Media and News Literacy in Seattle

In March 2009 I visited a social studies class at Chief Sealth High School here in Seattle, Washington. The 12th grade class was just starting a unit on global water issues, so their teacher asked me to come in and talk about some of the reporting I’d done in East Africa the year before. I introduced myself as a radio journalist and right away a hand shot up in the front row.
“What’s a journalist?” asked a high school senior, in total earnestness.
My immediate reaction was shock: how could an 18-year-old not know what a journalist is? I felt lost—a foundational element of what I had come to talk about was missing. But we plunged ahead with a news literacy question: “Where do you get your news?” Some answers you would expect—the local paper, web sites, NPR—and some were surprising, such as These answers helped the class engage in a conversation about news and radio and the difference between news and advertising.
Common Language Project
As a founding member of the Common Language Project (CLP), a nonprofit multimedia journalism organization based in Seattle, I cover underreported local and international issues. Since 2006 the CLP has reported on child labor in Pakistan, immigration and deportation in the Pacific Northwest, and climate change and water access in Ethiopia and Kenya, to name a few.
At the CLP, we can barely keep up with the demand from teachers for our journalists to visit their classrooms. Our network of teachers has found a range of ways to fit our work into their lesson planning. Some work us into units dealing with the issues we’ve reported on, like global health, climate change, or education, others into journalism classes, and others into media literacy units within social studies curricula. We want to maintain this diversity of class subjects, but we are also looking to expand our program to meet teacher demand while creating an opportunity to track the long-term impact of media literacy education on students.
Media Literacy: An Important Exercise
Youth media organizations often teach media literacy prior to producing media. For example, at Reel Grrls, a filmmaking program for teenage girls in Seattle where I work part time, media literacy is a key aspect of every program. Reel Grrls has found that participants need a larger context in order to understand how the media works before they can start to tell their own stories. Girls in the program have gone on to produce award-winning films that have shown in hundreds of film festivals all over the world. Many graduates of the program say that gaining a basic knowledge of media literacy was a pivotal moment in developing their ability to become storytellers.
The inspiration to start talking to students about media literacy came during the CLP’s first international reporting project, when our team reported from Israel and the Palestinian Territories during the Israeli-Lebanese War of 2006. Being submerged in the locally produced news reporting of the conflict inspired one of the first media literacy exercises the Common Language Project developed.
As a trainer, I brought a copy of the English-language news monthly Egypt Today to help students compare with Newsweek coverage. Both magazines featured articles on the conflict. Egypt Today ran a several-page spread of full color photos depicting desperate people searching for friends and family in the dusty rubble of a freshly-bombed apartment complex; another photo showed a dead body before it had been covered with a sheet. In contrast, Newsweek used an infographic as its main illustration: stick figures in red and blue to indicate the numbers of injuries and deaths on either side of the conflict.
Students love this exercise. Many respond to the idea that our media are sanitizing our information for us. They enjoy a rebellious, typical teenage reaction to being told what to think. Others pick up on the emotional manipulation inherent in printing pictures of extreme suffering—or in choosing not to print them. We love to facilitate these discussions, helping students think about how—and who—is processing their information for them. And perhaps even more importantly, to foster a love for what we call the ‘mind-boggler,’ or questions that do not have one simple answer—where wrestling with every side of the issue is what is most important.
In another exercise, we show students a chart mapping the crossover in membership on the boards of directors of major corporations with those of news outlets. At first, our chart is typically met with the familiar mild annoyance that any teacher might expect when asking high school students to read a graph. But as the discussion develops, students quickly grasp the concept of conflict of interest, and suddenly start to make intellectual leaps to many different issues in their lives.
Students consistently tell us that realizing this information empowers them to understand their role in the information landscape and to consider the motivation of other players. A student we visited in 2007 offered a succinct answer to one of our evaluation questions—“What information presented was the most useful to you?”—simply: “Mainstream media chooses what becomes news.”
News and Media Literacy
In January 2011, the Common Language Project plans to launch a Digital Literacy Initiative in Seattle in partnership with public high school teachers and the University of Washington. Our program will bring journalists into classrooms around the city for a series of visits exploring news, media and digital literacy, local investigative journalism, and international reporting, with the goal of fostering an understanding of the news and how it gets produced. We see news and media literacy as two critical thinking tools—we know that students who receive this training will go on to become more engaged, empowered citizens.
In the summer time, these students will be invited to a summer camp that will offer the chance to try their own hands at investigative reporting and media production. They will learn the basics of research and reporting, visit newsrooms around the city, and produce multimedia stories on their own communities.
Next Steps
The Chief Sealth High School student who asked what a journalist was turned out to be one of the most engaged in the class. But her knowledge of the role of journalism in democracy, of how to distinguish between forms of media and of how to access reliable information about the world around her was sadly underdeveloped. She understood so much about how the world works—but not about how that information had reached her.
Something is missing from our public school curriculum when a high school senior does not know what a journalist does, or why it is important to think about where his or her information is coming from. We are pushing Seattle to become a key city in the national news and media literacy movement. We want that 18-year-old student to be the last high school senior who doesn’t know what a journalist is.
Jessica Partnow is a radio producer and cofounder of the Common Language Project, a new media nonprofit based at the University of Washington that reports in-depth stories for newspapers, public radio and television, and online outlets. She teaches an undergraduate course in Entrepreneurial Journalism as well as high school workshops on news and media literacy, and spends two days a week working at Reel Grrls, a filmmaking program for teenage girls.

