ALAN v28n1 - Exploring Media Literacy with Young Adults

Volume 28, Number 1
Fall 2000

Exploring Media Literacy with Young Adults

Gretchen Schwarz

Bombarded by television even in schools, captivated by surfing the Web, and attending movies regularly, adolescents live in a culture dominated by the mass media. The power of the media is reflected in growing concern over teen violence promoted by movies, eating disorders encouraged by slick magazines, and numerous other issues. At the same time, the media offer benefits, creating interest in other parts of the world through TV documentaries or enabling new ways to connect through e-mail. Because of the media's power, media literacy is "a curricular approach that is gaining momentum around the globe" according to Mann ( 6 ). Media literacy is defined by Aufderheide as the "ability of a citizen to access, analyze, [evaluate], and produce information for specific outcomes" ( v ). She adds, "Touching as it does on the welter of issues and experiences of daily life, [media literacy] is interdisciplinary and cross-curricular" ( 2 ). Thoman, Founder and President of the Center for Media Literacy, elaborates that media literacy is "the ability to create personal meaning from the verbal and visual symbols we take in every day through television, radio, computers, newspapers and magazines, and, of course, advertising. It's the ability to choose and select, the ability to challenge and question, the ability to be conscious about what's going on around us - and not be passive and vulnerable" ( 50 ). Media literacy books and materials exist for teachers; however, for adolescents to become media literate, they need materials that speak directly to them, as well. Young adults may find media literacy a meaningful part of any curriculum, given that as Davies puts it, the media "represent a relevant point of departure for captivating students' interest" ( xv ). As a proponent of media literacy, I will explore young adult resources-nonfiction, fiction, alternative media, and reference materials, all of which teachers across the curriculum can share with students.


A few good young adult books that serve media literacy are available. These books are a start, and can be used for language arts nonfiction book reports, English units on the rhetoric of advertising, research in social studies, ideas for science projects, or free reading. I hope that more young adult authors will turn their attention to various aspects of media literacy and also include adolescent voices in future works. Following are titles I have discovered:

Media Wizards by Catherine Gourley (Brookfield, CT: Twenty-First Century Books, 1999) . This is the best and most engaging overall look at the media, and despite the fact that the large print and splashy format make it appear like a children's book, Media Wizards is thought provoking for any age. Comparing modern media creators to the Wizard of Oz, this brief work includes everything from how photojournalists "fixed" pictures at Gettysburg, to how advertisers turned Santa Claus into the supreme marketer, and how urban legends and television news hoaxes spread. Key terminology is explained like montage and episodic reporting. Using both historical and current examples, the book pulls back the curtain from the modern media wizards. A useful list of sources is included.

Caution! This May Be an Advertisement: A Teen Guide to Advertising by Kathlyn Gay (New York: Franklin Watts, 1992) . The reader is offered a brief history of advertising, then warned of the stereotypes and the targeting of teens by cigarette and alcohol producers. The author explains branding, and examines the research and marketing methods of advertising, such as focus groups and fine print. The book surveys a number of alarming media developments reducing politics to products, such as news releases which appear to be stories but are really ads. However, the author fails to challenge adolescent readers to question the basic messages of ads today. Still, the book is brief, clear, and informative, a place to begin.

Who's to Know? (Information, the Media, and Public Awareness) by Ann E. Weiss (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990) . This book explores the relationship of the news media and American democracy, including a brief history of censorship in the West. Such topics as the influence of infotainment, concerns of personal privacy, and government disinformation are tackled. Although a bit dry, the book introduces some important issues in media literacy as it relates to citizenship.

How TV Changed America's Mind by Edward Wakin (New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1996) . A fun but superficial survey of the effects of TV on American culture and history, this book covers major TV events by decades, from the 1950s to the 1990s. Discussing the Checkers Speech of Richard Nixon, the Viet Nam War and Kent State Killings, to the Iran Hostage Crisis and O.J., the author does persuade I the reader of the power of TV and gets one thinking about the "global village" created by television. Modern media have had a major impact on human history in the past century.

Internet Spy by Ian Probert (New York: Kingfisher, 1996) . A lightweight introduction to the darker world of computer hacking for younger students, Internet Spy has some useful and interesting information. Older readers would probably , prefer Clifford Stoll's own bestseller version of this hacker threat to national security, The Cuckoo's Egg . Every media or technological advance brings new problems along with it.

