The Making of a Media Literate Mind

By Rob Williams
Issue 127, November/December 2004

Media literacy collage with Disney kidWe live in the most media-saturated society in the history of the world. Americans spend between 10 and 12 hours a day consuming media through ever-more sophisticated technological delivery systems, including (for the average household) three televisions and radios, two VCRs and CD players, one computer, one video game player, and a bewildering variety of newspapers, comic books, magazines, books, and other print media.1

As we enter the 21st century, this situation might seem to call for celebration—more media theoretically means more voices, more diversity, more channels for information, entertainment, and education. A closer look, however, reveals a more disturbing reality. Most of the stories told in our media culture—by some estimates, as much as 90 percent of our media content—are ultimately owned by a handful of giant transnational corporations, including Time Warner, News Corp., Disney, Viacom, Vivendi, and Sony.2

Veteran media critic George Gerbner explains that whoever is telling the stories within a culture has enormous power to shape how people think, act, and buy. For the first time in human history, Gerbner notes, most of the stories about people, life, and values are told not by parents, schools, churches, and others in the community who have something to tell, but by a group of distant conglomerates that have little to tell and everything to sell.3
As a result, our 21st-century world has ceded much of the cultural storytelling process to a small number of large media corporations whose primary concern is not our society’s health or our children’s well-being, but to maximize profits. The tools of their trade are media messages and content embedded within the worlds of the Internet, video games, television, and other media technologies. These corporations devote their energies to expensive efforts designed to mold our young people, from as early an age as possible, into brand-loyal consumers of corporately produced lifestyles, goods, and behaviors.

Spending more than $1 trillion in marketing each year, Big Media companies and their Fortune 500 allies use media to target our children with a wide variety of products, wrapping their appeals in suggestive stories that model compulsive consumerism; push sugar, caffeine, nicotine, and other addictive products; and advertise precocious sexual, violent, and other kinds of antisocial behavior.4 Parents, teachers, and caregivers now find themselves on the front lines of a struggle over stories, as corporate media owners wage increasingly sophisticated advertising, branding, and marketing campaigns to win the hearts and minds of our children from ever younger ages.

At its best, education provides people with the knowledge, skills, and confidence to become healthier, wealthier, and wiser, and it fosters a sense of compassion and mission to do good work within the larger communities to which we all belong. How do we help ourselves and our children make sense of the troublesome nature of our 21st-century media culture without dismissing media’s power and importance in our lives? One powerful answer is media literacy, an educational approach that seeks to give media users greater freedom by teaching them how to access, analyze, evaluate, and produce media.

The word literacy traditionally refers to one’s ability to read and write print-based media sources—books and newspapers, for example. This new century demands that we expand our definition of literacy to include a wide variety of media, including computers, video games, television, and the Internet. All of us can practice “reading” messages and stories across multiple media platforms, as well as “writing” (producing) our own media in multiple forms.

We must also take the media in media literacy seriously, recognizing that most of our media outlets are owned by powerful industries that not only make products but also promote certain sets of values—including ones that often run counter to our own as parents, teachers, and citizens—and play significant roles in shaping our culture.5 We can begin practicing media-literacy education in our classrooms and communities by daily asking fundamental questions about media, and by teaching our children to do the same. Asking questions helps demystify media’s power, allows us to understand the goods and the bads inherent in any experience of media, and gives us the tools necessary to understand the deeply rooted ways media influence our thoughts and behaviors.

Let’s begin by asking, early and often in our classrooms and communities, these five sets of essential media-literacy questions.

1. How does this media make you feel?
Remember the frightening flying monkeys in the film The Wizard of Oz? Or the first time a descriptive passage in a book made you chuckle? Or the thrill that came with playing a new video game for the first time? Media make us laugh and cry, and can often scare or even disorient us. (Think of Christopher Nolan’s film Memento, a story told in reverse in ten-minute chunks of flashback, each one taking place earlier in the story than the one it follows; or the six o’clock news, a pastiche of disconnected events punctuated by ads for aspirin and automobiles.) Commercials, political advertisements, and other powerful media experiences operate primarily at an emotional level and are often designed to evoke certain sets of feelings, then transfer those feelings to the desired idea, product, candidate, or behavior. Asking young people to think more deeply about how media move them emotionally is a powerful way to help them understand media’s unique power.