The Power and Impact of Gender-Specific Media Literacy

“Fifty-seven percent of girls and 59 percent of boys say the female characters in the television shows they watch are “better looking” than the women and girls they know in real life…Seven out of ten (69%) say they have wanted to look like, dress, or fix their hair like a character(s) on television…Both girls (62%) and boys (58%) say the female characters they see on television usually rely on someone else to solve their problems, whereas male characters tend to solve their own problems.”(1)
For many, this is not new news. We know that media emphasizes stereotypes and gender roles. But in the youth media field, we don’t always account for how girls, specifically young girls, are bombarded with images of women as powerless, passive victims noted primarily for their bodies and sex rather than their minds and capabilities.
Youth media organizations that focus on girls have seen the positive effects of gender-specific media literacy training—it changes girls’ relationships to themselves, their bodies, and each other. However, these organizations’ effects are limited unless the field as a whole takes to heart the impact of media on girls. Until then, youth will continue to re-create harmful stereotypes in their own media—they might say they do not identify with say, a tall, blond model, yet she continues to show up in their films. It is up to the field as a whole to help students critique media, avoid stereotypes, and act out new identities.
Why Girls?
Gender stereotypes are a part of our daily lives. From bus stops, billboards, schools, work, even bathrooms, youth are constantly absorbing messages that media throws at them. “Studies estimate that, counting all the logos, labels and announcements, some 16,000 ads flicker across an individual’s consciousness daily.”(2) Girls as passive, boys as active, boys with trucks and super heroes, girls with Barbies, dollhouses and kitchens: constantly interpreting these social messages, youth are trying to fit into the stereotypical gender messages showing traditional roles of men and women.
To avoid the inundation of images we protect ourselves by avoiding the flood of information and moving into a state of automaticity. The problem with this is the conditioning that occurs while our minds are on autopilot. “The media condition us to habitual exposure patterns to the messages they want exposure for. This increases the risk that we will miss many of the messages that might have value for us [and] accept [without challenging] the meaning they present.”(3)
Sadly, the constant exposure of sexualization, objectification and images of gender stereotypes directly contribute to girls’ lack of self- and body-confidence, as well as depression and eating disorders. As a result, girls who do explore media tools often use these to mimic overt sexualization, sending or posting videos/images of themselves to a predominantly male audience. In effect, the behavior reinforces this harmful gender role stereotype.
Eileen L. Zurbriggen, PhD, chair of the APA Task Force and associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz says it well: “We have ample evidence to conclude that sexualization has negative effects in a variety of domains, including cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, and healthy sexual development.”(4) The persuasive influences of the media have been linked to negative health outcomes, such as eating disorders and poor body image, anxiety, and violence.
The images in the media are powerful and pervasive. As a Reel Grrl producers shares, “I know that I shouldn’t compare myself with women in magazines or on TV, but it’s hard not to. They make me feel ugly.”(5) As a field, we cannot ignore the role media plays on girls’ lack of confidence and poor self-esteem.
So what can youth media programs do? Youth media practitioners need to incorporate creative ways to encourage thinking beyond socialized gender norms. Girls, especially, must be given a space to critically explore and use media tools to break down the roots of stereotypes and gender role-play. If we do not provide the tools necessary for critical examination of these norms and a space for young people to create different messages and alternate identities in media-making, our efforts to support youth media will be incomplete.
We need to evaluate where girls see themselves and how media reflects those ideals. Do they support or repress them? How can girls create their own messages to accurately reflect and support how they feel, act, and aspire to be?
Through girl-specific media literacy, an analysis of images and critical discussions, girls take the power from media to define them and put it into their own hands. Through girl-specific youth media programs, the media that girls use and create are instrumental to their developing sense of themselves, the world, and of how and who they should be.
Breaking Out of the Mold
“The influence of the camera is huge. And to be able to just take that and make your own message, I think, has really proven something to me,” says the producer of the Reel Grrls film The Wall of Shame.(6) This powerful film challenges teenage girls to talk back to the mainstream advertisers and their demeaning images of women. Girls pull ads from magazines, write on them and critique their messages. This offers a way to recognize their objectification, sexual exploitation and gender stereotypes.
The film explains and questions, “Every day we are bombarded with thousands of advertisements. But what exactly are the advertisers trying to sell us? Are they simply trying to sell a product or is the product inconsequential and the real objective is to sell us a mindset that would make us, the public, more eager consumers?” Looking at existing media, the girls in the film talk about how they feel about themselves in relation to what they are (or are not) seeing. “We are able to recognize the kind of images that we feel like we are supposed to be like but we know we don’t have to be.”(7) Making the connections between social issues and how media perpetuates them helps girls to not just receive these messages—working to take them apart and critique them in a very poignant way, they are able to choose how they see them. To see the film, go to:
Girl-Specific Youth Media
