Understanding the Language of Media
The language of media has its own understanding and interpretation of grammar, syntax, and metaphors. To understand the media you must understand its language. It requires the user to be able to interpret what he or she is seeing and hearing. The process starts with our ability to comprehend and embrace media literacy. Why should I care about learning media literacy? Does media really play a role in defining culture? What do I need to do to fully understand media and its influence. These are the questions that media literacy can answer.
Defining Media Literacy
Media literacy is the art of understanding and interpreting the meaning and purpose behind the messages which are communicated through media and entertainment. It is a five-part process. Identify the message. Discover the purpose of why it is being sent. Understand the impact it has on the individual. Discover its impact on society. And take control of your response to the message. By going through this process, you are required you to think for yourself. In other words, you become an active participant as you consume media. How do we do this?
Step 1 starts with awareness and education. You learn the strategy and techniques that media makers use to manipulate and control your actions.
Step 2 – You develop a skill set that utilizes the various techniques and strategies to discover the motivation and the reasoning behind media images.
Step 3 – You learn how to apply these techniques on a daily basis in order to be effective and a good steward of media.
Why Do I Need to Learn Media Literacy?
We are all consumers of media. Our society is consumed with every imaginable type of media. There is nowhere to escape. We are plugged in and on the grid. For good or bad, media is the primary force driving our society. No man is an island. We all live in the same culture. We are influenced through the people around us as well as our institutions. Media has the ability to shape perceptions, beliefs and attitudes. In order to be an engaged citizen of a democracy, it requires that I think critically. Media literacy enables us to sort through political packaging and, ultimately, helps us to make informed decisions.
In a world of mobile media, the iPhone, and laptop computers, media literacy helps us to read the multiple layers of image-based communication. Our society has placed a high value on visual communication and information. An informed citizen of the 21st Century will require a skill set based on the elements contained in media literacy to successfully compete in the competitive environment in the years ahead.
Five Theories of How Media Impacts Culture
Media is an Originator of Culture
In other words, media drives and creates culture by directly and indirectly impacting individuals’ attitudes, values, and behaviors as well as our institutions and collective, shared consciousness.
Media Functions as an Amplifier of Culture
Media searches for new cultural shifts, concepts, and trends, which are incorporated and reflected within the media and, in turn, the media acts as an amplifier to increase their strength and influence. The message then is communicated to the culture, which is accepted in greater numbers, which again is picked up by the media. And the process continues to repeat itself.
Media Identifies and Directs the Culture to Consider What is Important
In other words, media does not tell us how to think but what to think about. When certain events or topics are incorporated into current media, they are elevated to an important status. By deciding not to cover certain events or by omitting or ignoring topics, media therefore conveys the idea that they are not important and are not worthy of our consideration or discussion.
Media is a Reflector of the Culture
In other words, media has no direct impact on the culture, but merely reflects current views and opinions of our society. Media serves as a messenger and, therefore, is not responsible for its content.
The Medium is the Message
The medium or the media is an extension of our ideas, senses and thought processes. The extension will always bring about some form of change within the culture. This change is often unnoticed, misunderstood and not necessarily linked to the medium or the extension. We tend to focus on the content of the message but overlook the character of the medium or the process of change which ultimately occurs within our culture.
What are Images?
Images are pictures. However, in our culture, pictures have become tools used to elicit specific and planned emotional reactions in the people who see them.
• The images are created to give us pleasure when we watch them. They are also created to make us feel anxious.
• Images work best when they are vivid and emotionally saturated. For example, the American flag depicts very powerful emotions. The flag works as an image because it suggests a long list of stories and myths that are buried inside of us.
• Picture images that evoke deep memories can be very powerful and also very spiritual.
• By calling up these deep emotions and memories, today’s image makers are using images to take on new meaning and have created new myths that are shrouded, often deliberately, by those deeper memories.
The New Myths
Traditionally, a myth has been defined as a story or idea that explains culture or customs of a people. Myths are the motivating stories or ideas that help to define cultural practices. Often they motivate daily behavior.
The key to recognizing the new myths of today’s modern media culture is to think of them as ideas that emerge from long exposure to certain patterns of images. In fact, these myths are unconvincing unless one thinks of them as emerging from a huge array of images, which come from many sources, including advertising, entertainment and news.
Today’s images must be read on two levels in order to understand how new myths are created in our society. Myths are generally something that is not completely true but are accepted by society as truth. For example: your body is not good enough; the good life consists of buying possessions which cost lots of money; and happiness, satisfaction and sex appeal are readily available at the next consumer purchase.
• Second, we view that image within the context of hundreds of other similar images. By doing this, the new myth that the image is communicating is clearly seen. Otherwise, it cannot stand apart because it would be obscured by powerful stories and the emotional connections that are used to sell the image.
