As a student in the mid-1970s I roamed my college campus with a button attached to my backpack, intentionally pinned upside down. It said: “Question Authority.”
The popularity of the slogan was, in part, a reaction to Watergate and the Pentagon Papers – each of which revealed substantial reasons to stop accepting the government version of events at face value. Added to that, one cultural upheaval after another – civil and women’s rights, the “sexual revolution,” a burgeoning environmental movement – led many of us to question the value of conforming to the largely racist, sexist, homophobic, materialistic reality that had been constructed by parents, employers, clergy, teachers, and media.
The button was actually a shortened version of a quote from psychologist and counterculture guru Timothy Leary: “Think for yourself and question authority.” And though it wasn’t exactly his intention, Leary identified what would soon become the essence of media literacy education in the United States.
There were two major strands of early media literacy education. The film analysis side was focused on integrating and analyzing films in schools in ways that paralleled the study of literature. The other strand focused on viewing mass media through a critical lens in the hope that students would understand that very few real families looked like the Cleavers (on Leave It to Beaver), that real life heroes weren’t always violent or white men, and that buying the stuff in the ads wasn’t necessarily a great way to stay healthy or happy. In the U.S., it was this latter focus that came to dominate.
Through the Eighties and the decades that followed, media literacy educators developed a practice based on asking questions about the media we consume, use, and create. When most people’s media landscape consisted of a handful of national television stations, a couple of local newspapers, a smattering of magazines, a dozen radio stations, some billboards and store signs, along with dime novels and library books, it was easy to identify the media “authorities” and our questions were fairly simple: “Who produced this?” “What was their purpose?” “What techniques did they use?” “Who is the target audience?”
Fast forward to the digital world – interactive and offering individuals unprecedented access to larger audiences and more information than at any time in human history. Lines between advertising and other content are frequently blurred, citizen journalism is intertwined with traditional journalism and propaganda, and participation often requires the surrender of privacy. In this world, identifying media authorities is much less clear cut. The sophistication of our questions and questioning needs to match the increasing complexity of the media at our fingertips. We can’t just question authority; we have to figure out how to question everything and still stay sane.
A decade ago, NAMLE made an initial attempt to address the changes by shifting from recommending the teaching of specific questions to recommending the teaching of key categories of questions for analyzing media. Shortly after, Project Look Sharp developed a corollary grid for production activities. Future posts will explore the importance of the shift to categories. Today’s post focuses on how we teach, no matter what questions we use.
One of the major challenges is that even though many U.S. media literacy educators have been very good at teaching students to “question authority,” we haven’t always been very skilled at teaching students to become independent thinkers. Many media literacy lessons, either explicitly or implicitly, simply train students to replace acceptance of media authority with the views of selected cultural critics or teachers. Students learn to parrot what may be a more socially conscious perspective, but they never learn how to do the work necessary to develop their own informed opinions.
To teach students to think for themselves and question authority, the process of engagement is as important to success as the questions themselves. Here are ten key practices for media literacy analysis in the digital age:
- The wording of questions should be plural. Not “What is the purpose?” but rather, “What are all the likely purposes?” This calls for more complex thinking and provides a path that leads beyond the notion that “there’s only one right answer.”
- It’s never about single questions, but rather, strings of questions. We probe to encourage students to expand or clarify their thinking: “What else did you notice?” or “Tell me more.”
- Evidence, evidence, evidence. Require evidence-based answers. Make friends with questions like, “How do you know that?” or “What makes you say that?” or even the obvious, “What’s your evidence?” Rather than looking for one “right” answer, look for strong evidence.
- Infuse teaching with the knowledge that every person interprets media through the lens of their own experience. That means your job isn’t to convince students to accept your interpretation. You can present your evidence and explain why it’s persuasive to you, and require students to do the same. You can even make a case that some readings are dominant and some are less common. As long as interpretations are reasonable and evidence-based, respect them. Doing so will open space for diverse and authentic student voices. And modeling respect will demonstrate that it is possible to engage in civil discourse with – and maybe even learn from – people who see the world differently than you do.
- Reach outside the binary, especially when media don’t. Most significant issues have more than two sides, or they have two dominant sides each with a variety of important nuances. Guide students to think about why media – especially news media – so often present issues as two-sided.
- Remember that the goal is not for teachers to ask questions that they train students to answer. It’s about teaching students to ask sophisticated questions for themselves and to have them incorporate those questions into their routine processing of the media world (what NAMLE calls “habits of inquiry”).
- Ask questions about all media, not just the ones you don’t like. If you don’t, students may come to believe that you have an agenda that you’re trying to impose on them, and they’ll stop listening.
- Ask reflection and analysis questions about the media we make, not just media that others have created. That includes media we make for personal purposes, like a Facebook page or Snapchat post.
- Make implicit power relationships explicit. “Whose voices are privileged and whose are absent?” could be an excellent starting question. Follow-up with “Who benefits from privileging or silencing the voices you’ve identified?”
- Help students identify the origins of their ideas. Even the youngest children come to you with preconceived ideas about their world. If they get in the habit of identifying sources, they can learn to evaluate the quality and validity of those sources.
I don’t use a backpack much anymore, but I still have that Question Authority button, it is still pinned upside-down, and I still cherish its message. These days I also appreciate that my ability to question authority in public is a product of white privilege and living in a democracy, however flawed. I hope that others will take delight in thinking for themselves as much as I do; it nourishes creativity and keeps democracy messy and strong.
You’ll find a deeper discussion of these ideas in The Teacher’s Guide to Media Literacy: Critical Thinking in a Multimedia World (Scheibe and Rogow, 2012)