The most significant claim made in the name of media education is that it helps young people to become "critical" users of media - which is questionable on several levels. That's not to say media educators should abandon this worthwhile objective, just that some thought needs to go into what a "critical" response to media might look like.
1. Using critical language doesn't mean you're critical.
The ability to use the sophisticated language of media analysis does not mean that you are necessarily "critical". David Buckingham argues in Teaching Popular Culture that all it proves is that students are able to use a meta language, and potentially nothing more. However, media education assessment often requires students to "prove" their critical ability through written analytical response which primarily involves using such language as evidence of understanding. Using terms like 'gender bias' doesn't mean you have an understanding of gender theory or that you will be less gender biased in your daily experiences.
2. Critical in whose opinion?
When is a critical response emancipatory and when is it simply evidence of being incorporated into a particular ideological position? This depends of whose opinion you listen to. For example, are you critical if you read a Michael Moore documentary as a fair representation of an issue, or if you argue that Moore has distorted facts to suit his cause, or only if you can see both sides of the argument?
3. Critical or elitist?
Some forms of criticism make judgements on the basis of cultural value. That is, specific examples of culture are assumed to be superior to others. It has become less common for media education to be based on these sorts of judgements in recent years, but it is sometimes still evident. This is often reinforced through the choice of texts students are required to study. For example 'The Simpsons' is more likely to be chosen than Family Guy because it is popularly judged to be more satirical, funny and worthwhile. Texts might also be derided for their lack of production values or because they don't represent Australian 'cultural values' - for example, Big Brother.
4. Aren't we already all "critical"?
Cultural studies theorists suggest that we are all active participant in media culture and therefore already 'critical' to some extent. Becoming more 'media educated' becomes a matter of learning the correct terminology to describe what you already know. Therefore, media education should focus on helping students to participate more fully in media culture by helping them gain the means of media production and through helping them critically reflect on their experiences, and to make their understandings and knowledge explicit.
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