Now that we have a better understanding of how media influences culture, how do the television industry and motion pictures function? Since the early 1950s, the television industry has gone through many changes, but its basic structure remains the same. There are four major television networks, ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox. They continue to distribute television programs to local television stations. Most local stations no longer produce original programming with the exception of the local news broadcast. The majority of income for local stations come from ad revenues generated by local news broadcasts. Television is an extremely competitive business, especially in today’s economical environment.
Some have suggested that broadcast television’s model has failed. It is possible that within the next few years that broadcast networks could become cable networks. Beginning in the early 1980s, cable television networks have been cutting into the audience share of broadcast networks. Currently, we have over 300 cable networks. Their strength and power continue to grow. Fox News, TNT, Food Network, TBS, ESPN, and the History Channel are examples of cable networks who are pushing broadcast television to its edge. Each network must set itself apart from the others so that it can attract a large enough audience for advertisers. This often leads to what networks call edge or provocative programming. Audience share, profits and greed, many argue, have lowered the standards of good taste and values.
Ratings continue to drive broadcast television. However, they are not as important to cable television networks. They have an entirely different business model. Their revenues are generated by a per cost/per subscriber rate for each cable system. This allows them a competitive edge over broadcast television.
Networks and local stations continue to use a system of audience ratings to determine the success or failure of a program. Television programs are not only impacted by ratings but also by the type of demographics they generate. In other words, a program can receive high ratings but not attract the right demographics; therefore, they can be subject to cancellation. A few years ago, Touched by an Angel faced this dilemma. Although it was successful in achieving a large audience, advertisers were not impressed because the program’s core audience was over the age of 55. In television, it’s all about the 18-54 audience.
In today’s media mobile culture, television is facing increased pressures from so-called time shifting and digital video recorders. This allows viewers the opportunity to bypass commercials. Rating are becoming more difficult to validate. Today’s audience demands mobility and decide to watch when it is convenient to their schedule. So-called appointment viewing is no longer relevant to this generation. As ad revenues continue to fall, networks are abandoning scripted programming in order to offer inexpensive reality programs. This trend will continue for some time.
Web TV will continue to increase as broadcast networks look for new opportunities to maximize and increase their audience. Television is in a state of change that will likely continue because technology has enabled the internet to become a significant player.
Just like the television industry, the film business is also faced with its assortment of problems. Revenues from packed media, such as home video, have fallen due to pirating, bootleg movies and the economy. These are a constant threat to Hollywood’s financial security. As a result, the movie industry is expanding its overseas distribution base as a new means to increase revenues. Attendance at the movies continues to remain high but is uncertain.
The film industry can be divided into two categories—the studio system and independent or art films. Digital video has made it easier for independent filmmakers to enter the film business. Today’s generation is just as likely to make movies as to watch them. Filmmaking is becoming a more democratic process.
In the studio system, six major studios control the development, production and distribution of their product. Essentially, they decide what films will eventually be shown in your local theater. Independent filmmakers often offer a different voice and perspective. Although they have a more difficult time reaching an audience, they are usually far more creative and innovative than their studio system counterparts.
Blockbusters are usually released at Christmas and during the summer with typical budgets of over $100 million. They are released by major studios such as Fox, Warner Brothers, Paramount, etc. They usually play on over 3,000 screens. Content is closely monitored by the studio. The director/filmmakers often do not have total creative control over the final product. Focus Groups are often used to analyze the film’s impact on audiences. Most films in this category are predominately rated G or PG-13.
Major Theatrical Release
Films in this category are usually in the range of $30 million plus budgets released by major studios and seen on over 2,000 screens. Content is closely guarded by the studios. Focus groups are used to analyze the film’s impact; however, filmmakers often have more input on critical decisions than they would have on blockbuster budgets. This is especially true with major directors who have had previous commercial success. The rating of choice in this category is predominately PG-13 with a substantial number of R-rated features.
Limited Theatrical Release
Films in this category have a $5 to $20 million budget. They are released by major or mid-level studios or production companies (Lions Gate, First Look Media, Screen Media Films). Limited theatrical release is anywhere from a few hundred screens upwards to 1,000.
Major studios such as Universal, Sony, and Warner will acquire independent films and release them under a different division within their company, such as Focus Features, Sony Classics, or Time Warner Independent. Often films in this category are considered less commercially viable. They usually contain sex, violence, and language. Most films in this category are R-rated. Often filmmakers have more control over the final cut and content of the film.
Straight-to-video movies have a limited budget and are released by major, mid-level and small studios or production companies. A large number of films in this category are action, adventure, horror, or crime dramas. This category is predominately R-rated. Some have suggested that straight-to-video movies are akin to a to paint-by-numbers filmmaking approach. Standard content emphasizes sex and violence with little emphasis on character or plot development.
Independent or Art Films
Independent or art films have been around for years. The have limited budgets or no budget. Funding is often provided outside the normal Hollywood system and are produced by independent producers and filmmakers. Many films in this category are considered to be edgy, provocative, and sometimes controversial. They usually receive limited or no theatrical release. They play throughout various film festivals such as Sundance or the Toronto Film Festival. They are also featured on Sundance Channel and Independent Film Channel. Most in this category are now available on DVD for home viewing.