A little background on the human brain is helpful here. Music and images are processed in our brain’s limbic system, the seat of our emotions. We consciously process eight frames of image per second, while our 21st-century media travel much more quickly. (US television moves at the approximate rate of 30 frames per second, for example, while film travels at 24 frames per second.)6 Thus, much of our media travels too quickly for first-time reflection. Using a VCR or DVR (digital video recorder) to slow down, repeatedly view, and actively discuss media experiences can help children make more sense out of what they’re feeling. Beginning with their emotions is a useful way to open up conversations about media’s power.

2. What kinds of realities does this media construct? What stories does this media tell? What are the “untold stories” here?
Begin by analyzing advertisements, the lifeblood of our media culture and, on a per-second basis, the most expensive media of all. Americans daily witness as many as 3,000 ad messages, and each one makes a devastatingly simple claim: “To be, you gotta buy.”7 Through constant repetition, advertisements work to “normalize” harmful ideas, products, and behaviors. Think of the ways in which the alcohol and tobacco industries use media—Hollywood movies, television commercials, Internet marketing—to glamorize beer and cigarette consumption.
Or take a more benign product, such as soda, which teens drink at the rate of two cans per day.8 Coca-Cola’s charming digital polar bear campaign, which has targeted young kids for a decade now, makes drinking soda look like a family-friendly bonding experience. Mountain Dew’s edgier, teen-targeted ads link consumption to a wide array of risky activities, such as heli-blading off a skyscraper. It all looks fun, but the ads don’t tell us that drinking soda is linked to a whole range of unhealthy outcomes, from obesity and type 2 diabetes (each can of Coke contains 10 teaspoons of sugar, one of the world’s cheapest substances to manufacture) to attention deficit disorders and mild addiction (courtesy of caffeine, an FDA-regulated drug) to tooth and bone decay (due to soda’s displacement of more healthful drinks—water, milk, natural fruit juices—in growing bodies).

While we pay up to $2.00 a pop (at the airport) for this unhealthy cocktail, it costs the soda industry only pennies per can to make, allowing them to pour their tremendous profits back into huge marketing budgets, including aggressively negotiating exclusive “pouring rights” agreements with cash-strapped public schools. By teaching our young people to explore and publicize these inconvenient realities in the media stories told by the soda, alcohol, and tobacco industries, as well as other powerful marketers, we empower them to make wiser choices about their own health and wealth.

3. What kinds of production techniques and branding strategies does this media use?
Advertisers, the public relations industry, and other powerful media makers spend tremendous amounts of time, energy, and money carefully creating media to influence the ways we think, behave, and buy. One way of counteracting this influence is to “deconstruct,” or analyze, branding strategies, such as the underwriting of Sesame Street by fast-food giant McDonald’s. What does McDonald’s have to gain from underwriting a popular children’s educational TV program? The answer: plenty of public goodwill and, more important, children’s attention while they watch.

Begin by examining an advertisement’s production techniques: camera angles, lighting, editing, music, sound effects, colors, font styles, symbols. This examination can develop children’s aesthetic awareness and media savvy and help them become more careful and literate readers of media.

We can teach children, for example, that a photograph of a fast-food cheeseburger—a juicy-looking beef patty on a gorgeous sesame-seed bun with a thick layer of cheese and seemingly fresh vegetables—is the product of hours of careful construction by professional food photographers. The individual sesame seeds are glued on by hand, the “cheese” is a waxy substitute, the beef patty has been pried open to appear much larger than the bun, and the vegetables have been bathed in a mixture of glue and oil to ensure a high-gloss shine.

Such analysis can be applied to any beauty advertisement as well. Hours of expensive makeup work can make any magazine model look larger than life—or, in the case of many anorexic-looking models, smaller than is probably healthy. Digital technology can clean up any defects or airbrush away any blemishes, even to the point of removing people’s pores or combining body parts from different models. A wide variety of expensive toys and fashion accessories—gadgets and gizmos, clothes, shoes, hair and makeup products—are also peddled to kids using sophisticated production techniques and branding strategies. Young people find deconstructing media techniques quite provocative, particularly when combined with a bit of background research.

Movie previews, designed to make a feature film look as exciting as possible in one minute or less, are also great for studying production techniques. Analyze a 30-second film trailer, frame by frame, to study the editing and lighting and camera-angle decisions—or focus on the music, special effects, and voice-over choices. Then run the movie trailer again in “real time” to see how all the production techniques work in concert. These kinds of media activities are both fun and eye-opening for young people.

