The Role of Media Literacy in Political Communication

            American society is characterized by its media representations.  Celebrities, feature films, programmatic television, reality television, news television, radio, newspapers, magazines, advertisements; the public is constantly surrounded by their influences so much so that the “media no longer just shape our culture—they are our culture” (Aqili 450).  This intense relationship between the public and the media becomes extremely important when one considers a third party—the government.  W. Russell Neuman states that “the government simply has no means of its own to communicate with the public” (160).  Government officials depend on the media to present their ideas and propositions to the public.  While the basic function of a media organization is to serve as a “conduit… of information,” the public must be aware of the fact that the information flowing through that conduit is subject to bias and alteration (Neuman 161).  Unfortunately, the media is not run by computers who can factor out emotional and political bias.  Anytime information is passed through the hands of a human being, it is in danger of being altered by the person’s moral and political views.  While one may be able to change how a computer functions, there is no way to alter human nature.  If one were to attempt to fix the issue of media bias from the media side, he would find that there are too many factors to be able to implement any plan efficiently.  Not only would he have to concern himself with the established media business organizations, he would also have to consider the “fast global progression of popular social networking tools promoting user-generated content, including uploading videos; blogging about interests and current affairs; and engaging in citizen journalism, online discussions, and collaborative projects” (Martinsson 3).  The most effective way of eliminating media bias from the triangle of political communication is to promote media literacy among consumers of political information.

            The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word literate as “educated” or “cultured.”  While the term generally applies to one’s skills in reading and writing, its basic meaning does not change when coupled with the institution of media.  Therefore, media literacy can be “defined as the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and create media content” (Martinsson 3).  As mentioned earlier, there are countless mediums influencing the public daily.  Political information is being presented by a million different people alongside a million other topics of discussion.  Consumers may be overwhelmed by the sheer amount and variety of information with which they are being bombarded.  The ability to filter through the varying opinions and viewpoints of media representatives as well as the general public, is a skill that is useful to anyone interested in becoming more politically informed.

People who have developed media literacy skills “can protect themselves and others from harmful content” aimed at the consumers who are not politically active (Martinsson 4).  Aqili and Nasiri outline a few characteristics that define the media literate.  First, “media literate people understand that media are constructed to convey ideas, information and news from someone else’s perspective” (454).  They recognize that the information they are receiving is mostly secondhand, and they acknowledge the fact that some information may have been lost or altered by the time it is presented to them.  Second, “they understand that specific techniques are used to create emotional effects” (454).  They notice when an advertisement or presentation is playing to their pathos, and they are able to objectively interpret the intended message.  Third, “they seek alternative sources of information and entertainment” (454). When they suspect that what is being presented to them is false or inadequate, they actively seek out the truth.  This desire to be informed is what truly sets them apart from people who are not politically curious.  These few characteristics contribute to their deeper understanding of the government as well as the world they live in.  They become “better citizens” because their breadth of knowledge and continued research shows them “how to act, rather than be…acted upon” by media organizations (454).

Neuman states that “television may well be the critical agenda setter” when it comes to political information (161).  Television programming is designed for the masses.  The intended audience of various programs ranges from small children learning the alphabet to highly educated adults interested in current politics and economics.  Though it reaches basically all demographics, “television…is more likely to have an impact on individuals with low levels of political interest or commitment” (Kazee 507).  Those people who do not align themselves strongly with one party or another are often easily influenced by the political ideals of the organizations who are presenting the information to them.  Because they have little emotional attachment to the issues, they are easily impressed with the views of others.  This is where we notice the lack of media literacy.

While there are numerous media literate people in today’s society, it is safe to say that they are few and far between.  If the issue of media bias is to be remedied, media literacy must be thought of as more than a unique personality trait of the highly intelligent.  While “the more educated…tend to be the more politically aware and active segment of the public,” their votes are not the only ones that matter (Zimmer 744).  Most of the voting population is made up of individuals whose primary concerns do not include politics.  If media literacy is introduced into this demographic, then the society can begin to “build an informed and active citizenry” (Martinsson 5).

For the idea of media literacy to become an integral part of the society, it must be introduced as an inherent characteristic of a well-rounded education.  Alongside arithmetic, science, literature, and language; teachers can “provide opportunities for investigating media messages in the classroom and…explicitly introduce students to the meta-language used for discussing media messages, including those embedded in nontraditional media, such as short films and music videos” (Rodesiler 164).  While most summer reading lists do not include magazine advertisements and music videos, aren’t students impacted by these nontraditional mediums?  These types of popular culture media are designed specifically for a young demographic.  It is beneficial to the students, as well as the country as a whole, for the concept of media literacy to be introduced into their education.  They will be better prepared to decipher the messages that are aimed toward them and to not be fooled by the tricks media organizations have perfected.

