e-mail us


If schools want to teach values, they have to talk about media


We are awash in media these days, much of it aimed at the most vulnerable among us -- our children. To date, efforts to help kids cope have been fairly anemic, relying on technology to solve the problem -- the V-chip, for example, or “Net Nanny.”

But no technological fix will give young people the maturity and wisdom to handle media appropriately. At best, it will simply delay the inevitable.

A better answer, but one that has been slow to rise in our nation, is media literacy. Like other forms of literacy, the goal of media education is to give kids a base of knowledge that allows them to make their own judgments about what they see, read and hear in popular culture.

Over the past 15 years, the notion of media literacy has gathered some steam, and more materials are available today for schools and teachers. The goal is to create intelligent and critical utilizers of the media -- kids who understand how advertisers try to manipulate them, kids able to make moral judgments about the choices popular characters make on TV or in the movies.

Some believe that introducing media literacy into an already overcrowded school curriculum would further blur the focus on academic basics. That criticism relies on a false notion of what media studies is about -- nobody in the field is advocating an undemanding, “feel-good” approach. More important, if schools are serious about educating for character, they must address the crucibles in which today’s character decisions are likely to be forged -- and for America’s children, that means serious attention to the mass media.

Values are key for those coming to media literacy from a religious perspective. Many believers want the values portrayed in the media to reflect those of their own tradition and beliefs. But our culture is composed of many different value and belief systems, so it is not always easy to find media that correspond to ours. We have to accept the fact of diversity, that our kids will routinely encounter media images that we believe send exactly the wrong moral messages.

We can protest those messages all we want, but they’re not going away. The only responsible course is to equip our kids to deal with them. If media literacy was introduced into our Catholic schools, children could learn from an early age how to view, assess, understand and be empowered by the media through the Christian, Catholic tradition.

If we want children to accept the values and beliefs of the Catholic tradition, they must be taught how to live and hold those values and beliefs in our culture. They need to be taught that the media is a tool to understand our values and why we hold them. If all they hear is that the media is evil and to be shunned, they will continue to think adults do not know what we’re talking about.

In 1992 the Vatican’s Council for Social Communications published a pastoral letter on media and values, Aetatis Novae, described as a “Pastoral Instruction on Social Communications.” While it stresses the importance of the media for re-evangelization and new evangelization, the pastoral says that “even as the church takes a positive, sympathetic approach to the media, seeking to enter into the culture created by modern communications in order to evangelize effectively, it is necessary at the very same time that the church offer a critical evaluation of mass media and their impact upon culture.” The pastoral also stresses the need for media education for those in pastoral ministry; encourages Catholic schools and universities to offer programs and courses related to media and values; and stresses the necessity for planning and carrying out programs in media literacy for teachers, parents and students.

Media literacy should be an integral part of any school curriculum. But as members of a religious tradition that holds certain values and beliefs sacred, we should be even more concerned that those values and beliefs are expressed to our children in a language and culture that we all can understand. Media literacy is the tool that can not only help us understand our culture and its values, it can help us use media to faithfully transmit our values and beliefs to future generations of Catholics.

Jesuit Fr. Steve Baird is director of the Gabriel Media Studies Center in Sedalia, Colo. He may be reached at sbairdsj@gabrielmedia.org

National Catholic Reporter, September 18, 1998