Her 'Literacy' Campaign Targets Media Violence

By Vidulich, Dorothy | National Catholic Reporter, March 18, 1994 | Go to article overview

Her 'Literacy' Campaign Targets Media Violence


Vidulich, Dorothy, National Catholic Reporter


Excitement. Friends arriving for dinner. The greetings, the settling in. Suddenly, as 5-year-old Meg struggles out of coat, hat and gloves, her shrill cry cuts through the social din.

I|ve never forgotten Meg's cry. It was Nov. 16, 1989. Prime-time television had just flashed a photo of the bodies of the six Jesuits butchered in El Salvador. The television was then turned off - but too late to offset the frightening effects of real-life violence on a child.

Statistics show that Meg could watch 8,000 screen murders and more than 100,000 acts of violence by the time she finishes elementary school.

The family living room is increasingly the showcase for the carnage of war, the brutality of murders, the horrors of famine, the sensationalism of sex scandals, the depravity of drugs. All this is packaged in the reality of U.S. news reporting.

For two decades, Sr. Elizabeth Thoman has been trying to do something about it. The solution, as she sees it, is in media literacy, which she defines as the ability to analyze, evaluate and communicate messages in a variety of forms.

"We have to teach parents and children how to read the media," she said. "All of us must be able to choose which messages we will accept or reject based on a set of value criteria. ... I stopped watching the 11 o'clock news back in 1984; it was not doing me any good."

Thoman, director of the Los Angeles-based Center for Media and Values for more than 15 years, said she realized TV news had become a vehicle for building an audience to be delivered to advertisers, no matter what the means - "titillation, violence or sensationalism of any kind."

The center has developed kits to help teachers, religious education directors and youth ministers teach parents and students how to distinguish between reality and fantasy and to explore alternatives to media stories that focus on violence.

With grants from the Catholic Communications Campaign, the U.S. Catholic Conference and religious orders, the center recently initiated a series of 60 media-literacy workshops nationwide; and in collaboration with the National Catholic Education Association, it has circulated kits and educational tools to more than 10,000 people.

Every month Thoman goes on the road to present a media-literacy course for educators. To analyze the news, she tells them to monitor how adequately Western news agencies cover events in developing countries.

To investigate alternatives to media stories that focus on violence as the solution to conflict, she offers books and videos that provide positive role models to counterbalance actions of "superheroes."

To explore racism and sexism in the media, she suggests viewers note who are the perpetrators and who are the victims. …

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