Our Schools/Our Selves: Summer 2002

Seeking Social Justice through Media Literacy
June 1, 2002

summer 2002The media-literate student should "be able to make conscious critical assessments of the media, to maintain a critical distance on popular culture, and to resist manipulation."

The bulletin board in the hallway is brightly decorated with student media projects. It seems that the task has been to integrate understanding of marketing and graphic design by generating a unique product advertisement. I see shoes, sweaters, a high tech CD player. Clearly, the students have some awareness of the "tools", essentially the tricks and techniques, of this particular medium. Notably absent however, are signs of the media industry, which I'll call the "toolbox", and the players who use both the media industry and its specific tools for their own, primarily economic, purposes. Let's call the players, or power entities, the "carpenters".

The intentions of the carpenter are important from a social justice perspective and are missing from traditional analysis. Prodding her motivation for choosing particular tools, and understanding why and how these tools will help her, provide us with a better understanding of whether or not the carpenter is building a communal tree fort or building herself and her wealthy friends a luxury resort. In other words, we want to question both what she is building, and for whom. The study of how the toolbox and the specific tools work benefits our learners more significantly when they understand how the carpenter uses the tools and the toolbox to support and perpetuate systems of power. Author Alfie Kohn reminds us to ask, "Who benefits?" Cui bono?

The search for the carpenter begins. Our grade seven students are assigned to choose a particular industry, business, product or politician and find credible research that links their topic to a social justice problem. Each student then creates a parody ad that effectively conveys the problem, through the subversion of the original image, the logo, or the slogan. Manisha's look at the cosmetics industry and their use of animal testing led her to piece together pictures of tortured animals above the slogan "Maybe they're born with it, maybe it's Maybelline."

Accessing carpenters through youth culture in a media studies course is not difficult. You have only to look as far as the clothing that enters the room, listen carefully to conversations about what happened on television last night or to what the most current web site has to offer. This consumer culture is rife with the products of big business, which is inevitably linked to justice issues. While students know the medium, they need experience finding the carpenter and when given the opportunity to parody aspects of our culture, students quickly discover disturbing things. Mitchell writes, "Branding and commercial messages are being accepted into schools more and more. McGraw-Hill prints a sixth-grade math text book used in 16 US states that includes brand names in its math equations, to help build brand loyalty for Nike, Disney, Burger King, and McDonalds."

Neil Andersen, media literacy consultant, makes an important point about being cautious not to alienate our learners, particularly by bashing teen culture. As well, we need to engage and invoke our students' awareness of their locus of control as target consumers and citizens, and their need for fairness in the world. Fairness is a complicated thing. It means re-examining, or perhaps examining for the first time, where we stand on the fairness ladder. In her article "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack", Peggy McIntosh argues that "the silences and denials surrounding privilege are [a] key political tool...they keep the thinking about equality or equity incomplete, protecting unearned advantage and conferred dominance by making these taboo subjects." Educators need to increase the number of invitations for personal struggle and be less reluctant about making learning difficult, if we are to move the dialogue forward.

People are surprised when they see the parody projects, or when I mention the grade eight focus on Chomsky, but I am coming to an awareness that the problem is not really about whether or not a skill or understanding is accessible to students, but rather what it is that we as educators choose to make accessible. In the same way that The Magic School Bus brings complicated scientific theories to six-year-olds, we as social justice advocates and media literacy teachers can bring Noam Chomsky's ideas about the intentions of the carpenter to our elementary classrooms. Even lessons on sexism, racism, or violence in the media, while important, can side step the carpenter by portraying sexism, racism and violence as primary targets rather than as products of the carpenter's work.

Above all, the intent of the parody project is to engage with, rather than avoid, issues that provide controversy. Through the process of engagement we learn new perspectives, reflect upon various types of evidence and logic, and then make informed decisions about our behaviour. To ignore, dismiss or trivialise your adversary is a dangerous move. In social justice work, walking away from the carpenter allows her to continue to exist, and possibly grow into something more insidious. We can call ourselves pacifists and model with all our might the process of peace but unless, like Nik, we expose the realities of war and modify its presentation we do far less to dismantle its glorification.

Engagement also allows us to avoid inadvertently shooting ourselves in the foot. Mitchell's presentation on Phillip Morris begins with a large display of Kraft products at the front of the room. He makes the ownership connection clear and suggests that boycotting Kraft products can send a message about the cigarette industry. Enter the devil's advocate. "Shouldn't we only buy Kraft products to encourage Phillip Morris to shift his business away from cigarettes?" There is general consternation and muttering. The devil's advocate exits stage left, leaving more questions than answers.

To be clear, I am not arguing for a relativist's approach to the world, in which we add perspectives and treat them as equally valid. It is not possible for educators to present a neutral view of the world. In any case, our responsibility is to help students build their critical thinking abilities to the point at which injustice becomes vulnerable. Further, we need to help people think about what qualifies as injustice and challenge them to take responsibility for ending that injustice. McIntosh charges us with the duty to "use unearned advantage to weaken hidden systems of advantage...and use...our arbitrarily-awarded power to try to reconstruct power systems on a broader base." "Have you stopped eating Kraft products, Mitchell?" asks one student.

The number of carpenters revealed this year runs the gamut. Students had concern for multinational disregard for human rights (as in Rosy's look at child labour) and the rights of other living creatures (as in Merle's look at animal testing). Nik's lens on war is particularly timely as people are patriotically encouraged to fight the "axis of evil". Emma's look at political platforms and their impact, Jinoo's spotlight on the dairy industry and its connection to health propaganda, and Daniel's exploration of how the bottom line in private industry can put us at risk are just a few of the epiphanies that "carpenters exist!" and use people like puppets on a string.

Molly shares her conclusions about child labour: "If you really want to help children who are forced to go to work- protest against poverty, war and exploitation that results from corporate globalization. Try to wipe out greed and the way our society overuses resources. Share the wealth. Work for proper working conditions, higher pay for children and their parents, free education and health care, and most of all, a little respect!"

Watch out carpenters.


1. Ministry of Education. Media Literacy Resource Guide. 1989.

2. Kohn, Alfie. No Contest: The Case Against Competition. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992.

3. Andersen, Neil. Meeting the Challenges of Media Studies, Telemedium: The Journal of Media Literacy, 47, no. 2, pp. 3-6.

4. McIntosh, Peggy. White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack. In Amy Kesselman, et al. (ed), Women, Images and Realities. Mountain View CA: pp. 264-267.

5. McIntosh, Peggy. 1995. White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack. In Amy Kesselman, et al. (ed), Women, Images and Realities. Mountain View CA: pp. 264-267.

David Stocker teaches at City View Alternative School in Toronto.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2002 issue of Our Schools/Our Selves.