December 2007: The Rise of Media Literacy

Creating an un-brainwashed generation is a noble calling
December 1, 2007

During the B.C. teachers’ strike a few years ago—a strike over violations of their bargaining rights that later produced a Supreme Court ruling in their favour—the province’s media predictably denounced the teachers and flagrantly distorted their actions and motives.

When a large group of students and parents mounted a show of support for the teachers, it got a 15-second clip on BCTV. But when a few students decided to cross the picket lines, their on-air interview lasted more than three times as long.

This incident was typical of the prevailing journalistic bias. Throughout the dispute, both the print and broadcast media gave vent to blatantly anti-teacher, anti-union diatribes. This was hardly surprising in a province where one media giant—CanWest Global Corporation—dominates the publishing/broadcasting industry. CanWest owns both daily newspapers in Vancouver—The Sun and The Province—and most of the major TV and radio outlets in the region. It’s a media empire that champions the interests of big business, social conservatism, religious fundamentalism, market freedom, individualism, and private over public enterprise. And not just in British Columbia, but all across the country.

A few years ago, for example, The Ottawa Citizen, in advertising for an editorial position, stipulated in the ad that the successful candidate had to be an adherent of neoliberalism.

Slanted right-wing journalism of this kind, of course, is nothing new. George Orwell, writing about the concentration of media ownership in the 1940s, referred to the promotion of “a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question... Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy is almost never given a fair hearing in the popular press...”

Media ownership today is much more concentrated than it was in Orwell’s time, and its indoctrination techniques much more pervasive. The message—as described by former Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham, is that “all government is bad, and that the word ‘public,’ in all its uses (public ownership, citizenship, public health, public school, community, etc.) connotes inefficiency and waste.”

The free-market indoctrination machine is the modern equivalent of the concentration camp. Our corporate overseers don’t have to incur the heavy costs involved in imprisoning our bodies as long as they can imprison our minds. It’s a lot less messy and it avoids the bad PR image associated with dragging people out of their homes and throwing them into dungeons.

Many Canadians (probably the majority) have been inveigled into accepting a society that is only nominally democratic. In truth, it has become closer to the dictionary definition of plutocracy—rule by the rich. But if they have jobs, as most do, and if they have homes and cars and TV sets, as most also do, they are not disposed to question the status quo. And they are even less inclined to dissent if they are told incessantly by their political and business leaders and their news media that global capitalism is gloriously great, or that, even though it may have some minor flaws, there really is no viable economic/social/ political alternative.

Of course you’ve heard all this mass-media-bashing from me before, but this time it’s a long lead-in to commending and drawing to your attention the latest issue of the CCPA’s quarterly education journal, Our Schools/Our Selves. If you’re not an OS/OS reader, you owe it to yourself to get hold of a copy of its Fall 2007 issue, whose main theme is “Media Education and Educating the Media.”

You’ll learn that media education has become mandatory in English Language Arts in Canadian schools, that Media Literacy is being incorporated into reading, writing, and communications subjects in many schools across the country, and that “educators agree that helping young people think critically about popular media is an important part of their job.”

We already seem to have more media-literate people in Canada than in the United States, judging by the polls, but the majority still remain under the media-induced spell. Most Canadians still support NAFTA, for example, still favour tax cuts over social spending, still prefer the undemocratic first-past-the-post election system. The more students who learn to question, understand, and evaluate what they see and hear in the commercial media, the closer the emergence of a truly well-informed citizenry (and thus a genuine democracy) comes to reality.

The teachers who have taken on the challenge of creating media-savvy students are performing a vitally important service for this country. Freeing young minds from the prison-cells of neoliberal propaganda, opening them up to the vision of a better and fairer world—this is surely a noble calling.

Several of the educators engaged in this crusade have written about their classes and experience in the latest issue of Our Schools/Our Selves. They include Kirsten Kozolanka, assistant professor in the School of Journalism at Carleton University, Ottawa, and editor of this issue of OS/OS; Warren Nightingale, media education specialist with the Media-Awareness Network; Paul Orlowski, department head of the Teacher Education Program at University College in B.C.’s Fraser Valley; Kym Stewart, a doctoral candidate in education at Simon Fraser University; and several other leading media literacy specialists.

Theirs is a fascinating, eye-opening, tremendously uplifting story. I’ve given you only a few snippets of it. Click here to order a copy of this issue of Our Schools/Our Selves.

(Ed Finn is the CCPA's Senior Editor.)