Deconstructing media can be a difficult challenge, and it takes a lifetime of practice to master. Go slowly, keep it fun, and consult useful resources along the way. A good place to start is Chapter 5, “Production Values,” of Art Silverblatt’s Media Literacy: Keys to Interpreting Media Messages, second ed. (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001).

4. What kinds of value messages does this media send?

All media transmit value messages. Asking children to consider, in an age-appropriate manner, what kinds of values media promote can help them build better judgment and develop an ethical framework for cooperative social interactions and pro-social behavior. All of us can remember childhood books and movies that modeled widely admired personal qualities. Celebrating media that promote such values—video games that promote cooperative and peaceful problem-solving, for example, or enjoyable books that also tackle developmentally appropriate social dilemmas such as sharing toys, making a new friend, or dealing with a loved one’s death—can be a useful way to discuss values.
Conversely, discussing a violent movie or television program in a supportive context leads to conversations about the nature of violence, as well as about how our media tend to promote certain kinds of violence (individual shootings and stabbings) while ignoring other, more systemic types of violence (domestic abuse and poverty). Looking at messages embedded in the covers of fashion magazines leads to remarkable discussions about self-worth, sex, relationships, dating, fashion, and a host of other socially relevant topics, many of which are completely ignored by popular media. Watching or reading the news raises questions about media’s priorities: Is celebrity X’s marriage more newsworthy than the school play, the city council meeting, or the weekend community concert? Who within media circles determines which stories and values are most important, and why? Do their decisions reflect the values embraced by your family, school, faith group, or community?

5. Who or what owns this media you’re consuming?
This question bears repeated asking. Most media are owned by commercial interests, and media companies are among the world’s most influential and powerful corporations. Researching questions of media ownership, production, and distribution is vital to fully understanding media’s influence.9

Recall the 2004 Super Bowl, America’s most-watched annual media event. Critics made a huge fuss over pop stars Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson’s breast-baring halftime show, occurring as it did on a publicly owned and commercially licensed network as millions of young children watched. Largely ignored in subsequent “indecency” debates, including those in Congress, were more fundamental and less censorious questions of media ownership, as well as discussion of the ways corporate conglomerates continually push the envelope in terms of acceptable broadcast norms to enrich their own pockets.

Let’s follow the money. The Super Bowl was broadcast by a commercial broadcast network, CBS, which charged close to $3 million to air each 30-second commercial seen during the game. Those commercials included close to a dozen alcohol ads designed to appeal to underage potential drinkers. (Who else but middle-school boys are the “target audience” of the sort of potty humor seen in a Budweiser ad featuring a woman’s face barbecued by a Clydesdale horse’s flatulence?) CBS is owned by Viacom, which also owns Music Television (MTV). Conveniently, MTV got the call from CBS to produce the Super Bowl halftime show, which included foul-mouthed rapper Kid Rock strutting his stuff while wrapped in an American flag, scantily clad female dancers clumsily gyrating on stage, and the now-infamous “tempest in a B cup.”

Who benefited from this spectacle—which occurred, let’s not forget, on television airwaves owned by the American public? Justin Timberlake won two Grammy awards the following week. On-line hits to Janet Jackson’s website went through the roof—just in time for the release of her new CD. Sunburst nipple-ring sales skyrocketed. MTV, which has a vested financial interest in marketing edgy pop videos that “cut through the clutter” by sensationalizing provocative behavior, reaped the benefits of all the publicity. Meanwhile, congressional debates about “indecency” during the winter of 2004 derailed a national conversation about a much more important issue: monopolistic media ownership.

The true “indecency” is a US media culture beholden to such a small number of huge corporate players.

Rewind the tape for a moment. When the Federal Communications Commission, chaired by free-marketeer Michael Powell (Colin Powell’s son), issued a decision on June 2, 2003, that might make it possible for a single corporate entity to own up to eight radio stations, three television stations, and one newspaper in any given “market” (that’s a “community” to most of us), it received more than two million letters from concerned Americans on all sides of the political spectrum. (Name any other political issue on which the National Rifle Association and the National Organization for Women agree.) By fall 2003, Congress had heard one message loud and clear: US citizens care about creating a more democratic media culture that honors genuine localism and true diversity over homogenous content, endless commercials, and the corporate bottom line.10

The good news is that Americans are beginning to understand that media ownership is a political issue and that media-literacy education can help us understand and change what’s wrong about our media culture, even as we celebrate what’s right about it. The five sets of questions posed in this article are powerful starting places, but we can help ourselves and our young people learn about media in many other ways as well.

