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PERSPECTIVE ON THE MEDIA : Use the Mind to Confront Violence : Parents, caregivers, churches, Scout leaders can learn how to get children thinking about what they see.

July 25, 1993|ELIZABETH THOMAN | Elizabeth Thoman is executive director of the Center for Media and Values in Los Angeles and the founder of Media & Values magazine, from which this is excerpted.

Violence cannot be sanitized out of our culture even if, as I hope, gruesome and gratuitous violence becomes more and more "politically incorrect" in popular entertainment. Over the decades, we've seen the media industry self-censor many negative ideas and images--from the Amos 'n' Andy stereotype of African-Americans to the depiction of alcohol, cigarettes and hard drugs as glamorous. There are some things that responsible writers and directors just don't do anymore. Excessive violence should be added to the list.

There will still be violence in the media, as in life, because there is evil in the world and human nature has its shadow side. There is also grinding poverty and substance abuse and meaninglessness that create a seedbed for violence as a way for some to cope with injustice.

The parameters of our public discourse about media and violence are complex. There are 1st Amendment concerns as well as public policies resulting from years of deregulation of the media industry and the erosion of the public-interest standard in favor of marketplace forces. As so many observers point out, violence is the stuff of our fundamental mythologies, including the myth of the American West. While Hollywood may feed these myths, it did not start them. Nor can Washington legislate them away. "Parental advisories" may help some, but they are not a solution.

Violence is a major health problem today and we must find workable solutions to prevent its further spread. I believe that media-literacy education must be a component of any effective effort at violence prevention, for both individuals and society as a whole.

Media literacy, as defined in a 1992 report from the Aspen Institute, is the movement "to expand notions of literacy to include the powerful post-print media that dominate our informational landscape." In classrooms as well as informal groups such as Scout troops or parenting classes, people of all ages learn to apply a variety of critical-thinking skills to the thousands of images, words and sounds that bombard us daily. Although well-established in other countries, media-literacy education is just beginning in the United States. It's about time.

Media-literacy programs do not excuse the storytellers of society from responsibility for our cultural environment. But here are five ways that effective media-literacy education can contribute to lessening the impact of violence in our lives:

* Reduce exposure, by educating parents and caregivers. How many times have you been to a movie rated "R" for violence and seen children there? Adults, especially men whose viewing habits tend toward action-adventure, need to get the message that too much media violence can truly harm children. Parent organizations, churches, libraries and community groups can sponsor media-literacy programs to help parents develop and enforce age-appropriate viewing limits.

* Change the impact of violent images that are seen. This can be done by deconstructing the techniques used to stage violent scenes and decoding the various depictions of violence in news, cartoons, drama, sports and music. It is important for children to learn early on the difference between reality and fantasy and to know how costumes, camera angles and special effects can fool them. Media-literacy activities need to be integrated into every learning environment--schools, churches and temples, after-school groups and clubs.

* Explore alternatives to stories that focus on violence as the solution to interpersonal conflict. Schools and day-care centers, libraries and families need to have collections of books and videos that provide positive role models to help counterbalance the actions and attitudes of today's "superheroes." Through media-literacy classes, parents can also learn to transform undesirable images from popular culture into opportunities for positive modeling. One father, for example, agreed to let his child watch "Teen-Age Mutant Ninja Turtles," but only if the child would imagine a fifth turtle named "Gandhi." Later, they discussed how "Ninja Gandhi" might get the Turtles out of trouble without violence.

* Uncover and challenge the cultural, economic and political supports for media violence as well as the personal ways we may each be contributing to it. Media-literacy education empowers viewers to make the connections between what they see on the screen and what they experience at home, at work, at school. Media violence is not isolated from other social issues. And we must not forget that the root of our cherished freedom of speech was not the freedom to protect creativity but the freedom to challenge the political and economic status quo.

* Promote informed and rational public debate in schools, community and civic gatherings, religious groups and in the media. The reality of our current situation demands that we ask ourselves what kind of culture we want our children to grow up in and whether we can continue to allow the media to profit from products that are clearly contributing to a social condition that endangers public safety.

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