• July 2021
    M T W T F S S

The multiple faces of Media Literacy

I attended the informative “Your Media, Your Tools” dissemination event at Leicester’s De Montfort University run by the Community Media Association (CMA) last Friday. It included a presentation by Ofcom talking about their media literacy agenda, as well as radio and video groups from across the UK showcasing the results of their involvement in CMA’s media literacy project.

It has always struck me just how slippery the term ‘media literacy’ is, with a different emphasis depending on the agenda of the person talking about it. I used to get frustrated by what I saw as a watering down of the notion, wanting the literacy aspect to acknowledged as the critical pedagogy that resides in community media activity, and that was me wearing my personal agenda on my sleeve. I now feel however it would be more useful to slow my judgement and analyse each different face of media literacy in its own right, as each interpretation of the term contains pragmatic, theoretical and/or ideological meaning for each different type of user, so that is worth looking at without undue dismissal.

In future articles I will be exploring the idea of media literacy in the nine predominant guises that I have seen it discussed within the community media sector, media education events, published research and academia. As with all identities of phenomena there is some overlap different contexts, though they will be analysed from the perspective of emphasis, and therefore argue that the identities described here are valid. Notions described in the future will be:

–  Media Literacy as media savvy
–  Media Literacy as semiotics
–  Media Literacy as creative activism
–  Media Literacy as cross-curricula engagement
–  Media Literacy as IT support
–  Media Literacy as media sector training
–  Media Literacy as process
–  Media Literacy as informed media consumption and media use

Interestingly, given this fractious identity, the actual definition of media literacy itself is, with slight variations, mostly settled in a broad consensus without too much debate. It is the interpretation of the accepted definition which is the cause of the majority of debate. Even though there is not one single definition, in loose terms it is widely acknowledged as being about;

– the right to have access to media platforms & tools;
– the need for people to be empowered to understand the media and its ever changing nuances;
– the ability to create media communications if so desired.

Some example of this are;

Ofcom’s definition is; “the ability to access, understand and create communications in a variety of contexts.” They acknowlegde they are mostly concerned with media literacy as applied to digital technology and that people should be able to use the equipment to get the most out of it. (Media Literacy as Media Savvy / Media Literacy as IT support).

According to The Media Literacy Task Force:
“If people are to participate fully at work or in their community, or communicate effectively with family, friends and colleagues globally, or consume media intelligently they need to be media savvy. They need to understand how media works and to feel comfortable questioning what they watch and read. They need a sense of who knows or owns what, and to what extent what you see is really what you get. And, very importantly, they need to become confident in using and exploiting the possibilities of new devices and media channels.”
(Media Literacy as Media Savvy / Media Literacy as informed media consumption and media use / Media Literacy as semiotics / Media Literacy as IT support)

The Center for Media Literacy‘s view is: the ability to communicate competently in all media forms as well as to access, understand, analyze, evaluate and participate with powerful images, words and sounds that make up our contemporary mass media culture. Indeed, we believe these skills of media literacy are essential for both children and adults as individuals and as citizens of a democratic society.
(Media Literacy as Media Savvy / Media Literacy as creative activism / Media Literacy as process)

At some point in the not-to-distant future I will expand on these ideas in a case by case basis in future blog articles, and also write this up as a full academic referenced paper.

Until then, thanks for popping by. Comments always welcome.


THE CLASS: Teacher/Student relationships, and systems as oppression in schools

An analysis of the film ‘The Class’, from the perspective of critical pedagogy.  I will be extending this article into a chapter for my PhD, where I will use data from interviews I conducted with participants of community media education activity to explore the notion of critical pedagogy further within this context.  But for now, I hope you find this blog article interest.

(SPOILER ALERT!  This article reveals certain aspects of the plot of the film.  You have been warned.)


