Media Literacy Now: Modern Media and the Seven Principles

A Sermon by Pamela Steager

Pam Steager has been a friend and volunteer at First Unitarian for 20 years and become a Member this year. Her work as an education and prevention consultant, writer, discussion facilitator, researcher, and trainer in the areas of conflict resolution, substance abuse and violence prevention, cultural diversity, and media literacy has taken her to the heart of schools, prisons, police departments, nonprofit organizations, and communities. She has performed as a stand-up comedian, a storyteller, and an event host and talkback facilitator. She is currently Senior Researcher and Writer at the Media Education Lab at URI and is coordinating the Media Literacy Now–Rhode Island effort.

Audio Recording

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Sermon Text

Good morning! I’d like to start this morning with some audience participation and a bit of a mid-service stretch. So, for this quick straw poll, please raise your hand if the following are true for you:

  1. How many of you had never heard of media literacy before you read about this talk? Keep your hand up if you are still not sure exactly what it means. (You are not alone)
  2. Besides me, how many of you lived a part of your childhood in a home without a TV? Keep your hand up, and others join them if you currently have at least five screens in your house that can stream digital media? (That would include smart phones, tablets, laptops, television & computer monitors)
  3. How many of you read at least ten books in the past 12 months? Keep your hand up if any of them were read on a digital device.
  4. How many of you use at least one social media platform? (Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, SnapChat, Tumblr, WhatsApp) Keep ‘em up if you use at least 3.
  5. How many of you have tweeted in the last 48 hours? Keep ‘em up if you have ever tweeted at 3AM.
  6. How many of you have created your own media? Films/Videos? Music? Blog or social media posts? Graphics? News reports, editorials, or letters to the editor? Memes?

Thank you. The term media has come to be defined as the means of communication, such as radio and television, newspapers, magazines, and the Internet, that reach or influence people widely. But as the plural of medium, it also refers to the multiplicity of ways in which something is communicated or expressed.

I first discovered media literacy in the late 90s when I was working as a prevention specialist in a nearby public high school. I remember the moment, leaning against the railing outside my balcony office that overlooked the school’s library media center. As I stood there, wondering how else I could persuade these teenagers to make healthy choices when it came to what they put into and did with their bodies and minds, and what they did to the bodies and minds of others, the bell rang to signal the end of the school day, and I watched as students streamed out of classrooms, through the library to the front doors, and poured out into the free world. Since that front entrance was all glass, I could see both sides of that transition, and I was struck with how many of the students reached into pockets or backpacks on their way out and immediately put ear buds or headphones into or over their ears. It was an “Aha!” moment for me, as I assumed they were tuning into their favorite music source and I realized that, at least some of that music was providing very different messages than those I’d been trying to provide about sex and drugs, and with a much better beat and base line.

That sent me to my friend Google to see what I could find about what others were doing to address things like explicit or age-inappropriate content in recorded music and music videos and their effect on youth. That led me to media literacy and to my eventual mentor, Renee Hobbs, then at Babson College in Wellesley, MA, and a spot in her Felton Media Literacy Scholars program there. Once I glimpsed the wide world of media literacy through that course lens, I was hooked for life. It seemed so obvious, and so aligned with what I’d been thinking and experiencing – we, and especially our young people, are no longer getting most of our information from books, so the literacy of reading and writing black squiggles on white paper needs to be replaced by the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and create messages in all the forms of media they are using, and then to reflect on that process and act on that combined knowledge. We want our youth to be active users and creators of media, not just passive consumers of it.

Over the seven months of that course we looked at the history, philosophy, and various motivations for media literacy, we explored our own love-hate relationship with modern media and technology, we looked into media economics, and learned about visual aesthetics and media production processes. We delved into our current advertising and consumer culture, the politics of media violence, and the relationships between news and democracy, and between media and cultural identity.

While I like the simpler labels “Literacy for the 21st century” or “A 21st century approach to education”, my favorite brief definitions of media literacy are “making the invisible, visible”, and “paying attention to the man behind the curtain.” It’s really all about asking questions, and you know how we UUs love questions!