Girl-specific youth media programs like TVbyGIRLS, Reel Grrls, and Beyondmedia Education, provide gender-focused media literacy education. Their overarching missions are creating stories and messages that show creative, compassionate, involved and thinking girls and women. They provide mentoring and leadership programs that use the tools of media and analysis to combat the defeating and limiting messages young people receive everyday.
In these girl-specific programs, girls:
• Explore how visual images evoke emotions and become the visual vocabulary for their unique storytelling.
• Support one another in collaborative working models and in individual leadership styles, and develop more confidence to share their ideas and be open to different ways of thinking.
• Create film projects that use a strong intellectual inquiry and share their authentic stories with their peers, families and communities.
• Receive individualized mentoring relationships with women media professionals. TVbyGIRLS encourages the development of self-expression and critical thinking.
Reel Grrls
• Watch popular TV shows, PSAs and commercials, then fill out critique forms. The forms ask participants to notice technical effects, as well as what message the media is trying to get out, who the message is aimed at and whether the message is effective. These are things they ask girls to think about and write down before coming up with their own project ideas.
• Understand the “language of media”: Types of shots, rules of framing and shot composition. They highlight these rules by letting youth shoot and then looking at the footage together.
• Analyze ads in magazines that are interesting/upsetting to them and come up with questions based on those ads. They then conduct street interviews with people using the ad, asking the same questions.
Beyondmedia Education
• Use images that are inclusive, realistically depicting the diversity of women in the world.
• Understand the role of art in the world as presenting the broadest range of images, such that each person has the opportunity to see her or his reflection somewhere in that mirror.
• Strive to break down boundaries that are maintained through so-called “professional standards” controlling expression and containing resistance.
These organizations are girl specific; however, the activities and technical exercises can be directly adapted for non-girl specific organizations as well. In fact, it is encouraged, as the effects of these programs have been profound.
Mentors and parents, for example, see more confidence, leadership, and critical thinking in the girls. There is a shift in how girls see themselves as well as the world around them. “My daughter’s level of self-confidence shot up after being in the program. To have your child experience personal growth, that’s what stands out strongest about what the program offers.” –Reel Grrls parent.
Youth producers from these organizations report that: “Reel Grrls gave me the ground to stand on and know myself for the first time as a real filmmaker. And I haven’t wavered a bit.” -RG grad, who has just finished film school and completed her first feature.
Maddy from TVbyGirls says, “I think the importance of TVbyGirls is that we make films in such a different style that people really stop and pay attention. We don’t blend in as just another voice saying, “Do this, do that.”
Likewise, Annie from TVbyGirls explains, “I’ve become so much more aware of the importance of youth voice, especially girls’ voices, and how we can have an impact using the media. I love that we can tell real stories and open people’s eyes.”
In short, when youth are media literate they are more capable of steering through the media world and embracing and building the life they want, rather than letting the media create the life they want for them.
Suggestions for the Field
As youth media educators we have a responsibility to discuss the power and impact of our creations and how they inform viewers. Media educators, male and female, need to provide media literacy curriculum that makes young people aware of how gender norms, stereotypes, and sexualization impacts girls and young women. Regardless of mission or youth focus, youth media organizations can:
• Offer gender-specific youth media literacy programming. Organizations like MediaWatch offer lectures, videos and links to further media literacy resources. In addition, JUST THINK and the Center for Media Literacy offer curriculum and free hand outs.
• Attend a gender-studies or gender-focused media literacy class through a local youth network or university. Invite a graduate student in this field or a speaker to help the staff develop gender-specific media literacy skills.
• Start a Media Literacy Group. Gather interested people monthly and discuss best practices, share a media literacy reading list and report and discuss current events.
• Ask youth to think not only about the images they’re using in their work, but how they’re representing themselves—their family, race, town, and gender. Encourage them to take responsibility for their work and to be resourceful in how they’re portraying their characters, each other and themselves.
Deconstructing media messages reveals a valuable link between sexism, gender stereotyping and maintaining the male-dominant status quo. The ultimate step is to use young people’s root awareness of media messages to encourage and support youth media that more closely resembles young people’s reality than idealized, received, or constructed images. The more people who make media that debunks stereotypical norms, the more likely those norms will change.
Rebecca Richards Bullen is the associate director of TVbyGIRLS. Formerly a coordinator and producer with Twin Cities Public Television, she has over 15 years of production experience. Rebecca has been a media and leadership mentor for more than 7 years. A current steering committee member for the Twin Cities Youth Media Network, she is dedicated to expanding the access to authentic and diverse stories by youth, especially girls. She is also the proud mother of 2 terrific children and expecting a third in November.
(1) Reflections of Girls in the Media: A Content Analysis Across Six Media and a National Survey of Children. Conducted for the Kaiser Family Foundation and Children Now.
(2) The Bribed Soul: Ads, TV and American Culture. How advertising transforms both our experience and identity into a “sponsored life.” By Leslie Savan.
(3) Media Literacy, third edition. W. James Potter, pg. 13.
(4) APA Press Release February 19, 2007: Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. Executive Summary.
(5) Reel Grrl participant.
(6) Reel Grrls, “Wall of Shame” video.
(7) Reel Grrls, “Wall of Shame” video.

