James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association, a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media, and a professor of communication studies at Whitworth University.

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How to be a better media user

Posted by James McPherson on March 16, 2010

Today I spoke to three groups of middle school students about media literacy, offering a few tips for becoming more knowledgeable media consumers. At the request of one of their teachers, I’ll post part of it here. Some of it I’ve gleaned from elsewhere over the years, but can’t remember where–let me know and I’ll add it. When I have more time, perhaps I’ll also come back to this and add relevant links and photos.

Four questions to ask yourself when watching/reading/hearing a media message:

1. Who controls the message? A relatively few media conglomerates control most of the media we get. And despite cries about supposed liberal media, News Corp is one of those biggies. All of them exist primarily to make money, not to enlighten, entertain, or provide a “fair and balanced” perspective.

That’s why the people who complain most about sex and violence on television are most likely to be found on Fox News, which uses the same methods to draw an audience–and which also is associated with the Fox Entertainment, the sleaziest major network on television. That’s also why MSNBC, when it couldn’t beat CNN, tried to out-Fox Fox with conservative hosts and commentators. Only after that failed did it become the liberal answer to Fox.

2. Is it real? There are a lot of ways to lie in and with the media. There are more public relations professionals than there are journalists. And everybody has access to Photoshop and a junior high student who can use it.

3. What are the underlying messages? That’s the point of one entire semester-long class that I teach, but in short, every media message offers implicit messages along with explicit messages. The messages about gender alone probably are worthy of a year’s lectures.

4. Why am I watching/reading/listening to this? Uses and gratifications theory points out that we use media for a reason, even if the reason is escapism. Thinking about the “why” can improve one’s motives (and life in general).

Four tips for making better use of the media:

1. Reduce the use of your favorite medium. Turning more often to a different medium–or to friends, family and personal observation–will likely broaden your perspective.

2. Actively watch/listen more often. Watch television with family members, rather than in separate rooms, and then talk about what you saw. Talk back to the screen. But not in a movie theatre, please.

3. Reduce the number of opinions you feel obligated to hold. Like talk show hosts, we often feel we must have an opinion on everything, whether we understand the subject or not, lest we appear either apathetic or dumb. It’s OK–and inevitable–not to be an expert about anything. And you’ll be taken more seriously when you speak about areas in which you do have some level of knowledge/expertise.

4. Consider a personal or family media code of ethics. Put it in writing: If something in the media offends you, what will you do about it? Just whine? Write a letter? Stage a protest? Are there certain kinds of shows, or certain number hours, that you won’t watch? Will you let your kid watch an hour of TV or spend an hour on the Internet if s/he then reads a book for an hour? Will you allow a television or personal computer in your child’s room?

In answer to that last question, by the way, I wouldn’t. I asked more than a hundreds kids today how many of them watch things on TV that they wouldn’t be allowed to watch if their parents knew the content (I didn’t even bother to ask about the Internet). Most of the students–a good group of kids, it seemed to me–raised their hands.

Of course, they might be forgiven for using media irresponsibly; after all, they’re kids. Most people reading this don’t have that excuse.

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5 Responses to “How to be a better media user”

  1. Core Concepts should include:
    all media are constructions
    media are languages with their own rules
    media convey values and points-of-view
    audiences negotiate meaning
    media exist to make money and gain power, influence

    Key questions include, but are not limited to:
    who created the message and why
    who is the audience
    what is the message’s purpose
    what techniques are used to gain attention
    who or what is omitted and why
    who benefits and/or makes money
    which lifestyles are portrayed or left out

    Much more at
    http://www.frankwbaker.com/media_messages
    and
    The Media Literacy Clearinghouse
    http://www.frankwbaker.com

  2. Joy said

    Just in time for the media literacy unit I’m starting in a few weeks!

  3. James McPherson said

    Cool–you might also want to check out some of the links under “Media Criticism.” You’re doing great things with your kids, Joy; I’m proud to know you.

  4. i’m a little bit leery of the last tip, but only because i grew up in a family where fox news is considered fine, unbiased media >.>

  5. James McPherson said

    Fortunately you outgrew that, Gabrielle.

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