Dr. Jeff Share talks about the urgency for critical media literacy in a rapidly evolving media landscape.

Producer: Stephanie McVicker
04/14/2021 • 11:00 PM EST

Dr. Jeff Share, faculty advisor and education lecturer at UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies discusses critical media literacy education. This involves teaching students how to critically evaluate the media they consume through a series of key questions. It also helps to build an understanding of information's connection to power and how that power ultimately influences how information is being framed and communicated.

0:00: Stephanie McVicker:

With us today, we have Dr. Jeff Share, faculty advisor and education lecturer at UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information. Studies. Dr. Share is the coauthor of The Critical Media Literacy Guide, Engaging Media and Transforming Education with Dr. Douglas Kellner. Dr. Share, thank you so much for joining us today.

0:19: Dr. Jeff Share:

Thank you. It's my pleasure to be here with you.

0:22: Stephanie McVicker:

In your book, you list six concepts or questions to help us think more critically. Can you explain what those are?

0:28: Dr. Jeff Share:

Sure. So we use a framework of concepts and questions that has evolved from the work in cultural studies for many decades. And basically there's six ideas that we teach the teachers how to understand, kind of theoretical lenses about thinking critically about media and information and technology. And then along with those understandings, we have questions that they use with their students. So they don't bring the concepts to the students, they bring the questions in the questioning process. But they need to understand the concepts so they know how to guide the students of where you want to lead them.

So, for example, the first concept is the idea of social constructivism, that all information is constructed by people or groups of people. And so a question that they would guide their students to ask is thinking about well, who are all the possible people who made decisions to create this piece of media? And to disseminate this type of information.

So, we have questions about the social constructivism, about the languages and the different codes and conventions that are used in different ways. Communication happens, whether it's visual, whether it's sound, whether it's multimedia. But also analyzing the medium as well as the content of the message, because it's important that people recognize that the medium also shapes the message. Marshall McLuhan said the medium is the message. While I don't think it's everything, but it definitely is part of the equation. So the more students can be asking, well, you know, if they're looking at a visual image a photograph, you know, what angle was it taken from? What is the lighting doing? How is the composition positioning me to think and feel a certain way about that message? So do you want me to go through all six? I'm happy to.

2:08: Stephanie McVicker:

If you could, that would be great.

2:10: Dr. Jeff Share:

Okay. So the third concept looks at audiences and positionality recognizing that regardless what the message is, all of us are going to read and interpret and make sense of that message depending on who we are and all the different contexts in which we're interacting with that message. So also engaging and thinking, reflecting on our own biases. You know, the whole notion of confirmation bias comes out of this idea that we're shaped by our experiences, our identities, and that influences how we read and think about the world around us.

Number four, looks at the politics of representation, that all messages have a point of view that promote certain values over others. And some of the questions we would ask students is to think about what do you see represented here, but also asking what do you see that's missing here? What are we not seeing or hearing? So, questioning the way the representations are constructed in terms of the values that they're communicating.

Number five, looks more at the institutions. And this is where, in the US especially, we tend to be a little naïve about our information. A lot of people think that, well, as long as it's free there's no cost to me, right? You turn on the radio, it seems like it's free. You type in words into a Google search, you think it's free. And yet most of the media companies in the United States are commercial businesses and therefore profit has to be part of their motive. That's how a corporation works. And recognize it will then how are they making their money? When I'm typing into a Google search, how is Google making its money? So starting to understand, well, it's extracting data, it's taking everything that I'm putting in there and then selling that information to somebody else. And that's how they're making their profit. And that's why I'm getting all these other, I type in a search about, you know, babies or something. All of a sudden, I'm getting all these ads coming out at me for babies. So, you know, looking at surveillance capitalism and different economic structures of how media function is really important. Because so often, especially when it's entertainment, we think it's just there for us just for our pleasure. We don't recognize that there's also a profit motive.