Hollywood loves familiarity. That’s why so many movies seem like something we have seen before. In reality, they follow a predictable format and pattern, such as genre and the rules that apply to the genre. For example, romantic comedies have followed the same pattern for years. Boy meets girl—through some misunderstanding girl dislikes boy—boy begins to grow on girl—boy does something wrong which causes girl to reject boy—boy finally wins girl by revealing his true nature.
In horror films it goes something like this. We start with four characters usually in their late teens or early twenties—one good girl, one bad girl; one good boy, one bad boy. Most of the time the bad girl and bad boy have some type of romantic relationship. Our characters are on some type of trip to a faraway location. Along the way they receive two warnings or foreshadowing of events to follow; the first usually involves a stop at a gas station or restaurant, where the locals know that are characters are doomed, but they fail to pick up the signals. The second warning usually comes with a closed road or some other unforeseen event. As they continue on they will lose contact with the outside world. Now there is no escape from their fate. Eventually they run into a pack of crazy, insane killers. Each character is picked off one by one until the final climax, where one or two of our heroes survive the final confrontation. That happens after we think the final killer is dead only to discover he or she has survived to possibly threaten us in a future sequel.
You have been introduced to genre rules. Movies are grouped into genres such as comedy, science fiction, western, romantic comedy, action/adventure, suspense thrillers, horror, crime drama, urban, and fantasy. These are just a few. And under each genre, there are sub-genres such as buddy movies, road films, film noir, etc.
Now it’s easy to understand why so many of the movies we see feel familiar. When Hollywood executives have a hit, they want to repeat it. If you bought a movie ticket to see Knowing, a movie about the end of the world, why not offer you a similar film like 2012? All we have to do is to change characters, the setting and the situation, but the format is the same. Once you understand the format, you can unlock all the movies that has ever been produced.
You cannot talk about Hollywood unless you understand the rating system. Much of what the film industry does is based on what rating a film receives. They are using the system as a marketing tool. This wasn’t the original intent when the rating system was put into place in 1966. The system was designed to help parents make informed decisions about the nature and content of films. Today Hollywood has used it to their advantage. Today PG-13 has become the rating of choice because it can guarantee a broader appeal and higher profits. The criteria for the rating system has changed and evolved over the years. A recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health finds that today’s PG-13 films have more content that is similar to R-rated movies from the early 1990s. Hollywood has made PG-13 cool. They have quietly lowered the standards in order to increase the content that will appeal to a younger demographic.
As eager as studios are to embrace a PG-13 rating, they are equally determined to avoid a PG rating. Therefore, filmmakers must increase the content in order to receive the higher rating. That usually means adding bad language or suggestive sexual content. The PG rating is no man’s land. After the initial theatrical release of a PG-13 or R-rated film, studio will re-edit the film for home video. The industry calls this an unrated version because it is not resubmitted to a ratings board. Unrated versions contain more graphic nudity, language, sexuality and violence. By going this route, studios have the best of two worlds. They have access to a broader audience during theatrical distribution, but they can also create a mystic or cult following for a home video release.
One of the primary audiences for theatrical distribution is teens and young adults. They buy most of the movie tickets. Manipulating the rating system serves the studios’ best interest in maximizing profits that can be generated from this audience. Re-editing films is primarily directed toward teenagers for home viewing.
The rating system is a mystery. No one can adequately explain what the criteria is for a PG, PG-13 or R rated film. The criteria is a moving target. A film is submitted to a ratings board. The process is subjective, and each board has different members. It is possible that a film can receive a PG-13 rating from one board and be resubmitted and receive an R rating from a different board. There is no clear, defined line. Movies are rated on sensuality, nudity, language, rape, drug and alcohol usage, smoking, violence, gruesome images, disturbing images, dramatic content, war violence, sexuality, suggestive language, etc. The ratings system is unreliable. It can serve only as a tool but cannot be counted upon for accuracy. Hollywood knows how to use the system to their advantage.
Media Strategies and Techniques
Have you ever thought about how movies and television programs are created? Does music affect the way you feel about a certain movie? Have you ever identified with a character and felt like you were watching yourself on the screen? Filmmakers and media makers are skilled in developing techniques and tools that can manipulate your emotions. They include anything from visual techniques to sound effects.
Critical Viewing Cues
Critical viewing cues are the building blocks that filmmakers use to elicit an emotional response from the viewing audience. Media creation, in all of its forms, is by nature a manipulative process. Filmmakers understand this principle. Every element that is in a television program, a movie or any form of media is put there by design and has a purpose. Media is built just as a building or highway might be constructed. Building materials may include music, lighting, sound, set design, camera movement, etc.
