As fish in the ocean of media, we have paid little attention to the quality of the water in which we swim – which is fast changing. What is needed, says Elizabeth Thoman, is not a moralistic crusade to purify the media, but a general raising of consciousness about its role and importance in our lives.
Elizabeth Thoman has been a Catholic sister for 25 years. She founded Media&Values magazine in 1977 while a student at the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Communications, and she continues to serve as its editor. At the same time, she is heading the formation of a new national Center for Media and Values (see sidebar at end of this article) to explore the values implications of mass media in society.
Media&Values magazine is an excellent quarterly that explores the same issues. Recent issues have focused on topics like "Media and Money," "Minorities in Media," and "The Birds, The Bees, and Broadcasting." To subscribe send $14/year to 1962 S. Shenandoah, Los Angeles, CA 90034.
There is a deep questioning of the role of media, a suspicion that the media distorts, fictionalizes, treats as gossip or as soap opera serious public matters. We need a new discourse. Not rhetorical, not entertaining, not intellectual. But a discourse that is conversational, heart to heart, that speaks frankly of what most needs to be done and why.
– Editorial, Christian Science Monitor, January, l988
For far too long we have been lulled into complacency by the myth that mass media is only "mindless entertainment." Anyone who has watched in awe as a three-year old re-enacts a television scene, or marveled at how completely a teenager absorbs the persona of a favorite rock star, knows deep down that the media is far more influential than we ever expected.
There was, for a time in the mid-70s, a fledgling media activism. Early efforts were focused on specific issues like children’s television or affirmative action for women and minorities in the industry. While these activities were significant in many ways, they did not address the wider issue of why and how the mass media so thoroughly influences and shapes everyday life.
A few programs – like Television Awareness Training in the mainline religious community, and the media literacy curriculum develped with funding from the Department of Education under the Carter administration – had a broader agenda. But both of these model projects fell on hard times, first with the "back to the basics" funding cuts of the Reagan years and, secondly, with a shift in emphasis to computer literacy.
In the meantime other countries, including England, Scotland, Australia and Canada, have taken mass media more seriously. They are light years ahead of the U.S. in promoting creative and critical thinking and in developing educational tools and techniques to "deconstruct" the mythical worldview (and its underlying values and assumptions) that television and mass media generate as "popular culture."
In the U.S., however, we continue the assumption that everyone knows how to watch TV. Little credit is given for being a perceptive media consumer and, of course, no one is blamed for being a bad one. We may look to critics to recommend what to watch, read or listen to, but almost never are we given help – nor do we seek it – on how to become a more astute audience.
A small minority resolve the issue by recommending the abolition of television (or rock music or whatever is currently the object of cultural scorn). Although it may appear admirable, it is in truth an unrealistic escapism. And children who grow up in television-free homes only lose in the end by not learning how to clarify their own value system within a cultural milieu dominated by the mass media and the consumer economy. In their families, children learn the values, attitudes and skills that will enable them to live full and fulfilled lives as adults. Children born today will live all of their lives in a media-dominated environment. How are we preparing them for life in the 21st century?
What is needed, I believe, is a new media "movement" – a consumer consciousness not unlike the recent nutrition movement that has revolutionized not only the way a growing majority of people eat, but ultimately the food industry itself. Industry responded to the demand for low-salt or low-fat or no caffeine with a plethora of new products and food choices. And although a careful critique recognizes that the nutrition movement itself may be a product of trendy consumer whim, nevertheless, millions of people are now more aware of what they eat and are healthier for it.
All too often public discussion of media values or ethics has had an underlying theme of "us" vs. "them," as though media creators were all-powerful manipulators and viewers only passive participants. But viewers make choices. It’s time to end the rhetoric and declare that responsibility for the quality of our media environment is a 50-50 partnership between creators and consumers. We need to stop pointing fingers and start the long haul tasks of educating consumers for choice as well as challenging the industry to greater responsibility to the society they serve.
Unlike the days when the only media choice available was ABC, NBC or CBS, today’s media environment offers a window of opportunity to organize a consumer-based media-awareness movement. Already nearly 30% of the viewing audience has discovered alternatives to network broadcasting. Nearly 60% of homes have VCRs and 50% have dozens of viewing options available through cable. Leisure time is on the rise and "quality of life" issues are a major concern for young couples and the social system (schools, churches, health care, governments) that serves them.
Educating young people to make positive media choices, teaching parents how to recognize and respond to media values that may either counteract or reinforce their own beliefs and values, and promoting a general media "consciousness" are some of the challenges of the l990s. These challenges extend to educators, activists and service providers who recognize that for our society to flourish, we must turn the closed, one-way system of commercial mass media into a two-way process of discussion, reflection and action with each other and with the media itself.
A new national Center for Media and Values, to provide leadership for a media education movement in the United States, has recently formed in Los Angeles. The Center grows out of the acclaimed quarterly magazine, Media&Values, founded in 1977 by Sister Elizabeth Thoman. The Center plans to:
- develop and disseminate media awareness education materials, including both print and video, for use in schools, parenting programs, youth organizations, churches/synagogues and other formative institutions that work with children, youth and families.
- convene conferences and seminars to explore the social impact of media and popular culture.
- serve as a "think tank" to generate questions, reflect on media trends and provoke public discussion about media issues through Media&Values and other vehicles.
- organize a membership base to promote the media awareness movement and support the activities of the Center .
Individual memberships begin at $30 and local institutional memberships are $75. Benefits include a subscription to Media&Values, discounts on conferences and resource materials, and participation in the growing network of media educators and those concerned about media in society. Institutional members will receive additional materials for media awareness programs in schools, churches/synagogues, community centers and youth organizations.
To join, write the Center for Media and Values, 1962 S. Shenandoah, Los Angeles, CA 90034, (213) 559-2944.