Media Moments Western Reserve Public Media


Key Concepts in Media Literacy

  • All television shows are “constructions.” That’s right, they’re made. It’s easy to forget this sometimes because the shows you and your family watch appear to be seamless extensions of reality. They are, in fact, carefully crafted products, the result of countless decisions. Meaning and impact are created through the selection of words and images, lighting, setting, colors, shapes, background music — and how all of those elements are put together.

  • The media construct stories. Everyone has a “reality construct” — a sense of what the world is and how it works. Like all of us, the media must shape raw sensory information into a coherent story. That goes for everything you see on TV, including the nightly news! We have to keep in mind that all of the elements in a TV show are carefully selected and crafted together to represent some “reality” — not necessarily reality as you know it, nor a complete story that shows all sides.

  • TV programs are built on the relationship of form and content. Let’s consider the “sitcom.” The writers and producers know that every program will be interrupted every seven to ten minutes for a commercial break, so scripts are written to accommodate that format. Perhaps the “form” of television becomes more obvious when you see a movie on television you originally saw in the theater. The disruptions caused by commercial breaks alter the tone of a movie considerably, and the limitations of the screen size and dimensions change the film’s impact.

  • You and your family have to negotiate the meaning of programs. How you and your family interpret a TV program depends on your past experiences, critical viewing skills, values and current state of mind. Ultimately, you, the viewer, must take the information presented and “decode” it.

  • Almost all TV programs are influenced by commercial interests. Commercial interests come into play in any television program. Take the nightly news, for instance. Commercial news programs are produced by businesses that worry about the bottom line. Those businesses depend on high viewership, which translates into advertising dollars (essentially, your viewership is sold). So, the burden is on the producers to create a program that will attract and keep viewers, and that’s one of the reasons the news has become increasingly sensational. Princess Diana’s death was tragic, indeed, but her death brought a lot of viewers to the TV for extended periods of time — which may help to explain why the networks so relentlessly covered the event.

  • Ideology and values. All television programs contain “value” messages and assumed “truths” about the nature of the world. Consider “The Brady Bunch.” Did that series offer a fair representation of family life, let alone an accurate portrayal of a stepfamily? How about “Friends” and the assumptions it makes about beauty, acceptable social behavior and male and female roles? Bill Cosby broke tradition in the 1980s when his sitcom focused on an upper-middle class African American family headed by a father physician and

  • Social and political messages. The media have the potential to affect social and political behavior in a variety of ways. Presidential election coverage is a good example. Until very recently, networks would begin to project winners when polls closed on the East Coast — three full hours before they closed on the West Coast. That coverage so altered voter behavior in the West that networks had to stop doing it.

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