As parents, teachers, and citizens, we can provide our children with the knowledge, skills, and resources they need to make their own media. Alongside books, films, and musical instruments, let us lay digital and video cameras, website design programs, desktop and ’zine-making technology, 3D computer simulations, and other multimedia programs. When media-literacy education is combined with these powerful tools, our children can tell their own stories in new and dynamic ways, rather than simply consume the prepackaged stories of large corporations interested in enriching profit margins by using media to encourage compulsive consumerism, brand loyalty, and self-destructive behavior.

As a classroom teacher, I look forward to the day when US high schools graduate seniors who are adept at both mathematics and movie-making, history and video editing, science and web-page design. As a parent and a citizen, I look forward to the day when continued collaboration among like-minded individuals and organizations results in the reclaiming of our storytelling culture from a powerful few on behalf of the many. With growing interest in media-literacy education throughout the US, that day may come sooner than we think.

Find dozens more resources at

Anderson, M. T. Feed. Candlewick Press, 2004. This young adult novel portrays a dystopian future in which people are networked into a corporately controlled electronic reality via chip implants. A provocative read for all middle-school children and above. Visit for more details.

Goodman, Steven. Teaching Youth Media. Teachers College Press, 2003. An important book for teachers that links video production to social change.

Linn, Susan. Consuming Kids. New Press, 2004. A psychologist explores marketers’ exploitation of childhood in this provocative book. Linn is also a driving force behind Stop Commercial Exploitation of Children (SCEC);

McChesney, Robert W. The Problem of the Media. Monthly Review Press, 2004. Combines media scholarship with a commitment to media reform; written by one of our country’s most important media historians and the cofounder of Free Press;

The Truman Show (1998). What happens when a corporation builds an entire TV program around the life of one person—and he discovers that his entire life has been a made-for-television movie? Watch Peter Weir’s film and find out. Available at any video rental store.

Commercial Alert’s mission is to keep the commercial culture within its proper sphere and to prevent it from exploiting children and subverting the higher values of family, community, environmental integrity, and democracy;

Media Education Foundation: For more than ten years, the MEF has produced independent videos, DVDs, and resources focused on media literacy;

MEMEfilms, “Where hands-on media literacy education and hi-tech video production meet.” Steal their video formulas for creating simple and powerful youth-focused videos;

The New Mexico Media Literacy Project is one of the nation’s most successful grassroots media-literacy organizations, with several multimedia CD-ROMs that focus on a wide variety of media-literacy issues;

Stay Free is Carrie McLaren’s activist magazine investigating commercialism in American culture;

To purchase books on-line, go to and click on the Powell’s Books button.

For more information about media literacy, see the following articles in past issues of Mothering: “Saying No to Marketer’s Madness,” no.103, and “An Epidemic of Violence,” no. 95.

For more related material, log on to



1. See the Kaiser Family Foundation at for useful data about media and children.

2. Robert W. McChesney’s The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communication Politics in the 21st Century (Monthly Review Press, 2004) is a useful current study that tackles the problem of corporate media ownership.

3. George Gerbner has made this point in numerous articles and publications, including In Context: A Quarterly of Humane Sustainable Culture (Spring 1994).

4. Michael Dawson, The Consumer Trap: Big Business Marketing In American Life (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003): 1.

5. I first heard Media Education Foundation executive director Sut Jhally make this point at the 2002 Summit of the Action Coalition for Media Education in Albuquerque, New Mexico (see “MEF” at His complete talk is available on ACME Audio CD at

6. Information about the brain courtesy of the New Mexico Media Literacy Project;

7. See PBS Frontline’s film Merchants of Cool. The transcript is available at

8. See the Ohio American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) statement about soda contracts in public schools at

9. Find out more about how much media corporations own at Columbia Journalism Review (

10. For extensive coverage of the June 2, 2003, FCC decision and other issues of media ownership, visit and click on “Free Press.”



Rob Williams, PhD, is a teacher, historian, musician, and father of two who has taught and written about media-literacy education for many years (see www.robwilliams He is currently board president of the Action Coalition for Media Education (ACME), an international organization devoted to critical media-literacy education, independent media production, and grassroots media reform.

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