The New Age of Communications by John Green (New York: Henry Holt, 1997) . This short Scientific American Focus Book is a bit "gee whiz" in its approach, but does include useful information and terms, even offering a chapter on AI (artificial intelligence). Especially useful for science because it explains things like fiber optics, the book does at least mention such social concerns as equity, privacy, and pornography in the age of the New Media.

McLuhan for Beginners by W. Terrence Gordon (New York: Writers and Readers Publishing, 1997) . Aimed at a general audience this "documentary comic book" takes a light look at the father of media criticism, Marshall McLuhan. However, the information is dense and well researched, and the author and illustrator, Susan Willmarth, manage to make sense of McLuhan in contemporary contexts. McLuhan remains so widely quoted, his ideas may appeal to some adolescents. Teachers will enjoy this book, too.

In addition to the books above, many young adults would enjoy and benefit from a number of books aimed at adults. Teachers could share parts or sections of these books, too; they need not be read in total. Just three examples follow:

The Sponsored Life by Leslie Savan (Philadelphia: Temple University, 1994) . Savan, as advertising columnist for The Village Voice , has written a number of thoughtful, biting pieces on "ads, TV, and American culture." Her critique of the effect of advertising on American life is significant, as she lambastes everyone from AT & T to Pepsi. Says Savan "The sponsored life is born when commercial culture sells our own experiences back to us" (3). Adolescents need to be exposed to such ideas.

Brave Dames and Wimpettes by Susan Issacs (New York: Ballantine, 1999) . One of the major issues in media literacy is gender. In this quick read from the Library of Contemporary Thought series, Issacs compares real women- strong and competent- to the "wimpettes" of current TV, books, and movies- hurt and suffering- like Ally McBeal. A fun read, but also thought provoking.

Confessions of a Cineplex Heckler by Joe Queenan (New York: Hyperion, 2000) . Kids enjoy movies- and interesting movie reviews (which also make good writing models or prompts). Queenan takes a skewed view, not only having fun with movies through words but jumping into the Atlantic fully dressed to prove that Leonardo DiCaprio couldn't talk as much as he did at the end of Titanic . A good alternative to those serious film-as-art critiques, this book serves as a reminder that reality and movies are two very different things.


Again, not enough books are available that deal with the media as an important part of adolescent lives, either in serious realistic novels or in other genres. A trend in books dealing with computers has appeared, but other media such as TV have received little attention. For older, more mature readers I have added two adult novels that focus on our mediacentric world.

Pirates on the Internet, part of the Cybersurfers series by Ted Pedersen and Mel Gilden (Los Angeles: Price Stern Sloan, 1995 ); Code of Deception by Ted Ottley (New York: Bantam, 1996); and Virtually Perfect by Dan Gutman (New York: Hyperion, 1999) . These books are sci fi/adventure/ mysteries which do not require very deep thought but are fun stories based on such topics as Internet spies. This book may especially appeal to the younger adolescent.

New World by Gillian Cross (New York: Holiday House, 1994) . One would expect Cross to be more challenging, and indeed this is a thoughtful story about a virtual reality game that becomes dangerous. The suspenseful tale touches on the human urge to escape reality and the power of real emotions and fears. Two teenagers must come to grips with themselves in the process.

A Hand Full of Stars by Rafik Schami; Translated by Rika Lesser (New York: Puffin, 1992) . Set in Damascus, Syria, this short novel examines the topics of freedom and censorship through the hardships of a boy who lives in a controlled society. The boy becomes involved with a subversive underground newspaper- at great risk. American readers need to be reminded of the key link between democracy and a free press.

Returning Light to the Wind by Ron DeBoer (Waterloo, Ontario: Windmill Press, 1995) . Canada has been doing media literacy for a while and this fantasy YA novel from Canada seriously addresses media issues. First in the Lightbringer Series. Sarah has to pursue the hero's quest into Islone, the alternate world of television, to save her brother, Dillon. The novel is a bit didactic but engaging and imaginative. DeBoer has followed with Racing through the Times (1998), a fantasy about newspapers, and Caught in the Net (1999-2000), about computer media. These novels are fun to read and worthy of discussion with kids.

England, England by Julian Barnes (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999) . Includes sex and language, but this adult novel by the author of Flaubert's Parrot , is a sharp satire of our Disneyfied culture. A business mogul builds an England theme park on the Isle of Wight, putting the real England out of business. Tourists can enjoy replicas of Big Ben; Buckingham Palace, with the Royals in residence; and reenactments of World War II battles. Unfortunately, when Robin Hood and his merry men begin to take their roles seriously, things do not go as scripted.