Not only is there a physical process of construction but also a complex, psychological process of meaning and values. What is constructed by a few people can become normalized with the rest of society. We often take this for granted, and it usually goes unquestioned. Often we don’t get to see what words, pictures or arrangements that were rejected during the building process. We see only what the media maker wants us to see. Critical viewing cues vary in nature according to the type of media created.
In film, for example, close-ups of a character are used for emotional impact. They are good for suspense and provide easy access to the mind. Low-angle shots looking down on a character usually mean the person is submissive, important or powerless. High-angle shots suggest a character is powerful and commanding. Dutch-angle shots are camera angles not parallel to the horizon. They suggest mayhem or that the character has some type of psychological disorder. A mirror or reflection shot on a reflective surface suggests deep thoughts or the concept of looking into one’s self.
Colors can convey emotions. Sky blue can represent thoughts that are peaceful and calm. It can suggest honesty, good will and wisdom. Green can suggest eternity, jealousy, money, growth, rebirth or creativity. Silver can be seen as cold, alien, and futuristic. Red can represent anger, debt, warning, violence or sex. Lighting is used to create mood. Comedies are often well lit with bright colors to encourage a sense of happiness and humor. In suspense thrillers, it is just the opposite. They are dark and mysterious. The color palette is intentionally toned down.
Lighting is used to create shadows on the characters’ faces ,which creates tension and anxiety. If you want to create a sense of tension, your sound design could emphasize a busy signal from a telephone, a fire truck, construction sound such as jackhammers or a dog barking. On the other hand, if you are looking to create a peaceful mood, you would emphasize birds singing, a heartbeat, or crickets. Sound design is one of the most important parts in creating an emotional response in films. Sound coming from an old car radio can create a nostalgic emotion or mood. A sound coming from a loudspeaker can suggest a voice of authority. A walkman or headphones suggest a feeling of being enclosed and out of tune with the rest of the world.
Another way to convey meaning is through metaphors and symbolism. Filmmakers use animals, plants, weather, objects, occupations, numbers and places to communicate emotions to viewers. An owl can suggest wisdom, occult powers, death, or a supernatural protector. Sunflowers can be used to convey a sense of the sacred or attractiveness. Lightning can suggest that unexpected changes are coming. Coins can suggest wealth. The sun can suggest creative energy. Even a geographical direction like the South can evoke an emotional response of earthly passion or sensuality. A gate can suggest new beginnings or a change in state. A lawyer can suggest a server of justice or a person with shark like instincts. The number seven is used to represent the mystical or spiritual. It is used for good luck. The number 6 is for structure, balance and order.
A river can represent a place to cross over for change. The top of a hill can create the emotion of getting perspective or achievement. A foggy pier suggests mystery, uncertainty and that things are not what they seem. An island can suggest isolation and loneliness. Critical viewing cues are exactly what they suggest. They cue our conscious and subconscious mind to respond with a certain emotion. In other words, the scary music suggest something bad is going to happen so we become tense and frightened. A filmmaker may use a long lens to compress the background so the subject appears to have no space or is trapped. Therefore, we feel just as trapped as the character we are watching in the movie. These are just a few of the many techniques that media makers use with their films, television programs and other forms of media.
Space and Time
Film creates a world based on its constraints of space and time. It compresses both in order to present a reality of life that exists only within that world. Situations in real life may take place over weeks, months or even years to unfold; however, in the movies they can occur in minutes or hours. This presents the audience with a false sense of reality because life as it is presented in films cannot be duplicated in real life. Space and time are constructed differently in film. Filmmakers use film space to create a part of the world that they have decided is important to show their audiences. We are never permitted to see a complete world or all of the elements of the story concept because of the limits of film space. Film space and time can create a distortion of reality in the minds of its audience.
Montage is a French term meaning edit or put together. Editing theory states that space and time are constructed by editing and by the space photographed by the shot. For example, if an actor looks off screen and the next shot we see as the audience is a fire followed by the actor’s reaction shot, we assume that the actor is looking at the fire. But in reality the actor is looking at nothing. The fire occurred elsewhere in the world at a different time. By putting the shots together, we have manipulated both space and time to create a reality that never existed.
Editing is based on the principle of juxtaposition. By the way, it is the most powerful, critical viewing cues that filmmakers have on their creative palette. By statically placing two visual ideas next to each other, you can create a separate third idea in the viewers mind. The two shots by themselves may be meaningless but together they can create a higher psychological meaning. Their combination can create values and serve a purpose.
In the famous experiment in the 1920s, a Soviet filmmaker proved this point. He shot an actor with an expressionless look on his face. Next he shot a bowl of soup and an injured girl. He cut to the bowl of soup and then cut back to the actor’s reaction. Then he cut to the injured girl and back to the actor’s reaction. He showed this to audiences who believed in the first shot that the actor was expressing hunger and that in the second shot he was expressing pity. In reality, the actor was looking at the camera and at no time was expressing any emotion. The audience made this determination on their own based on how the segment was edited. Editing has the power to create meaning based on the arrangement of images. This is a profound concept, one that most of us are probably unaware of. Editing is capable of creating truth, but is just as likely to express untruth.