Youth Generated Media on Local TV

Youth are spending more and more time in front of a TV. Just a click of a remote opens a gateway of information. Yet instead of regurgitating the same messages and stereotypes they see on say, MTV, young people could be creating their own media or relaying their position on issues ranging from music to the local LGBT community.
But where can young people go to gain access to the tools necessary to read and create their own media and have them aired back on the same medium that captures hours of their daily attention? Fortunately, a few Community Media Centers (CMC) across the U.S. specialize in teaching young people how to participate in media and air their own stories and messages on Public Access Television.
The Peoples Channel
The Peoples Channel (TPC) in Chapel Hill, NC is such a center with programs geared toward engaging youth in media. Our center strives to empower youth by providing training, equipment, and a space to broadcast the ideas and issues most important to youth.
Since 1997, when the town of Çhapel Hill applied for a public access channel space free of corporate influence, TPC’s mission has been to provide education and tools to local residents to produce and distribute, via cable television, their media productions on a first come, first serve, First Amendment basis. We provide media training, technical assistance, and production facilities to serve and amplify the diverse opinions in our progressive, active community. We reach 30,000 households in the Chapel Hill area. TPC realized that young adults rarely have an outlet to share their ideas, values and stories in the media and wanted to change that. As a result, our youth media programs were born.
At present, TPC provides programs for youth to get their hands on the tools to make media—equipment that is often hard to come by, especially in communities with lower incomes. With training ranging from field production, studio production, and non-linear editing software, TPC makes it easy for youth to get their voices on the airwaves. All sessions are student driven: once they’ve participated in lectures and demonstrations on interpreting the media, students lead the content and instructors act solely as facilitators. Each session’s final product is premiered on The Peoples Channel, Time Warner Cable channel 8 in Chapel Hill and students are certified to use TPC’s facilities and equipment for any future projects they wish to produce.
Our youth media programs change the relationship of young adults from passive viewers of media to active agents in the media. Our programs are typically for youth ages 12-17, with a focus on the issues that spark the interest of local youth. The sessions give young adults the technical and creative skills needed to produce a variety of media, encouraging students to look at the media differently in the process of creating their own.
Providing opportunities for young people to make and react to media transforms their relationship to media—from consumer to producer. For example, Coren, came into TPC a shy but talented musician with aspirations to move into video. After taking a Field Production course and participating in TPC’s Summer Youth Production camp, he was transformed from a quiet teenager into a confident producer who has created many pieces, including documentaries of local football games. Coren is now applying to Full Sail University in Florida to study film production.
Access to Youth Programs
Courses at TPC are not free; however, since TPC believes that every opportunity for access to media tools should be provided to every youth, we offer a slate of innovative opportunities for youth participation. Youth media organizations that charge a fee for their programs might consider the following:
Provide scholarships. TPC wants to ensure the opportunity for all youth to attend its media programs, so it asks local businesses and organizations to contribute funds for scholarships that are distributed based on need. TPC also uses a sliding scale to determine fees.
Offer sweat equity. TPC offers sweat equity, where youth may use volunteer time to pay for the production classes. Students take the course and then gain more experience by using those skills by volunteering to film local events like our community’s Earth Action Day celebration. Students help create content for broadcast while honing their productions skills and paying off the fee for the class.
Consider school credit. Volunteer time can also be used as a means to earn high school credits. One student, Jen, became involved with TPC because she needed credit to graduate, but she also needed help producing a short piece to submit with her application to the Savannah College of Art and Design. She mixed her production time with volunteering with TPC, earning the sweat equity to receive the certification on TPC’s equipment and complete her project for submission. Her project, a short narrative on dreams, can be seen broadcast on the station.
Serving the Local Community
TPC brokers both the resources and the relationships between schools, the community, and after-school programs. For instance, Omuteko Gwamaziima, a charter school down the road in Durham, NC that focuses on African-American culture and empowerment, was using TV studio and field production as an education tool but lacked the necessary studio equipment. They were turned down by larger, more corporate production companies for budgetary reasons. They learned of TPC and wanted to expand their existing on-site production to include an interview formatted studio program.
After receiving training from TPC, Omuteko Gwamaziima students produced over 10 studio programs that ranged from conversations with members of the local Black Panther movement to educational pieces incorporating footage they shot on location. Moreover, TPC also made it a point to educate youth on the messages buried within an image.
High schools, charter schools, and youth media organizations can easily partner with Community Media Centers. Although policies differ with each center, one goal is maintained: every person should have the tools necessary to make his or her own media. With classes and special events focused on expanding the media experience, Community Media and Public Access Centers make sure that every voice is given a path to an audience, making a positive impact in local communities using neighborhood resources.
Suggestions to the Field
Building partnerships with CMCs will further link youth media products in the local community to local cable access. Teaching young people how to participate in media and seeing their products and messages aired on TV is an opportunity that Community Media Centers and youth media organizations must join forces to sustain.
It is critical that young people learn how to decipher when they’re being entertained from when they’re being sold a product. Media training programs and CMC’s must teach young people how to see through the subtle messages that elicit emotional reactions to products and ideas so they can speak back through a similar medium.
Each city and town has an opportunity to apply for Public Access Station. To learn more about how your area may become involved, take a look at the Alliance for Community Media. This great organization strives to connect CMCs and other public, educational, and government channels with a combined mission to allow access to the media for everyone.
Jeremy Taylor is the programming director for the Peoples Channel in Chapel Hill, NC. He is also the lead instructor for video production for TPC as well as the Arts Center in Carrboro, NC. Jeremy began working with TPC in 2003 volunteering with NC Indy Media & crewing on other local productions. He quickly became an asset to TPC & was hired as staff shortly after. With a background in graphic design & I.T., Jeremy uses his skills to help the mission of TPC succeed by teaching anyone who wants to learn how to make their own media. In his spare time, Jeremy is an avid skateboarder & motorcycle enthusiast.

“You Must Learn”: Promoting Hip-hop in Education

Even before KRS-1 dropped the line, “You must learn,” hip-hop was an integral part of media literacy education. Hip-hop itself has taught young people for a long time; captivating their minds, agitating their souls, and touching their hearts. I first noticed its impact on youth while teaching high school English in the Midwest. I saw students learning from hip-hop and rap, using the language of hip-hop to speak truth to power. It also gave youth a style, a hip-hop swagger, which helped them sanction new and exciting identities beneath the stale rhythms of their daily lives.
The very idea of hip-hop and the urgency of the “must” captivated my intellectual senses then, as it did for so many of my students who got their news delivered straight to them in verses laced with tight beats. As a teacher, I could not help but be enchanted by the pedagogical power of hip-hop. It continues to inspire a question about the deep pedagogical promise of hip-hop in the classroom that people like Geneva Smitherman Anne Dyson, Ernest Morrell, H. Samy Alim, Michael Eric Dyson, and Cornell West (among others) have hinted at for over two decades. Why, in a world where hip-hop has become such a pivotal force in the lives of youth, aren’t educators using hip-hop to help youth make sense of and change their worlds?
KRS-1’s line, “you must learn,” holds the same stubborn but enlightening pull that pulsed life into my pedagogical veins. It is the same rhythm played over and over again, pumped persuasively through Dead Prez’s track “They Schools” and weaved passionately throughout Nas’s hit “I know I can.” In English education, for example, the asymmetrical and oftentimes racist distancing (and excluding) of hip-hop texts and cultures are now rightly being critiqued and re-considered. Hence, we are learning. As an academic who has researched hip-hop and advocated for its use as a media literacy tool in the classroom (Kirkland, 2008), I have learned that hip-hop can be used in classrooms to inspire youth to be agents of social and political change.
The Case of Hip-hop in an English Class
From September 2005 to June 2006, I worked closely with a vibrant, young, Midwestern high school English teacher named Craig Kegler, who blended hip-hop and critical pedagogy in his classroom. He was optimistic that students would benefit from his approach—what he called his “cause.” According to him:

Some people say that my instructional style is provocative. I do my best to stay excited about teaching because I believe that excitement as a teacher can be infectious. I also teach with a cause. I understand that my students—these kids right here [in the City]—are catching it out there. They deserve everything that we as teachers can give them. . .