And then the last concept, which is very important, that's kind of an overarching thing, is questioning about social environmental justice. Who's benefiting and who's being hurt by information? Because one of the big concepts we want students to understand is information is never neutral. Anything created by human beings is going to reflect their human biases. And so bias in itself is not bad. That's just how human communication works, but there is good bias and there's bad bias. And so understanding kind of the more, this framework of communication is the tool that we use when we're training teachers to do this with their students.

4:55: Stephanie McVicker:

You've said that part of critical media literacy is challenging media representations or narratives. Can you elaborate on that?

5:03: Dr. Jeff Share:

Yeah, so an important part of critical media literacy is recognizing power and understanding how information is always somehow connected to power. People are benefiting and people are losing by different information, by what's being chosen to be shown or told, and what's not. What's missing and also how it's being framed and how the information is being communicated. And in our culture, we have a lot of dominant myths and mythologies that many of them are very harmful. I mean, patriarchy is one ideology that reproduces male superiority over females, and that's really problematic. And these are often things that are reproduced often in the media, white supremacy, heteronormativity. A lot of these dominant ideologies are things that we want our students to start to question and challenge and ask, wait, is this really fair? Is this being equitable?

And so looking at the role of the way media reproduces things and, in a way, oftentimes very subtly that it just makes something seem like it's just more normal, more right and correct. And other things seem like, well, no, that's kind of weird, that's unusual. Like a scientist who's a black woman, is not something that most of us have grown up seeing and normalized. And so helping people recognize the way representations are constructed and what they're reproducing in terms of kind of these ideas of common sense and things that we think, Woe, that's just how it is. It's always been right? But it hasn't.

And if we can start to understand that all our messages are social constructions, that people have contributed whether on purpose or not. Oftentimes these things happen through kind of unconscious bias. I'm a white male and so I see through my own lens, through my own experiences, and that's how I construct. And oftentimes I don't think about how a woman might think or how a person of color, and that often has tremendous impact, especially if I have the power to create the narratives and the stories that are going out every day over and over, being repeated so often that, for many people, it just seems like, Oh, well, that's just how it always is.

7:12: Stephanie McVicker:

You've written a lot about the consolidation of media. Why do you see this as a problem?

7:18: Dr. Jeff Share:

Well, what's been happening and it's been happening for quite a while, is that smaller media outlets have been bought up by bigger media corporations. And we're seeing that now with the technology companies, as well as with the media companies. And I want to argue that these technology companies like Facebook and Google actually are media companies. They're not just simply technology platforms. But what's happening is that fewer and fewer corporations and fewer and fewer individuals are now having control over the dissemination of information. The ideas, the stories, the narratives, are being controlled by fewer people. And typically most of these corporations are run by the same or very similar types of people; mostly kind of wealthy white male people, who have their own blinders, and all of us do. And so the more diverse our media world can be, the more likely we're going to be able to hear different stories and learn new perspectives and new information and have less of those blinders by bringing in diversity. And I think diversity is a really important element that we need to bring into our media culture.

8:29: Stephanie McVicker:

And you've said that making sense of media is far more complicated than just determining what is true and what is not. Can you elaborate on that as well?

8:38: Dr. Jeff Share:

So, it's interesting because all information, like I was mentioning before, has bias and all information has elements to it that we need to be questioning and saying, well, wait, what are we missing here? What's it not telling or how are they framing it? Simply oftentimes just by the words that are chosen to tell about an event, that right then positions people to think a certain way.

So, if they're talking about abortion and they use language that talks about right to life, religion, they're already positioning that argument very differently than if they're talking about the right of choice, about women's bodies, about feminism, about other things. That is a whole other positioning, and both of those are incomplete on their own.

And so what we need to do is we need to be bringing in as many different sources and triangulating our information, so that we're getting more information to make our own decisions about wait, what is probably really going on here? What's the closest I can come to finding the truth by looking and listening to different sources of information? And then ultimately we have to make our own decisions. But the more informed our decisions can be, I think the more likely they will be better and more accurate decisions.