The film ‘The Class’, in a challenging way depicts a term in an urban French school, centred predominantly around the dynamics in the classroom of François Marlin the French teacher. The entire film balances on the power relations between the teacher and his students, and the tensions that surface when the power balance shifts in either direction. The line is blurred between what either side constitutes acceptable and respectful behaviour, with peer allegiances made at crucial moments when clear lines are drawn.


At moments there is a seemingly equal dialogue between teacher and students. Diversions in planned lessons evolve when the students start to question assumed knowledge, accepted traditions and the ‘top down’ curriculum, and these debates are met with the teacher engaging in the dialogue and recognising the validity of some of the students points, even if this is reluctant concession. The students are uninhibited to apply reason to question hierarchies of cultural authority, such as the text book correct use of language, rightly arguing that no one actually uses such antiquated speech patterns in day to day life, and challenge the teacher to justify why they are being taught it. At moments such as these the teacher goes some way to defend the curriculum and cultural tradition, before meeting them half way to generally agree with them, but stating that they have to learn it anyway. This balance of rational cultural debate and its effect on the institutional entropy of the school threads throughout the film, with stark negotiations laid bare on how systems are maintained, what happens when systems falter, and how they are attempted to be patched up and repaired in the aftermath.


It is the moments when reasoned debate breaks down and descends into emotional protectionism that creates a chain of events that leads to the main areas of dramatic tension in the film, which mostly centre around the strained relationship between François and Souleymane, a student with a bad reputation across the entire school. When Souleymane is teased by a female student (Esmerelda) when he refuses to do the work set by the teacher, Souleymane responds with a verbal assault that results in the teacher throwing him out of the class. This event happens not long after Souleymane had shown surprising interest in a self portrait project where he used photography after he had refused to write with stubborn reluctance. François embraced the student’s approach and pinned the work on the wall for the whole class to see. The look of embarrassed and fragile pride on Souleymane’s face was unmistakable.


In a subsequent staff meeting, after Souleymane was ejected from the class, François at first tries to defend the student, but in the wave of public opinion amongst his peers he descends into conceding that he believes Souleymane has reached his academic limit and suggests there is no hope for him, failing to mention the promise he had shown in the self portrait project as even a glimmer of the student’s potential and a way to harness his interest. This denunciation of Souleymane is witnessed by Esmerelda, a student representative present in the meeting. Despite being enemies with Souleymane she tells him the happenings of the meeting demonstrating a solidarity of identity across institutional and cultural lines. The pain on François’s face is clear when he seals Souleymane’s fate with permanent exclusion, but he goes with crowd opinion in spite of personal feeling.


When confronted by this back in the classroom by Souleymane himself, François tries to divert the argument away from his own guilt to accuse the motives of the student reps for divulging the information, resulting in him insulting them in a verbal slur arguably more shocking than Souleymane had done earlier, which led to him being ejected. Now faced with the knowledge that his teacher sees no hope in him, Souleymane’s reckless attempt at defending his own integrity and arguing against the teacher’s verbal assault on Esmerelda sees him create a situation where again there is no choice but for François to eject him again. In terms of the institutional line, this becomes the point of no return.


For Paulo Freire (1972) it would be too easy to suggest that Souleymane is the sole oppressed individual in this situation. The entwined state of teacher institutional compliance and lack of student power or agency is described by Freire as the oppression they both share working/studying in the education system, which he describes as a “state of oppression that gratifies the oppressors.” (page 17). According to Freire, for the teacher to discover “himself to be an oppressor may cause considerable anguish, but it does not necessarily lead to solidarity with the oppressed [the student]. Rationalizing his guilt through paternalistic treatment of the oppressed, all the while holding them fast in a position of dependence, will not do. Solidarity requires that one enter into the situation of those with whom one is identifying; it is a radical posture.” (page 26).