Turn of the Century by Kurt Andersen (New York: Random House, 1999) . A big book and not an easy read for adult readers, Turn of the Century traces the domestic and professional lives of a TV producer and his software entrepreneur wife. The connections among and the money interests behind today's mass media, with all the changing technologies, are clearly depicted, as are many of the social consequences. Makes-you-think satire/comedy of manners.

Alternative Media

In addition to books, other kinds of texts exist which support media literacy, including CD's, audio tapes, TV shows, films, and magazines (both traditional print and online).

I will focus on the worlds of zines and films where adolescents can find interesting challenges to mainstream mass media and can even produce their own media in their own unique voices. The definition of media literacy promotes production as well as analysis and evaluation of media. As Hobbs states, "Creating media messages provides opportunities for hands-on problem solving that, in turn, promotes deeper analysis" (57).

A thorough introduction to the world of zines is the colorful young adult book Zine Scene by Francesca Lia Block and Hillary Carlip (Los Angeles: Girl Press, 1998). Zines are "hand-made publications that combine elements of personal journals, newsletters, and magazines" (1). They remind me of the underground newspapers of the 60s; they "were born out of the punk rock music scene in the 70's … originally referred to as Fanzines, because they usually focused on bands and performers" (8). Today, zines can be about anything, come from anywhere, and appear in a variety of formats and styles of publishing. Media topics, from music to movies remain significant. Zine Scene gives examples, tips on creating a zine, and places to find zines.

In the Information Age, naturally an electronic version of zines has evolved. Kids and adults from all over are publishing e-zines, many of which challenge the stereotypes, commercialism, and superficiality of the mainstream mass media. Finding these publications is a good reason for surfing the Net. Here are just three examples:

New Moon: The Magazine for Girls and Their Dreams ( ) . An award winning e-zine for middle school girls. The founders explain their purpose in their on-site history of New Moon :

"The problem with most magazines for girls is that the images in those magazines tell girls what the should be," Gruver says. "New Moon is where girls tell the world who they are, without adults or advertisers as interpreters." Other publications for girls portray a "perfect girl" for readers to measure themselves against. By contrast, New Moon challengesstereotypes by accepting girls as they are, listening to them, and celebrating their diverse experiences and dreams. As Editor Ana Jeronimus says, "New Moon means a lot to me. It gives girls a chance to speak their feelings."

Girls, aged 8 to 14, design and create this e-zine which includes all kinds of topics and resources.

TeenSpeak ( ) . For high school students, this e-zine includes favorite quotes, tips, and links to other e-zines of interest to teens. For example, one page from November, 1999, tells about a new website called Teen OutReach created by a group of boys because "It's alarming that crimes involving teens become major media events, youth are being stereotyped as being troubled people, and … the power of the internet can gather teens that want to help and break boundaries."

Street Cents ( ) . I found this site by going to the Boulder Public Library for Teens, to the Prescott Public Library, and then landed here, a site from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation which produces a show encouraging teenagers to be tough consumers. Canada is already committed to media literacy in the schools. In November, 1999, I discovered adolescents' opinions on used clothing (yes!), letters inquiring why Tommy Hilfilger's new cologne "Freedom" costs more for women than men, and interviews on RealVideo sharing views of what shouldn't be advertised on TV and the value of the content of movie trailers. Kids tell what they think of media! Fascinating site. Particularly relevant to economics study.

Of course, the electronic world changes quickly, so updated research is always needed - a good task for students in their language arts classes at all levels. Also, the junk on the Net has to be identified and avoided.

Following are a few more useful sites recommended by a graduate student, Kelley Gillum, in the Fall, 1999:

Young Adult and Children's Authors ( )

Boulder Public Library for Teens ( ) Has book, movie and video reviews by adolescents.

Teenage Diaries ( ) Real life diaries of young adults as heard on NPR.

Inkspot ( ) E-zine on writing and publishing with an area for young writers.


A genuine and thoughtful film on the impact of computer technology/media has yet to appear. The Matrix and Johnny Mnemonic don't cut it. However, a number of good movies about television, film, and newspapers are available, some better than others, and some more appropriate for younger viewers than others. The media love to create stories about the media, a trend itself worth considering. A list, not exhaustive, follows in no particular order.

