Building media literacy skills in children an ever-present challenge

Clare Forrester

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

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Kay Osborne's recent call for media literacy to become a national priority is an interesting view that merits some attention by our decision makers in government as well as our educational institutions. According to one newspaper report, her recommendation was made while addressing a recent Northern Caribbean University communication symposium in Mandeville. I believe that her call was opportune and delivered to the right audience, in terms of their ability to "run with it". Regrettably, this was yet another forum where I was not present. However, I would love to know if the symposium concluded with suggestions for achieving that goal.

An abundance of evidence exists to show that the media constitute the arena in which those with the means and access seek to influence popular views and opinions. Those especially vulnerable to media messages are children. Twentieth century studies in many countries, including ours, suggest that children spend as much as six (presumably unchaperoned) hours a day just in watching television. I recall listening to an interview on this subject with Stuart Hall (who was visiting Jamaica in the late 1990s) during which he equated media literacy with the three "Rs" (Reading, Writing and Arithmetic) as fundamental to basic education. According to Hall, "first there are the three 'Rs' and then there is media literacy".

Today, there are signs that television is playing an even more influential role. The advent of new media technologies, beginning with VCRs and extending to the internet, as alluded to by Ms Osborne, has complicated this pattern of media interaction and dependency. Cellphones with internet access are now a standard piece of equipment owned by school children. Additionally, in response to their information and education needs, many Caribbean countries have undertaken policy initiatives that include the provision of internet access throughout their school system. Already e-mail and internet cafés are being established in outlying communities aimed at facilitating improved information flow, often in support of varying interests that are not always conducive to the well-being of the same communities.

Issues such as the killing of a black American teenager, Trayvon Martin, in Sanford, Florida, by a neighbourhood watch patrolman, and closer to home, the shooting by the police of an Immaculate Conception High School student, have, to varying degrees, exposed the practice of selective editing by the media. To understand media we need to understand that the information is always selectively presented from one perspective or the other. Today, everybody has a position on these stories and those opinions have been predominantly shaped by the media.

There is no doubt about the value of media literacy as critical to empowering us to respond better to the flood of media messages. However, I remain firmly of the view that the more realistic approach to promoting the teaching of this skill is to site such a module in our schools and teachers' colleges. If we accept that children live in an overwhelmingly mediated environment, then it is difficult not to support the view that they need effective coping tools to help them navigate their way through the various messages and interests of social and commercial marketers and other media producers. This is especially important for health promotion as views and behaviours of individuals have a direct bearing on their lifestyle choices. That is part of the reason that children remain such a key target for marketers. In addition, the positioning of promotional messages is no longer restricted to straight advertising. There are lifestyle-related media messages everywhere.

Those were some of the concerns behind an aborted attempt by the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) to develop a module on the teaching of media literacy in the late 1990s. I learnt from a newspaper report that a similar initiative was made by the Broadcasting Commission, the Ministry of Education and UNESCO in 2007. In the latter case, the initiative was designed as a pilot project for grades 4-6 in 14 schools.

Both attempts floundered. In the case of the PAHO-led initiative, the hope was to start by getting the module in the curriculum of teachers colleges regionwide, which was seen as the gateway to the school curriculum. That was wishful thinking, as anyone with experience in attempting initiatives aimed at the school curriculum or that of teachers colleges would know. I would also not be surprised to learn that teachers here would be less than enthusiastic if such an attempt would mean more work without remuneration.

I have yet to see a report on the 2007 initiative by the Broadcasting Commission et al, but the fact that no trumpets have been blown suggest to me that the project also suffered fatal setbacks.

Lack of success in the past ought not to result in a total abandonment of such initiatives. The fact that today we have increased reliance on mediated messages in arriving at views and decisions that influence life-affected choices, make this an imperative that we ignore at our peril. We certainly cannot continue to ignore the unprotected existence of our children in such a media-saturated environment.

Welcome, Sport Globe

Special welcome to our newest sports newspaper, Sport Globe, a weekly tabloid. At a nominal price of $50 and given the list of managing and operating personnel published among its credits, there is good reason to hope that it survives, especially too as this is an Olympic year. The paper should be credited for the front-page story in its first issue that dealt with Bolt's challenges with scoliosis - a spinal disorder. This was not only a good news story but also a useful public education feature. However, it seems that Part 2, carried in its subsequent issue, was more of the same and perhaps, but for the sidebars, did not need another two pages. Good overall effort, though!




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