Juxtaposition can be used in the following ways: to connect thoughts and emotions; to connect two symbolic ideas; to connect two stories to create one theme, and to combine both voice and image or music and image.
Common Elements Found in All Forms of Media
Point of View
All filmmakers and writers have a point of view (POV). Some label this as our world view. Our POV helps us to interpret the world around us. It helps define our attitudes and core beliefs. It offers a perspective and insight into how we view politics, religion, social issues and personal lifestyle choices. Our POV is part of our fabric and makeup as a human being. It is impossible to separate from our POV and remain objective when creating art or media. At some level, our POV seeps into our media. Filmmakers may do this unconsciously because in some cases they may not be aware of their own POV.
Since the beginning of time, there have been only four basic story concepts: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. himself, and man vs. the supernatural. Every story created in Hollywood is a variation of these four basic concepts. Discovering the story concept that the filmmaker is using will help you to understand what creative devices that will be used to hold your attention and interest.
Well-written characters can lead a viewer to develop an understanding of the characters’ situation and needs. Characters can exert influence and elicit emotional responses from the audience; therefore, viewers often identify with characters and can develop an emotional connection. In other words, we feel like we know them. They understand “what I am going through” in real life.
Characters are defined through their choices, actions and reactions. The lead character, which is usually the focus of the plot is called a protagonist. The antagonist is the character that stands in the way of the protagonist accomplishing his or her goals. Characters often go through a process of change called the character arc. The character can start at the beginning of a story being angry with the world, unhappy, or depressed and end the story as being happy to be alive. A character can also start at the beginning of the story hating one’s self and finish by accepting one’s own faults. This explains why characters are always changing in feature films. In most television programs, characters remain more stable and exhibit consistent traits, faults, and qualities.
All stories consist of four general characteristics. Stories have characters who have issues, needs and potential. On some level the characters are trying to discover what it means to be fully human. There is always a plot in which a story constructs and conveys the unfolding of action over time. All stories have atmosphere, which is the unchanging backdrop against which the story is played out. Finally, there is a tone or point of view that is the implied narrator’s attitude toward the story’s subject, which informs the audience where they are permitted to go.
Most stories are told from someone’s point of view within the story. For example, it could be our lead character and how he or she views the world. But the writer is ultimately in control and, by default, becomes the implied narrator. All filmmakers and writers have a point of view which will influence their work. By the nature of how films are constructed, audiences are boxed in to accept certain concepts that the story suggests. For example, in the movie, Patton, our hero could be viewed as a hero or villain, or a combination of both. This becomes the implied narrator’s attitude toward the subject material. Everything in the film, is constructed to reinforce this attitude. In the film version of Patton, George C. Scott’s character is presented as a tragic figure who was both a hero and a villain. The screenplay was written by Francis Ford Coppola. He is the implied narrator. The story is told from the perspective of Patton as he sees his world.
Three Act Structure
If movies and television programs seem familiar, it is because they all contain basic story structure, which is comprised of three acts. Story structure contains conflict, actions, and events. It creates a framework or form that allows you to tell your story in a certain way. For example, most stories are linear. They start at the beginning and go all the way to the end of the story. Others start in the middle of the story and use a series of flashbacks to reveal information that has been hidden from the audience. Story structure offers a somewhat predictable pattern that screenwriters follow.
Act 1 runs for approximately 20 minutes. This act contains a back story, which is the sum of all events occurring before the beginning of the movie. There is usually a hook or some kind of a visual event that captures the attention and curiosity of the audience. An inciting incident follows that causes our lead character to pursue a specific goal. This propels our character from the ordinary world into the special world. Near the end of the first act, the initial problem is introduced, which is a major occurrence that creates a change of direction in the story.
Act 2 runs for approximately one hour. We are introduced to the plan of the protagonist or our lead character. Usually the plan will run into difficulties. As our hero searches for the goal, object or information that ‘s needed to complete his or her task, our hero will encounter a series of obstacles, interactions, or conflicts with our antagonist or the villain. In the middle of Act 2, the hero is faced with a compounding problems, which can be a big plot twist, an unexpected surprise, new information or unforeseen problems that occur to test the new change in our character. Story structure also contains what is called a clock. Our hero has an urgency to solve the problem and is filled with terror. At the end the second act, he or she faces the ultimate complications leading to the final confrontation between the two characters, which has been building since the beginning of Act 1.
Act 3 is the final 20 minutes. It starts with the climax, the most intense moment of the film. This is the soul of the story—the highest point of crisis or confrontation after which the conflict is over. Next is the resolution or the payoff. Loose ends are tied up in the story—who lives or dies? Who wins or looses? Who gets the girl or guy? Who returns with the treasure? The initial problem is solved. The final element of the third act is balance. Our hero is brought back to a place of balance and has brought order back to the world.
