Exploring media ownership in the media literacy classroom may seem like an intuitive, natural and regular practice. This is not always the case, however. Even I admit that I have avoided this topic in the past.
Why would an advocate for media literacy, a teacher, avoid discussing media ownership in the classroom?
Well, perhaps that’s because media ownership is political, and is therefore somewhat controversial. Particularly for media literacy programs and youth media programs that are funded by media corporations, it may be a conflict of interest to discuss media ownership in any critical way. Remember when Comcast threatened to stop funding Reel Grrls last year?
Other educators might shy away from it because they think the issue is too complicated for young people understand. Or that students will be apathetic. After all this is an argument that big media owners make — that consumers care about content, not who owns it.
But for me, there was a lot about media ownership I did not understand myself. And this is what made me avoid delving into the subject, in a meaningful way (beyond the surface). When I began to learn about media literacy, as a theory and practice, I focused on pedagogy, rationale and issues such as representation. When it came to analyzing media, I often focused on the message. Although considering the author was part of this process, media ownership as a subject was not a priority.
David Buckingham writes about the importance of contextual analysis (as opposed to textual analysis) in his book Media Education: Literacy, Learning and Contemporary Culture. He asserts that unpacking the “economic and institutional contexts of media production” allow for a more “sophisticated approach” to media literacy. (p.122)
I read that book in graduate school. But it was not until earlier this year, when one of my mentors (a youth media educator in Rhode Island), encouraged me to integrate media ownership into my curriculum in a more intentional way, that I heeded this advice.
I first integrated this subject in a youth media after-school program. Then I expanded the curriculum and brought it into a media literacy elective course I teach to 11th graders at an African-Centered school in Philadelphia. With the elective I had more time, so I was able to spend about 5 days (45 minute classes) on this subject. We began looking at media ownership early on in the course.
I began by assessing what they already knew about media ownership. I then introduced students to the Big Six, the six media corporations that own the majority of media in the U.S. I used a tagline from Viacom’s website as an entry point for students to discuss the advantages and characteristics of a big media corporation.
“Our brands engage, empower, and connect across every platform.” – Viacom
After presenting the Big Six and identifying exactly what they own, I introduced the concept of cross-media ownership. I used this video about The Fray (band) to highlight the benefits of cross media ownership.
After discussing that clip, we turned to this comic of cross media ownership. What is the message here? I asked.
Many students didn’t know what to make of this at first — and there were several interpretations. But finally students came to a consensus that the comic is indeed a critique of cross media ownership. This comic allowed us to also talk about satire, news worthiness, media concentration and various forms of media (print, tv, radio, etc.) It also connected to a reading they would have that night about media ownership and its effect on diversity.
Another text I used was a montage of news clips about deregulation. This video in particular provides common arguments in support of big media industry.
The unit ended with a class debate about government regulation of media. The debate was lively; it was a mock FCC hearing. One side (Big Media) argued for deregulation and the other side argued for increased government regulation.
From this experience I’ve come to believe that young people need to know about media ownership. If we leave out these conversations, we are sending a message to them loud and clear– media ownership does not matter.
And is this the message we want to send young media makers? That media ownership does not matter? How will this message help or hinder their critical thinking about media?
Teaching media ownership has forced me to step up my game. I still have a lot to learn — but I won’t shy away from this topic anymore. I believe media ownership matters and it is time for me to take responsibility and overcome my own insecurities so that I can better serve my students and better advocate for critical media literacy.