I noticed early in our interactions that Mr. Kegler was attentive to his students’ lives. Like many teachers, he wanted to incorporate materials and ideas important to his students in his classroom.
Mr. Kegler and I met throughout the school year. Twice a week, I attended his class, where we regularly chatted. In our conversations, I asked questions, usually about life in and outside the classroom—questions that could help me get a sense of the pedagogical significance of hip-hop in his classroom. During my time in the class, I took extensive notes, talked with students, recorded their responses, documented the nature of classroom activities, and logged the many “aha” moments in my field journal. I also collected samples of student work, classroom readings, and selected lesson plans.
Mr. Kegler’s lessons represented hip-hop as a critical language and common voice for the historically marginalized. His lessons revealed a philosophy that is consistent with Geneva Smitherman, who maintains that hip-hop “is a contemporary response to conditions of joblessness, poverty, and disempowerment” (Smitherman, 1999, p. 269). While it is important to note that “rap has its violence, its raw language, and its misogynistic lyrics,” Mr. Kegler—quoting Smitherman—maintained that “rap music is not only a Black expressive cultural phenomenon” He argued, “it is, at the same time, a resisting discourse, a set of communicative practices that constitute a text of resistance against White America’s racism and Euro-centric cultural dominance” (Smitherman, 1999, p. 2). It is important to note that Mr. Kegler was a young White teacher.
One of Mr. Kegler’s major goals in using hip-hop in his English class was to help his students see that they could transform society into a better place. He believed that serious study of hip-hop could help equip his students with the academic competencies needed to improve their qualities of life. “If they can only learn to think about what they hear,” he explained, “listen to the lessons embedded in the lyrics, and question the things that do not feel right, and then they can rewrite history.”
While not all hip-hop lyrics are necessarily useful for the purposes of critical, or what I call transformative, literacy development, I agree with Mr. Kegler that the majority of hip-hop texts are deeply saturated with various readings and representations of the world that are ripe for critical examination. According to Morrell and Duncan-Andrade (2002):
Teaching hip-hop as a music and culture of resistance can facilitate the development of critical consciousness in urban youth. Analyzing the critical social commentary produced by [hip-hop] may lead to consciousness-raising discussions, essays, and research projects attempting to locate an explanation for the current state of affairs for urban youngsters. The knowledge reflected in these lyrics could engender discussions of esteem, power, place, and purpose or encourage students to further their own knowledge of urban sociology and politics. In this way, Hip-hop music should stand on its own merit in the academy and be a worthy subject of study in its own right than necessarily leading to something more “acceptable” like a Shakespearean [sic] text (pp. 89-90).
We agree that hip-hop lyrics can become valuable classroom resources, capable of stimulating complex textual dialogue in and beyond the classroom.
Teaching Tupac
Mr. Kegler’s use of Tupac presents a powerful example of how hip-hop can be effectively used to get students to think critically about and act upon difficult social issue. Mr. Kegler’s goals in using Tupac lyrics were:
1. To have students make critical connections between themes in Tupac’s songs, The Scarlet Letter (a texts the students read earlier in the year), and their lives;
2. To have students use the emergent themes to find meaning of their worlds and locate points of inequity;
3. To have students develop a language of critique to name and speak to and against the social inequities that exist in their worlds.
During the lesson, students listened to, read, and discussed Tupac’s songs “Changes,” “Me Against the World,” “Keep Ya Head Up,” “I ain’t mad at ‘cha,” and “Dear Momma.” After the class listened to the music and poured over the lyrics, Mr. Kegler encouraged dialogue using Tupac’s words, helping students to problem-pose their worlds. This exercise enabled students to examine and connect lyrics to life—those personal situations and local issues, such as the state of Michigan’s “Welfare to Work” laws, that affected most if not all of their lives.
For example, many students responded to the line in “Keep Ya Head Up”: “I give a holla to my ladies on welfare. Tupac cares if nobody else care.” One student suggested, “Tupac was bringing attention to welfare mothers. Nobody seems to care about them no more, but Tupac is saying, ‘Tupac cares if don’t nobody else care.’” By expressing cares as opposed to contempt, Tupac helped students celebrate the resilience of mothers by giving her “a holla,” who on other textual terms would not be given a hoot.
In addition to making these connections, students also analyzed the texts, using various critical literacy approaches such as Marxism and feminism. During their discussion of “Keep Ya Head Up,” another student inferred that Tupac was critiquing a [social] system that punished women for having babies. The student explained:

Men are never as affected by welfare reform as women . . . The people in my family that suffer most because of the new welfare laws is my aunt and my little cousins. I know a lot of women who need it. They can’t raise no baby by themselves. When their baby daddy leaves, what are they supposed to do. I know that it is partly their fault. No body can have a child alone, but we ask women to raise them alone. So I don’t think the welfare (to work) laws are fair.

Still another student connected Tupac and Hawthorne, making an explicit connection between Hester and “ladies on welfare.” According to the student:

It ain’t easy being a single mother. My mother is a single mother. She was on welfare, and she said she never felt good about being on welfare. She said she felt bad because people looked down on her, especially when she went to the grocery store. It was like . . . I hope none of my friends see us. Her food stamp card was like a scarlet letter to us. [Laughs.] We needed the food stamps to get food, but we was always embarrassed to use it. . . Not only was my mother being oppressed because she was poor, she was oppressed because she was a single woman with kids who didn’t nobody care about.

Several other students alluded to the peculiar presences of male figures from the texts, making explicit connections among The Scarlet Letter, “Keep Ya Head Up,” and their own experiences being raised by single mothers or grandmothers. One student, for example, pointed out:

Men get off the hook. They do stuff and get away with it. They don’t have to have a food stamp card or get a scarlet letter written on them. They can just leave and nobody will hold them accountable, nothing. But if you a woman . . . This world penalizes women for being women, and its worst if you are poor and Black, just like Tupac said.

