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Media and Real Life Violence

Last week 12 theater-goers were senselessly shot and killed and 58 others injured during a midnight premier of a popular Hollywood film in Aurora, Colorado.  President Obama and leaders from across the world reached out with condolences to the victim’s families and a community and a nation once again stricken with grief and sadness. Those of us serving on the board for the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) add our collective voice of comfort to those individuals and communities that are suffering at this time.

As humans we are swift to define, dissect and make sense of these tragic and violent events. Like the 1999 Columbine High School Massacre, the Aurora shootings have generated intense debate over gun control laws and the influence of movie violence among young people. Once again we are compelled to publicly and privately rethink our relationship to media and technology and how that relationship shapes how we think, act and socially interact.
While there are studies that indicate a linkeage between viewing of violent images and aggressive behavior, the scientific linkeage and isolated “effects” of media messages are tough to establish and even tougher to generalize. What may help to make sense of off screen and on screen violence is the information contained in NAMLE’s  Core Principles of Media Literacy Education. The purpose of applying these 6 competencies is to help individuals of all ages develop the habits of inquiry and skills of expression that they need to be critical thinkers, effective communicators and active citizens in today’s world. They are:
  1. Media Literacy Education requires active inquiry and critical thinking about the messages we receive and create.
  2. Media Literacy Education expands the concept of literacy to include all forms of media (i.e., reading and writing).
  3. Media Literacy Education builds and reinforces skills for learners of all ages. Like print literacy, those skills necessitate integrated, interactive, and repeated practice.
  4. Media Literacy Education develops informed, reflective and engaged participants essential for a democratic society.
  5. Media Literacy Education recognizes that media are a part of culture and function as agents of socialization.
  6. Media Literacy Education affirms that people use their individual skills, beliefs and experiences to construct their own meanings from media messages.

At NAMLE, we are particularly attune to the educational side of media literacy in that all parents/guardians, teachers, leaders and educators of young people must be mindful of how individuals specifically interact with media texts and how that understanding plays out in social/behavioral interaction. Critical inquiry also applies also to news reports about the Aurora massacre and the bias inherent across all media institutions. It is much easier to identify the constructed and mediated nature of a blockbuster Hollywood film than it is to identify the ways in which TV news is manufactured and biased (see Core Principle 5). We encourage all parents, educators, and leaders to seize every curricular opportunity to linger in these 6 Core Principles in your homes, communities and classrooms.

A powerful metaphor for thinking about the complexity of media as it relates to young people was offered by Renee Hobbs as part of her opening address at the 2010 World Summit on Media for Children and Youth in Karlstad, Sweden. She offered parents, educators and media producers from across the world a powerful metaphor of media literacy education as a coin with two sides.
On one side of the coin, said Hobbs, are advocates for children and media that assert the goal of protection—to reduce the potentially harmful effects of mass media on children and young people. We see this side of the coin in the Aurora aftermath as citizens speaking out against violence in films. In a rare move, high profile film-makers are reporting that they, too, are rethinking their roles and responsibilities in how they depict on-screen violence. We see protectionism across other avenues as various constituencies continue the debate over gun control laws and theater-owners increase security measures.
But there is a flip side of the coin, said Hobbs. It is the goal of empowerment, as educators “help children learn from the skillful blend of entertainment and information that is available through . . . . digital technologies which are increasingly transparent, open-source, and easy to use. With these tools, they can be authors of media messages that can reach large audiences and potentially change the world.” We see this currently in the compelling images of hope and strength crafted and widely distributed by news photographers that stand in contrast to images of violence. These two sides of the same coin are particularly relevant today:

When you look carefully at one side of a coin, you can’t look at the back side at the same time. This blindness is manifest in some of the ‘great debates’ in our field, where we get annoyed when others don’t see the same side of the coin that we’re looking at. Today, media literacy education aims to address both protection and empowerment, maximizing the powerful benefits of the empowerment potential of mass media, popular culture and digital media, while minimizing the potentially destructive and inhumane components through critical analysis, discussion and learning.

While on one side (protectionism) there exists a movie rating system, it is the other side of the coin (empowerment) that enables parents/guardians to decide the appropriateness of movie viewing, especially when it comes to consumption of violent images. In this sense, freedom of speech is a Catch-22. What is hopeful is that the democratic process is now playing out as our nation debates social responsibility of the movie industry, public safety, and gun laws, while at the same time artists, screenwriters, movie producers, and gamers have the opportunity to defend their right to freedom of expression. The ability for each one of us to civilly dissent about any or all of these issues is essential.

It is indeed a careful dance to simultaneously protect and empower our young people, as it requires us to look at both sides of the same coin. Although heartbreaking, Aurora is another reminder that as educators we have the opportunity to change the world every day by seizing every teachable moment when we cultivate critical habits of mind in our students and in our own children.

(This piece first appeared on on July 30, 2012 during Dr. Domine’s term as First Vice President of the National Association for Media Literacy Education)


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