The banter François enjoys with the class in the early lessons is just that, a mere exchange of words and ideas that have no actually bearing on the power structures in the wider system. Like Johan Huizinga’s theory of the ‘magical circle’, which he describes as the boundaries of the rules of engagement when people play (1938), the classroom discussions were within the confines of the magic circle, where the dialogue appears to be democratic, but when the circle is broken the teacher is still dominant and the students passive and the system remains, swiftly repaired with the cultural patches of expectation and hierarchy. Throughout the film the boundaries of the magic circle are being tested, pushed and expanded, but ultimately nothing changes. Souleymane is never mentioned again and the system rebuilds its’ previous patterns of narrative like a well trodden tiled kitchen floor. The pattern doesn’t quite fit and something is not quite right, but it is still fully functional as a working floor, and will always remain so.


The banter in the early lessons felt like a critical pedagogy where the students were questioning authority, where the teacher was slowly but surely coming on board with a “radical posture”, but that was just a smoke illusion. The weight of the institutional system remained the dominant paradigm through the existence of the ‘hidden curriculum’, described as the “set of values, attitudes [and] knowledge frames, which are embodied in the organisation and processes of schooling and which are implicitly conveyed to pupils.” (Jary 2005, page 267). The hidden curriculum is considered to be more powerful than the actual content of subjects taught in school, and “promotes social control and an acceptance of the school’s, and hence society’s, authority structure.” The national curriculum teaches students about literacy, numeracy and science, etc, but the hidden curriculum instils in students the importance of listening to elders, of obeying orders, of respecting authority, and of the values of manners and the need to work within existing systems in society.  Actions that are contrary to the dominant norms of the hidden curriculum are considered renegade, dangerous and subversive. Such behaviour must be either contained and controlled, like François, or eradicated from the (micro) system, like Souleymane.


As a community media facilitator working in both formal and informal education settings, for me the departure point for Souleymane’s future narrative is in relation to harnessing his interest in photography, and seeing where that can lead. The oppression in François manifested itself in him not being prepared to recognise or follow the spark of Souleymane’s interest as a possible route to the student’s future success. Education without hope is fostering a slave dependence. On Freire’s position on this, according to Kincheloe (2008);

“human beings can become so much more than they are now, Freire always maintained, in the spirit of this critical hope. Oppression, he understood, always reduces the oppressed understanding of historical time to a hopeless present. We are all oppressed from time to time by this hopeless presentism that tells us time and time again: ‘things will never change.’ Throughout history these hopeless moments have been followed by radical changes. Such a ‘long view’ is, of course, hard to discern in the black hole of despair. Freire’s historical hope was paralleled by a pedagogical hope shared between teachers and students.” (page 72)


Freire’s ‘critical pedagogy’, where the educational institution hierarchy is flattened to a plateau, where the teachers are ‘teacher-students’ and the students are ‘student-teachers’, and where both are made aware of their own oppression, presents an additional challenge to community media, more than merely working with a glimpse of a student’s creative potential. What must also crucially be considered is what type of community media intervention would it be?  Would it be; (1.) one that works with the existing system as a different pedagogical model to keep students such as Souleymane engaged in the school process, working within the paradigm of the hidden curriculum, or (2.), a more radical application of community media processes working in an informal setting, which is actively positioning education as a political activity, using photography and media as the tools of self-empowerment and social agency? Both these options are followed by the additional question, “Does it actually matter, as long as the student is set on a constructive path with a non-self-destructive future?”


I’ll leave this question hanging, just as the film left the audience, with the scene of the empty classroom. Full of possibilities, full of hope and idealism, but also full of tension and frustration. If there is anything that this film teaches me, it is that educators must hold onto the possibilities of hope and idealism, and use the tension and frustration to fuel and stimulate challenging and non-patronising learning experiences. That is one step towards the teacher-student / student-teacher relationship, where both are forced to think for themselves and question themselves, before they attempt to think for and question other people.