In their comments, students usually focused on themes. One key theme that emerged centered around the issue of poverty. For example, one student found it difficult to understand why in the “richest country in the world” people would have to depend on welfare. The students acutely questioned, “Don’t we have enough [resources] to make sure that everybody can live with dignity?” Another student insisted that one “[gets] cared for when you have money, but nobody ain’t gon care about you when you don’t [have money].”
In analyzing Tupac’s lyrics, students became aware of social injustices, gaining a voice through dialogue to speak their truths to power. Hip-hop (its rap and style) did not only help ground student voices; it offered an English teacher interested in authentic classroom dialogue a language and subject matter to speak to students about fundamental social change.
From Inspiration and Dialogue to Action
Following their discussion, students were encouraged to write letters to local and state politicians about their perceptions of inequalities laden in Michigan’s “Welfare to Work” laws. They also declared what they called a “Baby Momma’s Day.” However crude some people might find this occasion, it represented an acknowledgement of a different kind of home—where single mother could be celebrated—as opposed to condemned—through the crafting of cards and reading of literature.
These actions suggest that the students’ learned something far more politically rich and humanly desirable than what Mr. Kegler originally conceived. They achieved not only a critical literacy, but also a transformative one—a sense of awareness that compels one to act. Accordingly, scholars such as Cornell West have long prescribed that “The repoliticizing of the black working poor and underclass should focus primarily on the black cultural apparatus, especially the ideological form and content of black popular music” (West, 1993, p. 289). Certainly, teaching Tupac put West’s goal of “repoliticizing” our nation’s youth to practice.
The goals of “repoliticizing” youth should never be limited by race, however. That is, the push for hip-hop in education should never be seen as exclusively urban or Black. Used as a media literacy tool, hip-hop “calls attention to those deep feelings” which “are shared across the boundaries of class, gender, and race, and which could be fertile ground for the construction of empathy—ties that would promote recognition of common commitments and serve as a base for solidarity and connection” in new century education classrooms (hooks, 1990, p. 4).
As they seek to move beyond the politics of race in education, educators must bear in mind the voluminous amount of media literacy work that artists and intellectuals have compiled over the years. This list includes (but certainly is not limited to) Bryon Hurt’s film, Beyond Beats & Rhymes, Raiford Ruins’s, Down for the Cause: Digital Learning through Hip-hop, and Yvonne Bynoe’s article, “Hip-Hop as a Political Tool.” There are also germinal works by Tricia Rose, Gwendolyn Plough, Elaine Richardson, David Stoval, the Black Youth Project, among many, many others.
These scholars, artists, and educators illuminate a world, a setting, and an unrehearsed reality that gets lost somewhere in translation in the pages of traditional texts. Such texts constitute media-less education, reducing the cultural richness of languages and literacies to monolithic sound bites that dolefully articulate the nonstandard lives of today’s youth across race, gender, class, sexual orientation, or ability status. By making this point, I hope to advocate for more media literacy of diverse texts and media in all schools and subjects.
As I quietly return to Mr. Kegler—an educator that values diverse media as important learning tools—I again sense the urgency of KRS-1’s message: “You must learn.” Mr. Kegler has given me just one example of what students can learn. Sitting in his quiet classroom with the voice of KRS-1 perched against our thoughts, we evaluate hip-hop. It promises sparks of new meaning into that quiet space. What do we mean by texts, analysis, and the very language we have become so comfortable speaking? How has media challenged us to rethink our definitions? It is at that point—on the edges of inquiry—that we get it. “You must learn” is hip-hop’s call to all educators to contribute to the realization of a more favorable and righteous future; to demystify present mythologies and “regimes of truth;” and create visions of an alternative, righteous future under a new truth regime (West, 1993, p. 82).
hooks, bell. (1990). Postmodern Blackness. Postmodern Culture, 1(1).
Kirkland, David E. (2008). “The Rose that Grew from Concrete”: Postmodern Blackness and New English Education. English Journal, 97(5), 69-75.
Morrell, Ernest, & Duncan-Andrade, Jeffrey. (2002). “Promoting academic literacy with urban youth through engaging hip-hop culture.” English Journal, 91, 88-92.
Smitherman, Geneva. (1999). Talkin that talk: African American language and culture. New York, NY: Routledge.
West, Cornell. (1993). Race matters. Boston: Beacon Press.
David E. Kirkland, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of English Education at
Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, New York University.