The Hero’s Journey
The Hero’s journey is an example of classical storytelling and story structure. You may not have heard the term, but you have all seen it played out in every movie you’ve seen. Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lord of the Rings, Spiderman are all examples of the Hero’s Journey. The most important part of the journey is when our character accepts the quest that starts in ordinary world and leads him to the special world. In Star Wars, it is when Luke leaves his home planet and journeys to become a Jedi Knight.
Conflict is central in the hero’s journey. Both internal and external struggles will be experienced along the way. The journey brings about big change and commitment to the cause. Our character moves from limited awareness to increased awareness. Without the journey, it is impossible to grow as a person or to develop character. (That is our walk with God in a nutshell.) Also, meaning and purpose can be derived from the journey.
How does the media communicate values? Is it possible to really understand the intent or motive of the filmmaker? What do we need to do in order to understand the impact media has on our behavior and attitudes? Without a personal value system, it is impossible to evaluate media. As a result, we are a reflection of what we see and hear in the media. Media messages become nothing more than images and sounds. We are like sponges, absorbing everything we see and hear without the ability to understand its meaning and purpose.
What is required is an inner vision. Mathew 6:22-23 states, The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness. Jesus uses the metaphors of the eye and the lamp to convey the significance of the proper ordering of values in life. Biblical values will help us to develop a discriminating inner vision.
What are a values? They are qualities or principles thought to be intrinsically worthwhile or desirable by individuals or society as a whole. We cherish them and hold them in high esteem. We work to attain them. They give direction to our lives. What kind of values do the media promote? And what kind of values are found in the Gospel? The media and the Gospel offer values that are in stark contrast to each other. For example, immediacy vs. patience, youth vs. dignity to all, newness vs. tradition, bigness vs. smallness, wealth vs. poverty of spirit, success vs. fruitfulness, glamour vs. ordinariness, consumerism vs. conservation, disposability vs. cherishability, ability to conquer nature vs. respect for nature, complexity vs. simplicity and constant activity vs. contemplation. As you can see, there are two different value systems at work. Which one you choose will define how you see the world.
I discovered the concept of media mindfulness in a book written by Gretchen Hailer called Believing in a Media Culture. Mindfulness sounds like a complex process but is simply a matter of taking the time or slowing down and paying attention. The process starts when we are aware of ourselves and what we believe. We must also be aware of our environment and our interaction with that environment. By doing so, we can unlock and understand how media functions, what messages they are communicating, and why they are being sent. These are the building blocks of media mindfulness. For example, I love to climb mountains. My destination is the top. But if I don’t take time along the way to enjoy the experience, I miss the entire reason for getting to the top. It’s the journey not the destination that’s important. Mindfulness means that you take time to watch the passing clouds or listen to the wind blowing in the trees. The experience provides the framework for meaning.
Media mindfulness challenges us to watch movies, television, or any other form of media in a different light. We now become active participants. Our goal is not to get to the end to see how the story unfolds but to look at everything with fresh eyes. We examine each element to discover what point of view might be present. Why is a character a certain age, gender or race? What lifestyles are being promoted or dismissed? What was the reason for the story to be based in an urban setting instead of a rural setting? Why is one character affluent and one character poor? What perspectives were left out of the story? By close examination, we can begin to discover patterns and meaning that exist in our media.
Media mindfulness requires us to have a proper response to the message the media is trying to communicate to us. We must process what we see and hear by our value system and respond by either accepting or rejecting the message. Without practicing media mindfulness, we can watch a television program or a movie without any feeling or response to what is going on and not remember a single thing at the end. However, everything we have seen and heard has been stored on a subconscious level. That’s how media can affect us either positively or negatively when we do not practice media mindfulness. What is lacking is our attention to the present reality we live in.
Media Impacts Us Through a Three-step Process
First, media influences our mind or thought processes. We think about what we have seen and ponder its meaning. Second, as we process the meaning, it affects our heart. Our thoughts become emotions. We feel a certain way because of what we have seen and heard. Third, at some point we may choose to act upon those emotions and change our behavior and attitudes.
Media communicated multi-layers of different messages, values and meaning. They often are not noticeable to the viewer but are hidden in the subtext of the story. What is often not said is more important than what is actually being communicated. Subtext is one of the most effective ways filmmakers can communicate their point of view. Another reason subtext is used by a writer is to invoke strong emotional reactions from their audience. For example, a character does one thing but means something else. He takes his kid to the park to play and meets a potential romantic interest. The character says one thing but means something else. For instance, he says “I am going to get you out of this mess” rather than saying “I love you so much, I’m willing to risk my life to save you”. Character A does something nice for character B instead of saying how he or she feels.
It’s impossible to interpret content unless we understand the context in which it is presented. This requires a commonsense approach when we use media mindfulness concepts. First, it is important to understand the relationship between the content and context. How is the content used in the storyline? Does it fit? Does it make sense within the context of how the story is being told? Does the content provide an ultimately redeeming social message? Do the characters change or grow because of the content? Is there redemption? Does truth ultimately prevail?
