Mass Media and Media Literacy

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The Importance of Media Education

Media education can help young people put current images and messages about Aboriginal people into perspective by helping them understand how the media work, why stereotyping exists, how decisions are made and why "it matters who makes it." Media education is not about learning the right answers; it’s about consuming media images with an active, critical mind and asking the right questions.

In order to educate the media, here are a few examples of the types of questions that could lead to a better understanding of the Aboriginal representations depicted on TV and in movies. Who selected or created these images and stories? Why does it matter who made these selections? The first lesson in media education is that nothing is objective—each and every media production is created with a viewpoint and for a purpose. The "reality" depicted in film or television productions is the result of many choices and each of these choices is based on the experience, knowledge and bias of the producers involved. To date, very few films and TV shows featuring Aboriginal people have been written or produced by Aboriginal people—and it shows. Whose voices are being heard? And whose voices are absent? Why? The ownership of a TV station or newspaper, the makeup of its management team and its political leanings will all have an impact on who is interviewed on a current affairs program, which "experts" are chosen for sound bites on an issue, and whose perspectives are ignored completely. When Aboriginal voices are heard, it’s almost always on Aboriginal issues and rarely on general topics affecting society as a whole. Why are certain stories selected for the news and others not? A groundbreaking land treaty may get much less coverage than a group of Aboriginal people setting up a blockade. Blockades and the potential for violence have visual appeal for television; men and women negotiating around a table doesn’t. Likewise for sensational stories on murders, prostitution and drug abuse: they keep the ratings up, and high ratings mean good advertising revenues. Newscasts have to move along quickly and stereotyping is a kind of shorthand that people can comprehend without explanation. Understanding how the news works isn’t going to change the news, but it does help kids understand that "newsworthy" stories are not necessarily the most important stories. Comparing the news coverage of APTN (Aboriginal Peoples Television Network) with that of a national television network provides a strong lesson in media voices and behind-the-scenes decision-making. Are Aboriginal people shown as real human beings in films and TV programs or do they seem wooden and two-dimensional? Media producers, especially those in Hollywood, have used Native people to tell White people's stories for generations. Rarely are Native characters given complex personalities or autonomous roles. Rarely do they rely on their own values and judgements, or act upon their own motivations. Although efforts have been made to undo this tradition, old stereotypes die hard. Do depictions in movies and TV shows respect tribal, cultural and regional differences? Anyone with knowledge of the various Aboriginal cultures will pick out outrageous and often amusing inaccuracies—tipis where longhouses were used, horses where foot-and-canoe travel was the norm, feather headdresses on the Pacific coast. Distinctions in dress, language, abodes and beliefs of the many Aboriginal cultures are often ignored in favour of a shorthand that "speaks" to the audience. This may be due to laziness, ignorance or the desire to use visual props that will be recognized by audiences and visually arresting onscreen. Do Aboriginal people speak in a "normal" way?

A convenient convention of the old Westerns was to have Native people speaking in broken English, their thoughts and emotions restricted to their limited knowledge of English (and, it was usually implied, to their limited...
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