a 2004 national sample of 2,032 students between 8 - 18 years of age, as well as 694 media-use diaries, as reported in the Kaiser Family Foundation Generation M study. The figure of 6½ hours per day, includes ¼ of that time spent multitasking with several different media at the same time, thereby increasing media exposure to an estimated 8½ hours per day.
5 Canada's Ontario Ministry of Education's Eight Key Concepts, British Film Institute's Signpost Questions, The Center for Media Literacy Five Core Concepts, Masterman (2001), etc.
6 The quote was found on the official UNESCO web site. Retrieved October 23, 2006, from:
7 See Kellner & Share, 2005.
8 This is part of The Alliance for a Media Literate America definition available online at:
9 Hammer's course web site can be viewed at:
10 Sprinkled across the US are a relatively small number of educators in schools and outside, teaching critical media literacy to fortunate students from preschool to university. These educators often struggle against many obstacles, have to create their own materials and work in relative isolation. While support for media education is growing from the two national media literacy organizations (The Alliance for a Media Literate America and The Action Coalition for Media Education) and other teacher associations such as the National Council of Teachers of English and the National Council for the Social Studies, media literacy is still on the fringe with little recognition and even less financial support. For a rich dossier of texts on media education and resources for teaching it, see Stack and Boler 2007: 6-16.
11 See the doctoral dissertation by Jeff Share (2006).



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