For example, the movie, Saving Private Ryan contains graphic images. The action is intense and personal. The film received an R rating based on the content of brutal, violent images. Is this content justified as it’s applied within the context of the film? Most would argue, yes, because if you are going to recreate the invasion of Normandy on D Day, it must be realistic. Survivors of the experience felt the filmmakers had told an accurate and realistic portrayal of the events of that day. Saving Private Ryan would not have worked unless it offered an honest and unflinching look at wartime violence. We now have a better understanding of what our veterans suffered through and the sacrifices they made on that fateful day. The content of this film proved that.
Applying Media Mindfulness
Now that we understand some of the principles of media mindfulness, it’s time to apply them to our media choices so we can take control of response to what we see and hear. The following steps present a set of tools that we can use on a daily basis.
Step 1 Determine Who the Originators Are
In this day and age you can find out almost anything. With a little research, you can discover every project that a director or writer has been involved with. You will find that most people like to work together and collaborate from one project to another. You can discover the patterns and common interests of media makers. For example, a producer may be attracted to certain material that may contain specific political messages. By examining his/her body of work, you can connect the dots.
One of the best ways to discover a point of view is to follow the money. Who’s behind the financing? What deals and promises were made? What is the back story or the history of the script? Is it based on real events? Did it come from a novel or some other source?
Do your research: Who is the director, the writers, the actors, the producer and the studio? What is the marketing plan and who is the intended audience? Check the financing to see what other production companies are involved. Who is behind the money? Who are the investors? Where did the story come from? What influence did the project have on society? When the movie or project was produced, what was currently happening in the world?
Step 2 – Analyze the Visual and Audio Elements
Media makers use creative techniques to hold our attention. They are used to create an emotional response from their audience. Every element in media is there for a reason and can create meaning. Often filmmakers refer to this as “critical viewing cues”. Each form of media has its own unique and creative language. For example, horror films will feature scary music to heighten our fears and anxiety. But media’s presentation of visual and audio elements go well beyond the rational or our deepest emotional core. Media mindfulness requires us to analyze every element of what we see and hear in order to understand its purpose.
What do I see? What do I hear? What colors and shapes are presented? Do they elicit an emotional response? Examine sound effects, music, silence, dialogue and narrator, if present. How does it affect me emotionally? Look at the movement of the camera and the use of composition. Does it suggest meaning as it relates to the characters? Are they valued or devalued? How is the story told and from who’s viewpoint? Are there any visual symbols or metaphors? What are they related to? How are they impacting me. What is the emotional appeal? Does it make me feel sad, happy, mad, indifferent? Are there any persuasive devices being used? What makes this story seem real? Has it caused me to be caught up in a different time and place? What elements make it seem realistic?
Step 3 - Analyze What the Story is Really About
All good stories are about something. It requires little effort to understand a story’s plot. A character gets up in the morning, goes to work, is late, and is then fired. On his way home, he has an accident and runs into a car with his wife and his best friend. That’s the plot. But what is the story really about? Could it be about a second chance to do what you really want to do in life? Or about discovering about what is really important? Perhaps, it’s about discovering why the relationship with his wife failed?
Once we have analyzed the visual and audio elements, we can begin to understand what lifestyles, values and points of view are represented or omitted. Who suffers or profits? This is a clear indicator of how the writer feels about his characters. What is the tone? Are there any judgments or statements being made about how we should treat other people? What forms of behavior and consequences are being depicted? Are there any political or economical ideas being communicated? Is there a subtext? What are the characters not saying? Do their actions seem logical or reasonable? Discovering these answers can help us understand who and what is important to the filmmaker.
What points of view are imbedded? Are there any ideas or values being sold to us? What questions come to mind as you watch and listen? Can you detect an overall world view? What type of person is the viewer invited to identify with? Do good people prevail or is evil rewarded?
We seem to accept points of view as if they have existed from the beginning, not as if they have been created by an author. By asking these questions, we will not accept a point of view as a natural state but recognize that it is artificially created and embedded into the media. We can then determine whether to accept or reject the point of view based on its merit.
All stories have character settings and plot. A writer’s choice of a character’s age, gender, or race in and of themselves may convey embedded values. Meaning can also be communicated by characters, lifestyles, attitudes, and behaviors. Where a writer places a story can also be a clue to his or her point of view. Characters’ economic situation, along with their actions and reactions in the plot, also communicate embedded values.
To fully analyze a story, we must review each character’s age, race, lifestyle, attitudes and behaviors. We also need to review each setting—urban rural, affluent or poor. What perspectives are missing? We as the audience are never given the opportunity to see what was left out? What was left on the editing floor? Missing perspectives and ideas are a key to unlocking a filmmaker’s or media maker’s perspective or point of view. Recognizing what is missing can be more important than seeing what is there.
Step 4 – What is the Purpose Behind This Message?