The National Media Education Conference Helps Strengthen the Field

What happens when over 300 classroom teachers, college and university faculty, youth media professionals and community leaders gather for several days and nights of stimulating presentations, screenings, discussions, workshops and keynote speeches? None other than the 2007 National Media Education Conference (NMEC), held in late June this year in St. Louis, Missouri, a bi-annual event brimming with research and reflections on the theory and practice of media education in a variety of school and community settings. With the increasing growth and diversity of the field, we believe this gathering of media literacy educators is more important than ever before.
The theme of the four-day series of workshops and screenings was “iPods, Blogs and Beyond: Evolving Media Literacy for the 21st Century.” For one of us (Robb Grieco), it was our first experience at a national gathering of media literacy educators; for another (Hobbs), it was one of perhaps a dozen such events attended over the past twenty years. We share here, briefly, our critical reflections on the conference, with particular focus on its relevance to readers of Youth Media Reporter.
As described in Hobbs’ keynote address, there are many factors now in place that are enabling the development of media literacy in the United States and around the world. These include:
• the increasing diversity of media content, formats and genres (new genres create new opportunities for critical analysis and production)
• access to digital tools for authorship and new forms of distribution and exhibition
• widespread public awareness of need for critical thinking about new forms of online media
• state curriculum standards (now in almost every state)
• new stakeholders—nearly 1/3 of the NMEC conference registrants were first-time attendees
• recognized instructional practices, implementation processes and models for teacher education and staff development
• case studies of practice in school and after-school
• graduate programs and coursework at universities around the country
However, media literacy educators gather at this conference every two years not only to celebrate accomplishments, but also to challenge each other, to provoke each other, to push at each other’s assumptions. After all, the definition of media literacy is still contested, and it will be for quite a few years to come. Is it a skill? A competency? A set of tools? A knowledge base? Does media literacy have a particular perspective or point of view on media culture? Is media literacy a lifestyle? What about the uses and purposes of media literacy? All these different perspectives were presented—and argued about—at the conference.
At NMEC, participants viewed media literacy as widely as:
• a new type of literacy that responds to the digital media environment;
• an educational approach to promote critical thinking about popular culture;
• an awareness-building process for recognizing bias in the media;
• giving young people a voice in their culture and communities;
• the process of teaching and learning about tools and technologies of communication;
• a means to support the development of healthy lifestyle decisions; and/or
• an advocacy tool to push for social and political change.
These different perspectives contributed to the fresh, dynamic mix of engaging ideas from people with a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives, leading to an exhilarating sense of possibility for the future of the field. From our point of view, while the vitality of the field is strengthened by these diverse conceptualizations of media literacy, it can also be confusing. Because of the different perspectives driving the advancement of the field, it is important to ask: What flavor is your media literacy? Practitioners and scholars need to reflect on the understandings they bring to this complex term while respecting the diversity of voices in the field.
Research Expands Our Understanding of the Impact of Youth Media
One highlight of the conference was the two-day Research Summit held in conjunction with the conference, where nearly 100 scholars and graduate students gathered to share research on media literacy. Organized by Marilyn Cohen (University of Washington) and Renee Cherow-O’Leary (Teachers College, Columbia University), the research summit was the first of its kind, the result of a growing number of researchers who are exploring the impact of media literacy on children, youth, and adults. We found ourselves in a state of amazement at the collegial spirit in evidence at the event: this group truly appreciates the pleasure of trans-disciplinary inquiry.
And with scholars from the fields of communication, education, public health, the humanities and the fine arts all rubbing elbows, participants seemed to enjoy the chance to learn about theories, research methodologies and approaches to research that were far outside their own areas of expertise. Unlike traditional academic conferences, where we present our ideas to people who (mostly) share our same knowledge set, here we had to frame our ideas more broadly so they could make sense to people from a wide range of academic backgrounds. As a result, plenty of deceptively simple questions yielded surprising and provocative discussions.
Yet we were also able to share the nitty-gritty of our current work, too. Some research sessions felt a little like the sensation you get when driving from 0 to 60 miles per hour in less than 3.5 seconds. To be truthful, it was an intellectual rush that most of the old timers (used to the more-typical focus on ‘show-and-tell’ teacher workshops which focus on classroom implementation) found breathtaking.
Scholars from many disciplines are exploring how youth media impacts the lives of adolescents. Some of this work maps nicely onto what youth media practitioners have discovered from their own practice. For example, in her work with Native American youth, Karon Sherarts has shown how, when students create media, the production process brings together the intersecting skills of writing, problem-solving, social skills, and creative/aesthetic development. In measuring learning outcomes, she showed that, with guidance from skilled adults, these programs can also generate leaps in students’ self-understanding. This is a key point because, although youth media programs can be positioned to emphasize skill-building and workforce development outcomes, the key benefits may be in supporting a healthy process of identity development, socio-emotional and personal growth, particularly among minority youth.
Other research sessions also focused on youth media, including the work of Korina Jocson, an expert in adolescent literacy who is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University. Her work examined how adolescent literacy practices are enacted in video production activities. At the Research Summit, she presented a model for examining the developmental trajectory of student learning. Technical skills, conceptual understanding and aesthetic abilities simultaneously develop during the course of a media production experience. We believe that models like this contribute to the process of understanding how youth media production experiences can be best designed and implemented to meet clearly articulated objectives.
Another fascinating presentation was shared by Just Think, a San Francisco-based media literacy organization, who with an evaluation team from the Michael Cohen Group, developed an approach to evaluate the impact of a media arts program implemented with 16 teachers in two low-income California middle schools. This school-based program involved children in critical analysis and media production activities using digital cameras and graphic design software. In this program, media literacy was explored through an approach that was inquiry-based, using the critical questions now codified by the AMLA’s Core Principles of Media Literacy Education. Teachers participated in staff development programs that helped them practice media analysis that emphasized open-ended questioning. There was an emphasis on the development of “strong-sense critical thinking,” in which critical thinking skills are applied to all texts. Based on the work of Richard Paul, strong-sense critical thinking encourages students to question even the ideas and opinions that they support. Critical thinking in the strong sense emphasizes the metacognitive and reflective processes that enable a person to have insight into his or her own cognitive and emotional responses. Throughout the four days, it was easy to see how this passion for strong-sense critical thinking is deeply shared among conference participants.
One of the strengths of the research developed by Just Think was its mix of qualitative and quantitative methodologies. While qualitative work is essential for building the future of the field, it is important to develop quantitative approaches that enable us to address the question: What does a media literate person do, think, feel and believe?
Reflecting on the Research Summit overall, it’s important for researchers to be critical about the practice of their research on media literacy. Because the field is new, we are still searching for the right kinds of theoretical and conceptual tools that offer insight on this work. We saw some sessions where theory and evidence were clearly mismatched, methodological rigor was lacking, and researchers were searching for evidence that confirmed existing theoretical (or ideological) stances. The opportunity to share ideas with colleagues—and ask critical questions—deepens the quality of our own work.
Exploring Popular Music and Personal and Social Identity