– Freire, P. (1972), Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Penguin Books, UK

– Huizinga, J. H. (1938), Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, Beacon Press

– Jary, J, and Jary, D (2005), Sociology Defined and Explained, HarperCollins, Glasgow, UK

– Kincheloe, J.L, (2008), Critical pedagogy primer – Second Edition, Peter Lang Publishing, New York


(c) 2009 – Shawn Sobers – Firstborn Creatives / University of the West of England


UPDATE: Community Media South West have published a new report:


An Enquiry into how companies in the Community Media Sector recruit and
retain skilled freelancersPublished by – CMSW / Blueboard – Jan 2007

Research by Ella Bissett Johnson

Edited by Shawn Sobers, and Steve Gear


This report is a timely and original development in the analysis of social interest creative practice. It takes the debate much further than merely exploring the merits of such projects, and directly provides an analysis of the economic and skills base for this area of work – the area of community media activity within the creative industries.

According to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the creative industries are now one of the fastest growing sectors in the British economy, and socially aware creative practice is now gaining a stronger profile and being taken seriously by a wide range of cultural agencies. We feel this report provides an important step in recognising not only the economic realities of these community minded organisations via case studies of the companies themselves and the freelancers they employ, but also charts the average skills contained in this community media/arts field of work, and highlights its future sustainability.

This report has been designed to be not only illuminating, but also be useful. It will be of interest to stakeholders of community based media & arts activity, including project facilitators, managers, funders and policy makers, and also for areas such as careers advice and academic fields such as media studies and social policy. Hopefully this report will provide a platform from which to make informed decisions with confidence, from which the sub-sector of community based media education activity can strategically grow and flourish.

To order from Amazon click here.To download full report as a pdf file click here.

Research funded by ABI Associates, University of the West of England and South West Screen

Supported by Calling the Shots and Firstborn Creatives

Media Literacy and the Power of Institutions

10 days ago I went to the Houses of Parliament with my comrades Emma Agusita and Cathy Poole, for a seminar discussing Media Literacy, hosted Danny Alexander MP and the Associate Parliamentary Media Literacy Group. After introductions by Danny, Ian Hargreaves (Dir of Ofcom & Researcher at Cardiff Uni), and Peter Packer (Strategy Adviser to UK Film Council and UK Media Literacy Task Force), there followed presentations from young people involved in news production media projects with the BBC (School Report) and Channel 4 (Breaking the News).


The Houses of Parliament, yesterday.

Both projects and presentations were impressive, and demonstrated to the audience the great things that can happen when professional practitioners work with young people, and visa versa.

BBC’s ‘School Report’ involved 11-14 year olds from 120 schools to produce video reports about stories from their local areas and issues that effect their worldviews. This project was linked with Hackney’s City Learning Centre and Vivi Lachs, (who I first came across in 2002 at a FutureLab conference at the Watershed in Bristol named ‘Contagious Creativity’. I was immediately inspired by her back then and was pleased to see her still on the front line of media literacy education). The children talked about the video reports they produced, which ranged from Muslim children discussing their responses to feeling ‘British’, a report on the ‘true picture of Hackney’ (in response to a C4 programme naming the area the worst place to live), and the abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. They also interviewed Tony Blair and had 2 days support time with BBC journalists. Helen Shreeve from BBC said their aim was for this experience to be had by EVERY 11-14 year old at least once in every school across the country.

Channel 4’s ‘Breaking the News’, as described by it’s co-ordinator Adam Gee, involved 14-16 year olds from schools and community organisations to attend C4 news briefings to get a true behind-the-scenes insight, and they came up with alternative ways of producing news stories. They also set up parallel news rooms in various schools and set up an online editor which allowed the young people to edit stories in their own way. One of the big impacts of this project was the way it made the C4 producers such as Martin Fewell, (deputy editor of Channel 4 News) think differently about their audiences, and take them out of the comfort zone of always reporting certain stories in a certain way. (Time will tell as to how this will change on screen.)

In the Q&A session with the young people, the most common responses to the question, “what impact have these projects had on you?” were;

1) Self-confidence
2) Wanting to be a journalist
3) Ability to have own voice heard

Both BBC and C4 are rolling out their projects to be taken up by schools and other groups across the country, or actually anywhere in the world as the resources are web based.