Once we have a better understanding of what lifestyles, values and points of view are present in the media, we have to ask some questions. Why are they there? Why are they being sent and who are they being sent to? Who benefits from the message—the public? Private interests? Individuals? Institutions? Most of the world’s media exists to be a money-making enterprise. The real purpose of television programming is to sell advertising by attracting a large audience and the right demographics. Programmers are encouraged to create programming that can put the audience in the right frame of mind to embrace whatever products and services are being advertised.
In the film industry, the purpose is to sell seats in a theater and to sell videos for home use. Movies also have an added income stream of product placement. Sponsors see the power and influence that films exhibit when actors with whom the audience identifies use their products. This has become one of the most desirable means of advertising.
In one way or another all forms of media have become a marketing tool. The major media conglomerates are primarily driven to seize power and gain control of the marketplace. By increasing their profits and market share, they increase their stock value and satisfy the demands of their shareholders. Although this is the goal of the corporate side of media, many of the producers, directors and writers may be driven by politics, religion, social issues or ideology. But as long as it sells, the corporate side could care less about the message.
So why is this message being sent? The primary answer is to sell you something. It could be a product, a service, an idea, a cause, a social agenda or a combination of all of these.
Step 5 – What Christian Values Does the Media Support or Ignore?
We are all going to experience media differently based on our value system. As Christians, we have a unique value system based on Biblical concepts. But we all have a unique set of life experiences based on nationality, race, age, gender, education and cultural upbringing. These will have an impact on how we view media messages. Therefore, not all Christians will interpret media messages alike.
There are consistent Biblical values that we all can identify with such as forgiveness, love, redemption, generosity, compassion, faith, perseverance, etc. Based on our life experiences and Biblical values, we must compare the media messages to see whether we should support or ignore them. When we compare media values versus Biblical values, we can see that there are two uniquely different value systems at work. Do the values exhibited in media reinforce my core beliefs?
We may not be conscious of it, but we are constantly trying to make sense of what we see, hear, and read. If we do not base it on a reliable value system, such as Biblical truth, we may end up accepting a false reality.
Step 6 – What Responses Seems Appropriate in Light of My Christian Beliefs?
We have reached the most important part of media mindfulness. What will be my response to the media message? Does it reinforce my beliefs? Has it ignited my passion to live a life consistent with Christian principles? Is the message challenging me to be a better person? Does it cause me to be more socially conscious? Does the message cause me to act on my beliefs? Does it challenge me to bring positive change to my life as well as to others. Or do I reject the message because it is not consistent with my Christian beliefs?
Media mindfulness requires us to accept nothing. We must challenge everything we see and hear. By asking tough questions of ourselves, we will be in a better position to take control of our response. The media does not dictate who we are. When we compare our Christian beliefs and values to those presented in the media we see and hear, God can use the media to communicate his truth, which can inspire us to act on our Christian beliefs and principles. When we have done this, we have applied media mindfulness as God has intended. (Romans 12:3 says, Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will know what God wants you to do, and you will know how good and pleasing and perfect his will really is.)
Need Versus Wants
There is no space between programming, advertising, media, branding, entertainment and marketing. Consequently, every form of media is designed for you to want something. We have confused needs with wants. Today’s media makers have decided that the most important message is to convince us that our wants must be satisfied. Our interests come first above all else. In fact, today’s modern media culture would not function as it does if we were not convinced that the world revolves around our interests and wants.
What is the difference between a need and a want? Does media affect my buying decisions? How does buying things make me feel? Luke 12:21-31 says, And don’t worry about food—what to eat and drink. don’t worry whether God will provide it for you. These things dominate the thoughts of most people. But your Father already knows your needs. He will give you all you need from day to day if you make the Kingdom of God your primary concern.
God knows our needs. But the media, in order to be successful and profitable, must convince us that our wants far exceed our needs. They tell us that we cannot be good consumers without putting our wants first. We must recognize the strategies that the media culture promotes; otherwise, we will never make the Kingdom of God our primary concern. Is our mission in life to accumulate wealth and power? According to the media, it is. It offers the greatest opportunity happiness. Or does it? Media is interested in not proving a product’s value but in proving your inadequacies without the product. Today’s marketers are selling a lifestyle, and they want you to buy into it.
Today’s media has created a culture around brands and products; therefore, they are selling a culture or a media culture and not a product. We need to be aware of how ideas are being sold and the basics of persuasion. Images have combined to create new myths by using humor, machoism, friends, family, fun activities, nature, sexuality, animated characters, celebrity and wealth to sell us on the idea that our wants far exceed our needs.
Jesus said in John 17:15, I’m not asking you to take them out of the world but to keep them safe from the evil one. Media literacy can help us to be safe in this world. We can unlock the strategies and techniques that are used to hold our attention and captivate our minds. We can also find God’s truth and use it to our advantage if we are willing to be present and aware of the world we live in. Then we can be in this world but not of it.