The Insider (director, Michael Mann; 1999) . With Al Pacino, Christopher Plummer as Mike Wallace and Russell Crowe (pre- Gladiator ), this film is based on the true story of how CBS's 60 Minutes was pressured to drop a story blowing the whistle on the tobacco industry. Intense and suspenseful. The relationship of the media and business is important to examine in order to be media literate. Rated R for language. (Could be used in the classroom if the "f" word could be edited out.)

Wag the Dog (director, Barry Levinson; 1997) . Painfully funny satire of the media-dominated world of American politics starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro. In this film Hollywood is called in to create a fictional war in order to distract the public from the president's sexual scandal. The story includes a good look at marvels of modern technology used to alter society's sense of reality. Political life and the media need close examination. Rated R for language.

The Truman Show (director, Peter Weir; 1998) . Starring Jim Carrey and Ed Harris, this film examines the trend in "reality" television. Truman is a man raised and living, without his knowledge, in a world created for a TV audience. He is "on" all the time; even his marriage is scripted by others. This film could be used with all or parts of Neal Gabler's disturbing 1998 book, Life, the Movie (Alfred A. Knopf) which suggests that entertainment has replaced reality in American life. ( The Truman Show is much better than Ron Howard's EdTV on the same topic.) Rated PG; classroom friendly.

Max Headroom (directors, Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel; 1986) . This video from Karl Lorimar is the pilot of an avant garde TV series that did not last, perhaps because of its dark look at a future in which television (supported by computer technology) is the only growth industry, dominated by a few ruthless multinational corporations. The plot is complex, the actors mostly British except for Matt Frewer, who plays Max Headroom, and the dialogue requires thought. Many may remember Max Headroom as a cola commercial. However, there is much more to this show.

Network (director, Sidney Lumet; 1976) . Paddy Chayefsky's satire of a TV network that does anything for ratings still delivers. With a strong cast including William Holden, Peter Finch (who won the Oscar posthumously), Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall. Rated R for sex and language. Perhaps some scenes could be used in the classroom.

Broadcast News (director and writer, James L. Brooks; 1987) . This film explores the personal lives of newscasters in the middle of the competitive and manipulative world of TV news. Playing on emotions earns greater success than solid information in network news. Holly Hunter, William Hurt, and Albert Brooks give strong performances. Rated R for sex and language. Many scenes can be used in the classroom without worry.

The Paper (director, Ron Howard; 1994) . A lightweight but enjoyable version of an editor's search for truth in the cutthroat world of newspaper journalism, with Michael Keaton. Capraesque although not profound. Rated R for language (and mayhem?). Good example of a film that makes one question the ratings system.

The FrontPage (director, Lewis Milestone; 1931); His Girl Friday (director, Howard Hawks; 1940) ; and a couple of other remakes. From the Hecht-MacArthur play, this story follows the antics of wild, wooly Chicago newspapermen (and women). Snappy dialogue and amusing cynicism about newspapers; good, clean fun, too.

All the President's Men (director, Alan J. Pakula; 1976) . Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman star as real Washington Post reporters, Woodward and Bernstein, who broke the Watergate scandal. Fine cast also includes Jason Robards who won an Oscar and Jane Alexander. This film (and the book) remind us of the importance of a free press in a democracy. Rated PG.

Citizen Kane (director and everything else, Orson Welles; 1941) . This film classic explores a Hearst-like newspaper publisher's rise to power. The relationship of the media and power remains a classic American theme.

Bowfinger (director, Frank Oz, 1999) . Steve Martin wrote and starred in this movie with Eddie Murphy. One of the latest satires of Hollywood itself and Hollywood stars, Martin plays a director trying to make it on the cheap. Scientology is also satirized. Lots of slapstick and sophomoric sexual humor. Rated PG-13.

The Muse (director and writer, Albert Brooks; 1999) . Albert Brooks stars as a desperate, middleaged screenwriter in the facile and youthful Hollywood of today. He's even willing to hire a demanding "muse" played by Sharon Stone who moves in on his home. Rated PG-13.

Reference Materials

Teachers will want to have other resources/reference materials available for students who wish to know more, who seek research or project ideas, or who need guidance in using the media. Students need books they can dip into for specific information. Following is a sample of works:

Mass Media edited by William Barbour (part of the Opposing Viewpoints Series; San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1994) . This collection of essays was created for adolescent use in the classroom. Each chapter presents a major topic in media literacy with opposing viewpoints by various experts in the field. For example, the questions of media bias, media regulation, and the effects of advertising are explored by writers as diverse as Steve Allen and Susan Faludi. Well-researched and provocative, this volume also includes a list of media organizations the reader may contact.