Going beyond the “bread and butter” topics of media literacy education—news media/citizenship, advertising/consumerism, media ownership/economics, and stereotypes/issues of representation—this year’s NMEC workshops and presentations provided a deeper focus on issues including popular music, film, videogames, and the Internet by media literacy educators.
For example, Mike Robb Grieco presented a workshop on using music for critical inquiry. He developed a high school English unit that enables students to question, explore and communicate the different ways that popular music holds power in their lives, using carefully selected clips from the popular film High Fidelity (2000) to promote rich discussion. In the workshop, he modeled a lesson from the curriculum where students choose the top five songs that they would want played at their funeral. As participants enacted and then discussed the activity, it became clear our rationale for most of our choices clearly connected to the core questions of media literacy inquiry such as: Who is telling the story? Who is the target audience? How might different people interpret the message differently? What values are embedded in the message? What is omitted from the message? Although this particular unit did not involve youth as music producers, it did focus on students as producers of the meanings and power that music holds for them.
Such lessons help students take greater responsibility for communicating their understanding of the meaning-making process with expressive media like popular music. Activities like this strengthen students’ ability to reflect on how music contributes to the development of a sense of personal, social and cultural identity.
New Media Literacy: Skills for Thriving in Participatory Culture
The theme of the conference was well-articulated by Henry Jenkins, director of MIT’s New Media Literacy (NML) project, who piqued attendees’ interest with his keynote speech, “What Wikipedia Can Teach Us about New Media Literacies.” Jenkins explained how the user-generated, collaborative nature of knowledge (such as that gathered and created in the ever-growing, openly-updated sites like Wikipedia) challenges and changes traditional notions of knowledge and expertise. We are seeing a shift in the role of the expert; instead of the expert being seen as one who creates, holds and distributes knowledge, the expert is one who can navigate resources and connect areas of knowledge for collaborative problem solving.
As media literacy guru Marshall McLuhan pointed out more than forty years ago, we are living at time when the concepts of knowledge, authority and credibility are all in flux. As a result, there is new demand for expanded types of critical thinking and literacy skills, which in turn may need new pedagogical approaches. According to Jenkins, four of these new media literacy skills include:
• Collective Intelligence: the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others towards a common goal.
• Judgment: the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information source.
• Networking: the ability to search for, synthesize and disseminate information.
• Negotiation: the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative sets of norms.
While acknowledging debates over the credibility of user-generated knowledge in sites such as Wikipedia, Jenkins emphasized the advantages of participatory cultures in developing collective knowledge. For example, the lack of authoritative credentials in wikis often creates a greater impetus for both the author to explain how she knows what she knows and for the reader to scrutinize the basis for credibility of any given entry than most traditionally authoritative sources of knowledge offer. According to Jenkins, collaborative, participatory sites like Wikipedia help overcome a “transparency gap” by calling attention to the constructedness of the media and information that they offer.
We think this perspective has enormous value to the future of the field, but we quibble about whether it’s really “new” media literacy or rather media literacy applied to new media forms. After all, recognizing and responding to the constructedness of media representations is one of the key concepts of media literacy. And media literacy advocates also emphasize that each form of communication and expression has its unique language, codes and conventions. What Jenkins offers is an effective elucidation of the key skills needed for a particular set of communication technology tools—the current dominant online participatory media environment of the 21st century.
This keynote address invited media educators to address the participation gap by helping to provide all youth the opportunities to participate in such knowledge production and to develop new instructional approaches to examine the ethical issues such participation raises. We believe that educators at all levels—and in all settings—need to explore how to incorporate these new competencies, skills and practices into the classroom.
Youth Participation and the Future of National Gatherings of Media Literacy Educators
The Alliance for a Media Literate America (AMLA), the organization that hosts this conference, has long struggled with attracting funders to support its work. At this event, we saw the impact of this challenge on some aspects of the conference, including event coordination and publicity. The conference is run by an elected board of directors who generously volunteer their time. Without an executive director and paid staff, the organization finds it difficult to attract funders who share in its mission. Its status as a membership organization makes it just a little too “grass roots-y” in this regard.
This year, the lack of funding led to a sharp decline in the number of young people who participated in the conference. One traditional component of the NMEC conference has been M3, the Modern Media Makers, an innovative program that has been a major feature of conference for many years. The M3 program consists of a group of teens who attend the conference, partner with media educators to learn media literacy principles, and create digital videos during the conference. At the closing event of the conference, the voices of these youth participants are showcased. Students screen the videos they created during the 4-day conference and answer questions about their work from participants. Old-timers in media literacy have consistently rated the youth participation events as offering the most inspiring moments of the conference.
Sadly, this year’s M3 was smaller than usual with only a handful of youth participating. For some conference participants, this highly anticipated event was a disappointment as compared with previous years; for those attending NMEC for the first time, it was still a treat to be able to engage with even a few young people about their own learning experiences with media literacy. Few conferences for educators involve youth in any meaningful way, and that’s a shame. We would like to see NMEC continue to develop and deepen this active, authentic way to involve youth participants in the next NMEC conference, which is scheduled to meet in Detroit in the summer of 2009. Perhaps the youth media field can support a dramatic expansion of these efforts. Most importantly, the next NMEC conference needs greater support from the foundation community in order to continue to fertilize the field at the grass roots level.
Media Literacy and Global Initiatives
As the largest regular gathering of media literacy educators, the National Media Education Conference drew participants and presenters from England, Canada, New Zealand, South Korea, China, Argentina and many other nations. Paul Mihailidis, Director of Media Literacy Initiatives at the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda (University of Maryland) described a new program set to begin this summer in Salzburg, Austria. It brings together faculty and undergraduate students from six continents for a three-week media literacy course with an emphasis on global media and change.
One of the goals of the institute is for students and faculty to collaborate on the development of a media literacy curriculum for undergraduate students which they will bring back and implement at their respective universities. When asked by an attendee at his workshop, “How will students from such different cultural backgrounds and media landscapes share understandings of the media literacy skills needed for change?” Mihailidis responded optimistically, “That’s what we will find out!”
One thing is certain: media literacy educators are comfortable experimenting with new ideas and new instructional practices. They embrace the possibility of bringing people all over the world a deeper understanding of mass media and popular culture, and are excited to consider the implications of this work for enhancing peace and global understanding.
In a sense, Mihailidis’s goal to explore the implications of media literacy cross-nationally is similar to the goal of the conference organizers of the National Media Education Conference. It’s why the conference is so central to the future of the field. By sharing our experiences and questioning our assumptions, we can grow and learn from one another, finding opportunities to strengthen our own practice and develop the capacity to bring media literacy to people in our own families, our neighborhoods and communities, and around the world.
Renee Hobbs is a Professor at the Media Education Lab, Temple University School of Communications and Theater. Michael Robb Grieco is a student in the Mass Media and Communication Ph.D. program at Temple University. Contact: