overview: the critical media project

The average teenager in the United States engages in about five hours of direct instructional time in his or her high school, five days each week, for a total of about 180 days per year. By contrast, teenagers in the United States engage in about eight hours of media use on an average day, seven days each week, for almost 365 days per year. When we take into account the amount of time spent “media multi-tasking” -- with multiple types of media being used at the same time -- that number jumps to about eleven hours of total media exposure for the average teen every single day of the year.

With media playing such a central role in the lives of young people, shouldn’t some of that high school instructional time be spent discussing media itself? That recognition is the foundation for media literacy education, a movement of educators, students, authors, media producers and many others that has taken root in the US and around the world over the last several decades. A commonly cited definition of “media literacy” was created at the 1992 Aspen Media Literacy Leadership Institute:

Media Literacy is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and create media in a variety of forms.

Media literacy education takes as its subject any number of media examples, including films, television shows, newspaper articles, websites and blogs, songs and music videos, and much more. A number of initiatives have been developed over the years to help improve the way young people “access, analyze, evaluate and create” these media forms. Indeed, several projects have been designed specifically to be integrated into the activities of high school educators. 

First and foremost, media literacy education aims to encourage students to think critically about media messages. As a starting point, the Center for Media Literacy has outlined “Five Key Questions” that media consumers might ask as they analyze a piece of media:

  • Who created this message?
  • What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?
  • How might different people understand this message differently from me?
  • What lifestyles, values and points of view are represented in, or omitted from, this message?
  • Why was this message sent

Coupled with these key questions, the Center for Media Literacy has also provided a useful guide of the “Five Core Concepts” that might emerge from media literacy education. They suggest that students who are media literate will be able to recognize that:

  • All media messages are ‘constructed'
  • Media messages are constructed using a creative language with its own rule.
  • Different people experience the same media message differently.
  • Media have embedded values and points of view.
  • Most media messages are organized to gain profit and/or power.

Together, these key questions and core concepts represent an avenue through which students can better understand the role and purpose of media in contemporary society. The development of these skills is seen as important in the development of active, engaged citizens in a vibrant democracy. Here at the Critical Media Project, we applaud the work that others have done in advancing the cause of media literacy, and we are inspired and influenced by the work that has come before us (see our outside resources). At the same time, however, we believe that there are significant drawbacks and gaps within the traditional approach of many media media literacy initiatives. We hope that this website provides a unique contribution to the field of media literacy education, one that will be particularly useful for educators in their everyday lessons at the high school level in the United States and beyond.

 The “Critical” in Critical Media Literacy: The Role of Identity

The Critical Media Project builds upon previous media literacy efforts in several ways. Inspired by the writings of scholars like UCLA’s Douglass Kellner, the emphasis on “critical” media literacy means that we focus more explicitly on analyzing the “politics of representation” in media. Understanding the intersection between media and issues of identity -- like gender, race, class and sexuality -- is central to our approach. We argue that the media plays a key role in helping to shape the way these identities are formed and enacted in society -- throughout history, today and into the future -- and that understanding identity is an important step in understanding ourselves and the world around us. We live in a world characterized by cultural diversity, and this project represents an opportunity to explore cultural diversity through the always important lens of media.  

We also believe that any analysis of media must always be combined with an analysis of power. In addition to having the ability to “access, analyze, evaluate and create” media, we encourage educators and students to explore complex ideological questions around media power. For instance, we should ask, who has the power to create and disseminate media products? What power do audience members have in their interpretation of media messages? What type of influence does media have on the way gender, race, class, sexuality and other issues of identity are perceived in broader society? These and other important questions can be a powerful way for educators to encourage critical thinking among students on issues that matter to them in their everyday lives.

The Critical Media Project has several features that make it particularly useful and worthwhile for high school media literacy education:

Multimedia Presentation:

We believe that the best way to encourage critical media literacy is to provide media examples that can be critically analyzed. This website is full of rich media examples -- clips from movies and television shows, advertisements from billboards and magazines, newspaper articles, online viral videos, comedic satire and more -- that students and teachers can watch, analyze and discuss. Our experience is that many other media literacy projects are full of lengthy, text-based descriptions of how and why to conduct media analysis, but they do not necessarily provide a platform that encourages experiential learning. Intended not as a textbook in itself, but rather as a supplemental resource for teachers and students, this website brings together a wide array of media examples put in historical and cultural context. For further study, the site frames the media examples alongside original writings, discussion questions, in-class activities, and additional resources--all in one central place. 

Developed in Collaboration with College Students:

With college-aged students helping to shape the content of the Critical Media Project, the issues presented are particularly relevant to high school students. This platform emerged from a course taught at the University of Southern California by Professor Alison Trope. Students were divided into groups of different “identity issues” and tasked with creating the foundations of the curriculum presented on this site. The students helped shape the direction of the project and focused on the issues and topics that they believed were important for high school students to critically analyze. Most of the media examples featured on this platform were selected by students whose high school experiences were still fresh in their mind. Guided by Professor Trope and her collaborator, Doctoral Candidate Garrett Broad, the insights of these students are particularly pertinent in a rapidly changing media landscape. This strategy allows for a useful mix of historical examples that can provide a broader context, as well as more contemporary media artifacts that will likely resonate with high school students.

Allows for a Diversity of Opinion:

The Critical Media Project is interested in encouraging certain ways of thinking, not telling students precisely what to think. Our aim in this effort is not to impose meaning on the students or teachers who draw from this resource. Instead, we are interested in the promotion of critical thinking (aligned with the Common Core), and in prompting complex and sometimes difficult discussions around the intersections of media, identity, and power. Some media literacy approaches come from a “protectionist” point of view, in which media is seen as a generally harmful force. This approach encourages viewers, educators and parents to be on guard against media’s harmful effects on society. We take a different approach, recognizing instead that there are many problematic aspects of the way media operates and the types of media messages that are disseminated. However, we also suggest that media can be a great source of pleasure, and that media can provide countless opportunities for resistance, especially in a new media environment in which viewers/consumers can also be producers. We want students to critically analyze the processes through which media are produced and distributed, to take note of the potentials and pitfalls of historical and contemporary media strategies and tendencies, and to ultimately come to their own conclusions about the best way forward.