The five key questions to analyze any media message, that we use at the Media Education Lab are:

  1. Who is the author and what is the purpose?
  2. What techniques are used to attract and hold your attention?
  3. What lifestyles, values, and points of view are represented?
  4. How might different people interpret the message?
  5. What is omitted from the message?

Some other individuals and organizations use seven or ten questions, but we feel those five usually suffice to get a good discussion going about what goes into the making of a media message – the making of meaning – both consciously and unconsciously.

Our UU By-Laws state: “Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision.” I think media literacy can support both. And I think media literacy relates to and supports the Seven UU Principles. Let’s take a look.

  1. We affirm and promote: The inherent worth and dignity of every person – An aspect of media literacy is about looking deeply at cultural representations in the media and how they might influence attitudes and behaviors towards certain cultural groups – whether of age, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic group, or spiritual tradition – both negatively and positively. I’m a big believer in the phrase “If you can see it, you can be it.” And I think it’s no coincidence that in the decade before Barack Obama’s election, there were at least ten black presidents depicted in mainstream popular culture, or that TV shows and movies featuring LGBTQQ characters eased the way for gay rights legislation.
  2. We affirm and promote: Justice, equity and compassion in human relations – Besides cultural representation in the media, media literacy looks at emerging media issues like violent video game use and addiction, cyberbullying, sexting, and other social media use among youth, and practitioners in our field are often on the front lines of research on youth media use and it’s effects on their capacity for healthy relationships and qualities like empathy.
  3. We affirm and promote: Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations – and we use media messages as well as personal and congregational relationships to do that. Our Black Lives Matter banner was a media message we displayed to the outside world. Our Standing On The Side Of Love efforts are another of our public displays of affection for our fellow humans, and our welcome to all affirms and promotes that message here every Sunday and on our web site. We have a Facebook page! Can a Twitter and Instagram account be far behind? Media production activities often have students create messages about community efforts or causes they support in the media environment their age groups inhabit. Perhaps our high school youth or Brown UU Group could bring us even further into the 21st century so even more people can find acceptance and spiritual growth in our community here.
  4. We affirm and promote: A free and responsible search for truth and meaning – Questions, questions, questions. A century ago, the Rev. Lewis B. Fisher, dean of the Universalist seminary at St. Lawrence University, wrote, “Universalists are often asked to tell where they stand. The only true answer. . is that we do not stand at all, we move.” That’s still true for UUs today. Our religious identity is hard to pin down because we move and change as the times demand. As difficult and painful as those changes can sometimes be, we keep moving forward because we know that truth and meaning-making are dynamic, not static processes. I believe a free and responsible search for truth and meaning is also at the heart of media literacy, as well as an understanding of how truth can be distorted and how meaning is constructed. What better skills could education provide our children right now? And if you agree, there just happens to be a petition on a table in a breezeway nearby I’d like you to sign before you leave.
  5. We affirm and promote: The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large – Media literacy education and citizenship education are often linked, as they both provide essential knowledge and skills for full participation in our democracy. Media literacy lessons provide truth-seeking and media production activities provide an opportunity for truth-speaking for all, including marginalized individuals and groups.
  6. We affirm and promote: The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all – It was that big picture view that led me to first discover and later share the gospel of media literacy. I believe it is an essential skill for all to bring that view into closer focus. Through the Media Education Lab, which Dr. Hobbs founded in Philadelphia and brought with her to URI some years back, we have been traveling the globe in recent years spreading the word about media literacy and finding allies. They are out there, and they share our goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.
  7. Lastly, We affirm and promote: Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. And now, a part of that web of all existence includes the worldwide web. Will that amazing tool that helps connect us in ways many of us couldn’t even have imagined in our youth be used more for ill or good? The answer, as usual, is in our hands, and in our children’s hands. Last year this month Governor Raimondo signed into law a bill requiring the RI Dept. of Education to consider integrating media literacy into the General Education program. After a year of gathering ideas for implementation and presenting them to RI School Superintendents for feedback this spring, our Media Literacy Now steering committee recently completed our report to RIDE and updated our web site. We’ll be meeting with them soon, and would greatly appreciate your support for this effort. The future is in our hands. It’s in our children’s and grandchildren’s hands. Let’s help make sure it’s in the hands of media literate citizens. Thank you.