Volume 3 Issue 2 (Summer 1999)
Media Literacy and the Academic Agenda
In a world culture increasingly influenced and shaped by the forms and content of mediated news and cultural perspectives, and the increasingly sophisticated technology for the management and delivery of information, one of the essential duties of teachers is to help students develop habits of perception and thought that will enable them to process increasingly formidable masses of data clearly, correctly, and objectively.
Students should be made aware of the inestimable value of politically untrammeled news media, but with some caveats. They must have some basic comprehension of the processes of mediation--the gathering, processing, and presentation of the news. They must also be aware and critically judgmental of sources. To wit: Carl Sagan, in his volume, The Demon-Haunted World, quotes the statement of media expert Ben Badikian that fewer than two dozen companies control more than half "of the global business in daily newspapers, magazines, television, books and movies." Sagan also observes, however, that this situation is mitigated by the proliferation of alternate sources of information provided by evolving computer technology.
Perhaps a more basic and essential aspect of the issue of media and information literacy is what California State professor Robert Dornan calls "the vital habits of democracy," identified as the ability to state a position on an issue, to follow an argument, and to debate alternate purposes. In the classes I teach which involve significant rhetorical elements, I am always astonished and dismayed by students' nearly total lack of awareness of logical fallacies and misleading and obfuscating strategies in argument. The mastery of language itself, with an informed sensitivity to the fundamental rules of grammatical correctness, the qualifying uses of subordination, and modal expression of nuance and shades of meaning should be an instructional priority at all levels of the student's learning process and in all disciplinary areas. Deb Riechmann, a writer for the Associated Press, notes that garbled grammar and factual inaccuracy are among the chief reasons for the decline of credibility in newspapers and represent a "disconnect between today's reporters and their audiences." Inadequate and therefore misleading handling of language in the transmission of information represents a kind of degenerate "virtuality" that can transcend the effects of even the most ingenious computer-generated visual imagery.
Johann Gutenberg ushered in a new information age; Bill Gates is perhaps his counterpart in our time. Both printing and computer technologies represent quantum change with respect to the way we define literacy. Our students require a longer, broader, more coherent program of linguistic, cultural, and technical literacy skills if they are to lead world society into the twenty-first century.