Media Studies by Brenda Downes and Steve Miller (part of the Teach Yourself series; London: Teach Yourself Books, 1998) . This is a nice handbook which defines media studies (the UK term) and many related terms and concepts. Gives tips for practical media work like making a video documentary as well as a number of deconstruction (analysis) activities. Also includes other sources.

The New Media Literacy Handbook by Cornelia Brunner and William Tally (New York: Anchor Books, 1999) . Although aimed at teachers, students will find good ideas and resources like web sites for language arts. Covers new media in the history/social studies, arts, and science classrooms, too.

Media Literacy by W. James Potter (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1998) . A college text, this volume is densely researched and covers topics from the news, advertising, and entertainment to media effects and control and ownership. Potter summarizes, "The purpose of media literacy is to give us more control over interpretation" (9).

Visual Communication by Susan Hilligoss (New York: Longman, 2000) . This handbook explores ways writers can use visual design; in the world of the Internet and hypermedia, correct typing and margins no longer cover what the writer has at his or her disposal. Visual Communication offers tips on creating flyers, fact sheets, web sites, and more. Again, the effective production of media is a major component of media literacy.

The Progressive Guide to Alternative Media and Activism by Project Censored (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1999) . Produced by Project Censored, director Peter Phillips, this slim work offers a tremendous list of publications and organizations that offer alternatives to the mainstream or actively promote media literacy. Examples include the Center for Media and Democracy that specializes in "blowing the lid off today's multi-billion dollar propaganda-for-hire industry" (109) and News Media and the Law , a magazine that covers legal issues related to news reporting and the media.

Understanding Media by the New Mexico Media Literacy Project (Albuquerque, NM: NMMLP, 1998). ( ) A newer version now exists and while this CD-ROM is aimed at educators, students too can use it for exploration of media literacy concepts with many great examples and video clips. A rich resource for all.


Adolescents live in a world dominated by mass media as never before. As Hobbs (1999) declares, media literacy is one avenue "to build students' critical, reflective connections between the world of the school and the media culture that they experience in their daily lives" (57). Media literacy is not about rejecting the media, but about understanding and using the media as empowered citizens, about being conscious as Thoman puts it. Media literacy is relevant in all class-rooms, from English language arts and social studies to science and art. A number of young adult resources, from nonfiction and fiction books to web sites and films, can engage and inform adolescents. Media literacy is powerful and empowering. As Davies declares, "The media then provide a vast laboratory for helping students to become thinkers in the deepest sense and all that means in terms of character, responsible citizenship, and the other aims of education" (xvi).


Gretchen Schwarz is Associate Professor of English Education and o f Curriculum at Oklahoma State University, where she teaches courses including English methods and Young Adult Literature. She is particularly interested in researching media literacy. For 13 years, she taught English and German at the high school level in New Mexico and Texas.

Works Cited

Aufderheide, Patricia. Media Literacy: A Report of the National Leadership Conference on Media Literacy . Washington, D.C.: The Aspen Institute, 1992.

Davies, John. Educating Students in a Media-Saturated Culture . Lancaster, PA: Technomic, 1996.

Hobbs, Renee. "Teaching the Humanities in a Media Age." Educational Leadership 56(5), (February 1999): 55-57.

Mann, Larry. "The Aha! Of Media Literacy." Education Update 41(7) (November 1999): 1, 6-7.

Thoman, Elizabeth. "Skills and Strategies for Media Education." Educational Leadership 56(5), (February 1999): 50-54.

Movies Cited

All the President's Men. (1976). Directed by Alan Pakula.

Bowfinger. (1999). Directed by Frank Oz.

Broadcast News. (1987). Directed by James Brooks.

Citizen Kane. (1941). Directed by Orson Welles.

The Front Page. (1931). Directed by Lew's Milestone.

The Insider. (1999). Directed by Michael Mann.

Max Headroom. (1986). Directed by Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel.

The Muse. (1999). Directed by Albert Brooks.

Network. (1976). Directed by Sidney Lumet.

The Paper. (1994). Directed by Ron Howard.

The Truman Show. (1998). Directed by Peter Weir.

Wag the Dog. (1997). Directed by Barry Levinson.

Reference Citation: Schwarz, Gretchen. (2000) "Exploring Media Literacy with Young Adults." The ALAN Review, Volume 28, Number 1, p. 50-54.