"Understand the sea you swim in"

BY P KUMAR| IN Media Practice | 24/08/2013
If people don't think critically about techniques advertisers, politicians and others use to influence us, then they will be easily fooled and manipulated,
says media literacy educator FRANK BAKER in an interview with P KUMAR.

The media thinker Marshall McLuhan once said, fish swimming in the ocean is oblivious to the water. McLuhan used this observation to make media users realise that they float in an ocean of media, like the fish that live in the sea unconscious about the water.

The well known American media literacy educator Frank W. Baker says, “McLuhan’s metaphor is right. We live and swim in the world of media, but we seldom stop to study how media works or thinks about their impact on our lives. Media literacy is designed to just do that and more.”

He says, “I teach media literacy, a skill set that all students need. With the view to tackle the media explosion some other scholars also says young people today swim in a sea of media content and the field of media literacy aims to help them stay afloat. Various Western countries including entire Europe has done extensive work to teach media literacy to school students and adults  as well so that they could learn how critically analyse media messages and become informed users of media acquiring informed understanding of the media world.”

But the discipline is new for India as nothing has been done in India in this area except very little work in NCERT.

An educational consultant, Baker is a graduate of the University of Georgia (ABJ, Journalism). He has a vast experience in television news and has done extensive work in the field of media literacy in the United States of America. Baker will now teach media literacy skills at the American School of Mumbai.

Do you give your students tips on critical analysis of the media?
My primary work is with K-12 teachers.  So I train them to feel comfortable in helping their students understand critical thinking and critical viewing as it applies to media messages.

University students are not covered in your program?
I am a guest lecturer each semester at the University of South Carolina, here, in the College of Library and Information Sciences. But these are only 90 minute or two hour talks.

How do you teach school students (specifically)?
I use a lot of examples from news and popular culture. I introduce the ML (media literacy) critical thinking questions--who made this; for what purposes; using what techniques, etc. I like to have them deconstruct the cover of a magazine (for example) using visual literacy. I show them a commercial and we talk about the words as well as the production aspects (camera, lights, sound, editing, etc.)

Each job is a little different but each workshop has common elements: visual literacy, advertising deconstruction, and moving image understandings.

What motivated you to become a media literacy educator?
I was motivated when I saw teachers who used film or video inappropriately, who were not engaging students in any critical thought. The film/video was used to support instruction. They would say "let's watch this". The problem was, and still is, these teachers have not received proper training in their Colleges of Education in how to teach media literacy/critical thinking as it applies to media. So I developed my
webpage and wrote many published articles and continue to lecture and do interactive workshops.

Will you teach tips of critical analysis to school students during your visit to Mumbai?
Yes.  I will probably use several toy commercials and get students to think deeply about what in the ad makes it appealing. I will also use photo images and perhaps even magazine covers, and clips from popular films, like Wall-E or ET.

I will also be speaking and engaging their teachers and parents, both important partners in media education.

How important is media literacy for a country with low literacy rates where children have a high exposure to Bollywood films?
Media literacy education is paramount. Every citizen, regardless of their education level, needs media education. If people don't think critically about how advertisers, politicians and others use techniques and methods to persuade and influence us, then they'll be easily fooled and manipulated. Media literacy encourages healthy skepticism as well as critical inquiry (questioning) so it is very important.

What is your Mumbai trip about? What kind of schools will you be engaging with? 
I have accepted an invitation from the American School of Bombay to come and present media literacy to students, teachers and parents. I will be using popular culture and the media as the hooks to involving students in media literacy education.

To what extent does media literacy prove helpful for media users to protect themselves from harmful effects of media?

I do not believe that media literacy protects users from harmful effects of media. Media literacy aims to educate consumers as to how media works, something many people don't completely grasp.  If we know how the media works, then we can be better educated. If we create and produce our own media, then we have a voice. Having a voice, and a place to be read/seen/heard, is very important because there is more diversity of opinion. Media literacy should not be viewed as some antidote. It is designed to make the person more aware of media, because many of us don't think about or study the media. The late great Marshall McLuhan said the fish who swims in water is totally unaware of its environment UNTIL it's taken out of the water. So it is with us humans. Turn off the media or spend a week not watching television and see what happens. It's powerful.

So to me, media literacy is about raising awareness and making people more educated as to the power and influence of media.

To become media literate, do the learners require some extra intelligence or an average student or general person can become media literate by learning skills as you teach in your classes?
Media literacy education equips everyone with skills, knowledge and abilities. A true media education provides one with more ways to question and look at media, media producers and media manipulators. The skills of inquiry (questioning) are powerful. And I recommend that parents, educators and others get in the habit of asking the media literacy questions.

Frank Baker is the manager of the Media Literacy Clearinghouse web site www.frankwbaker.com where readers can locate many resources and additional information. He can be contacted at fbaker1346@aol.com and he actively blogs at NCTE Media Blog.

Related links:

Five core concepts
The key questions to ask/consider when analyzing media messages

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