9:59: Stephanie McVicker:

And let's talk a little about what you think the solutions are. When should we start talking about critical media literacy or as you call it CML?

10:08: Dr. Jeff Share:

Yesterday. I think it's never too soon. And I think as parents, I have a son. He's no longer a child, he's 21 now. But we started when he was just a baby. I think we need to start as early as possible and helping our children and then in schools from kindergarten and preschool on up, because they are being targeted. These corporations see them as a dollar sign and they specifically target them to see how they can make the most money, build brand loyalty, you know, and push all of their own agenda into the schools, into young kids' minds, because the younger you can get to them, the more likely they'll internalize this and they'll build that brand loyalty. You see Coca Cola over and over. By the time you're a teenager there's something about that little red label that just, you know, it's good. It just feels so right.

And so these corporations are not shy. They directly spend a lot of time, focus groups researching how they can get to kids as young as possible. And so I think we, as educators need to do the same thing. We need to be working with our youth, our kids, our students, as young as possible. Getting them to just think critically. Getting them to question and doubt. And all of this we do through an inquiry process, because it can't be us just saying, this is bad, this is good. It's got to be about empowering them, for them to be able to say, well, wait, I wonder what's happening? What am I not seeing? What's missing here? More that they can be questioning, learning good questions, practicing the process of questioning, the more likely they will be able to internalize this and want to do this on their own when there's no teacher or a parent around.

11:56: Stephanie McVicker:

And what do you think is the best way to light that spark in a student, to question those things or to look differently at things?

12:05: Dr. Jeff Share:

So I think one of those powerful tools we have is media production. By getting kids to create media, they then fall into the role of being the producers. And they start to then, if they're guided well, be able to see how their choices are shaping and influencing the messages they're creating, and that then can lead to a really good analysis skills. So media analysis through media production. The two, it's like reading and writing, we don't do one without the other. And with media, it's the same thing. We're going to learn to be much more critical viewers and analyzers, if we're the ones creating, taking the pictures, creating the podcasts, making the videos as well.

12:45: Stephanie McVicker:

What do we need to be aware of, in considering, when we're talking to our kids or talking to our families, when thinking about things like this?

12:55: Dr. Jeff Share:

It's really very simply about critical thinking about asking questions, about wondering and about putting in the time and energy to research and try to investigate. Cause it's not easy. The technology is like it's never been before. There's so many tools that anybody can access to manipulate and create false information very easily. So there's much more of it out there. And there's single individual people who are doing this and then there's big corporations, there's governments, there's big organizations, on purpose creating disinformation and propaganda as well. And at the same time, we have other forms of disinformation, like advertising and public relations, which are kind of a legalized form of all of this. So there's so many different ways where information is really challenging us to know what's real and what isn't. And we're not post-truth, and we've got to move away from any of those ideas, because that's not helpful. There's real stuff and it really does matter that we know what's really going on. But finding that out is a difficult task.

14:02: Stephanie McVicker:

That's a hard thing to get people to do because it's so easy. It's easy to just believe what you see.

14:09: Dr. Jeff Share:

And that's a really good point, because the easier it is, the more comfortable, the less people want to bother. It's like, Oh, come on. Really? I have to, I don't want to do that. But this is a part of democracy. This is the part about being a responsible citizen. That it isn't easy, it takes work. And I think that's what we need to help remind our students, is that anything worthwhile takes work.

14:33: Stephanie McVicker:

Okay. It looks like we're out of time for today. We've been talking to Dr. Jeff Share, faculty advisor and education lecturer at UCLA's Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and the coauthor of The Critical Media Literacy Guide. Dr. Share, thank you so much for joining us today. It's been a real pleasure.

14:51: Dr. Jeff Share:

Thank you very much. This was terrific. I appreciate this.