Rodesiler presents a case for study in which he implements the MAPS (mode, audience, purpose, and situation) approach to media literacy instruction (164).  He references a recent ad campaign launched by the U.S. National Guard which featured the sponsored 3 Doors Down song “Citizen/Soldier.”  The piece was aired on television, but more often on theater screens before popular movies such as Iron Man (164).  The music video features multiple moving shots of soldiers in action, both in battle and doing humanitarian work.  When first viewing the advertisement it “could be labeled… ‘impassioned’ and ‘patriotic,’” in the way that it depicts a soldier’s duties while also illustrating the reasons he does them (164).  But if viewed objectively, one begins to wonder why the National Guard chose to recruit in this way.  Rodesiler’s MAPS method provides a basic understanding of the advertiser’s intentions.

The mode of this piece includes the aesthetics of the moving images as well as the emotional music to which they are set.  If a student recognizes “the modes used to convey media messages” then they can be more in tune “to the ways that messages are carefully constructed and strategically crafted to influence reception” (165).  Recognizing the modes helps to eliminate the ‘smoke and mirror’ effect that popular advertising often entails.  The viewer is able to see the ad for what it really is, a recruiting venture, rather than what it appears to be, a glorification of the lives of the National Guard.

Whenever information is presented, it has an intended audience.  The National Guard’s commercial featured a young male rock group, was aired before a movie that featured a classic comic book character, and focused on young male soldiers.  Noticing these connections makes it obvious that the National Guard is wishing to appeal to the young male demographic.  When the intended audience is determined, the viewer is “better prepared to determine whether or not he or she falls into the target audience, consider how he or she is impacted by the message, and identify the purpose of the media message” (165).

The purpose of the message is the reason for the presentation.  Once a viewer determines the purpose, they are “better prepared to determine who is helped or hindered by the message, and they are able to identify and select appropriate responses to the message” (165).  They can appreciate the message for what it is, and then act accordingly.  If the teenage boy is genuinely convinced by the advertisement, he can take the steps toward recruitment.  In those situations, the ad serves its purpose.

Finally, the situation in which the message is presented can have impact on the reception.  The National Guard campaign was aired in 2008, during a time of war and an economic decline.  This situation could cause a young man to feel that he must step forward to serve his country.  This is a prime example of when “the social climate and time when a message is made may influence its meaning” (165).  The ad is more effective because of the state of the nation at that time.

This MAPS approach is one of many ways that media literacy could be introduced in the education system.  By implementing an expectation for media literacy in a younger demographic, political awareness and activism will only increase.  The increased concern with politics in the younger generation will fuel individual action among their elders.  If taught how to efficiently filter through the messages presented by media outlets, the public will be more aware of political issues and will interact more effectively with their government.

With all the factors affecting the media, it is highly unlikely that bias will ever be completely eliminated.  The consumers must take it upon themselves to determine the information that is good as well as the information that has been distorted.  While the triangle of political communication provides the public the “right to be informed” they must realize their own “responsibility to become informed” (Firestone).

Works Cited

Aqili, Seyed Vahid, and Bahareh Nasiri. “Technology and the Need for Media Literacy Education in the Twenty-First Century.” European Journal of Social Sciences 15.3 (2010) : 449-456. Print.

Firestone, Charles M. “The Responsibilities of Citizenship: A Bundle of Literacies.” The Huffington Post. 13 Oct. 2008. Web. 30 Nov. 2011.

Kazee, Thomas A. “Television Exposure and Attitude Change: The Impact of Political Interest.” Public Opinion Quarterly 45 (1981) : 507-518. Print.

Martinsson, Johanna. The Role of Media Literacy in the Governance Reform Agenda. Washington D.C.: The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank. Communication for Governance & Accountability Program, 2009. Print.

Neuman, W. Russell. “The Threshold of Public Attention.” Public Opinion Quarterly 54 (1990) : 159-176. Print.

Rodesiler, Luke. “Empowering Students Through Critical Media Literacy: This Means War.” The Clearing House 83 (2010) : 164-167.

Zimmer, Troy A. “The Impact of Watergate on the Public’s Trust in People and Confidence in the Mass Media.” Social Science Quarterly 59.4 (1979) : 743-751.

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