There is no doubt that these were fantastic projects, though watching the presentations I had a strange sense of de ja vu, as they (especially BBC’s School Report) was identical to our (Firstborn Creatives’) 2003 – present project Channel Zer0. (Or to see the website for Channel Zer0 in text only version rather than Flash, click here) What I saw in these presentations in Parliament was Channel Zer0 again, though on a much grander and gigantic scale. Please know that with these comments I’m not being a jealous playa hata as I’m applauding them on their achievements. It was slightly strange for me though as I saw before me how an institution such as the BBC could (seemingly) effortlessly mobilise in 4 months a project that we have been trying to really galvanise over 4 years. Same with the Channel 4 project which was also quite similar.

channel zer0

And here in lies the opportunity for a more sustainable future for both BBC’s and Channel 4’s projects, that I fear hasn’t really been grasped as yet.

Both are relying on teachers, youth workers, etc, to visit & download their online resources and replicate the projects year after year. The BBC talked about this years schools becoming mentors for the news schools. Whilst knowing the BBC I’m sure they could make this happen, but really teachers are far too busy and already swamped by initiatives for a huge number of them to take it upon themselves to deliver an online media literacy project.

Here BBC & C4 are missing the opportunity to commission community media companies across the country to take these initiatives forward in the subsequent years after this initial pilot. Helen Shreeve quite rightly said they wouldn’t be able to give the same access tob BBC journalists, etc as they did this year, but contracting smaller media companies to take this work forward would allow access to media expertise. Here it might sound like I’m touting for work for Firstborn Creatives, which I very well might be, but much bigger than that is the unique opportunity for the big institutions such as BBC & C4 work strategically with the smaller community media companies to deliver an annual project that would have national impact, and a model globally on what is achievable in the name of media literacy.

To be fair both Adam and Helen did suggest they could link with community video outfits, but the emphasis and resources definitely were steering in the direction of their online resources. For starters, they are A LOT cheaper than getting funding to commission a load of community media organisations. Finance is obviously a huge issue here. But so is the opportunity. I’ll work my hardest to at least getting it discussed at a deeper, logistical level.

Watch this space.

Black Audio Film Collective

Handsworth Songs, 1986, 16mm film Directed by: John Akomfrah

Last week I went with a group of young people from the Channel Zer0 media club and their facilitator Gary, to see the Black Audio Film Collective exhibition at Arnolfini gallery in Bristol. For me it is an important exhibition as Black Audio are part of the reason why I do what I (try and) do, which is makes films (particularly exploring Afrikan [Black] British stories) and support others to make work for themselves. I was already at film school (Newport) the first time I came across them, in the mid 90’s, but they definitely inspired me with confidence in two vital areas of filmmaking; 1) Be bold & inventive with your creative approach, and 2) Don’t hold back on what you want to say. ‘Handsworth Songs’ and ‘7 Songs for Malcolm [X]’ are an education in pushing the envelope in documentary production for anyone. Style and content / content and style. Hand in hand. Essential viewing. Those films restored my faith in not only endevour of making media, but also in the importance of getting hidden voices heard.

Another reason I hold Black Audio high up on my list of influences is because it was out of the film collective/workshop tradition, that also included London’s Sankofa Films, that inspired Black Pyramid Film & Video Project in Bristol; the only black production company in South West England. When I left Newport it was Black Pyramid that I began working for, and out of that came my longstanding working relationship with Rob Mitchell. We set up Firstborn Creatives 7 years ago and still going strong.

Anyway….that’s enough about me, what about the young people’s reaction to ‘Handsworth Songs’ and ‘7 Songs for Malcolm’?

“Boring…not as good as Spiderman…”

“All this history is draining me….”

These are two comments I heard. That’s not really fair as there were many (correction: many-ish) positive comments as well, but these two comments cut me deep and broke my heart, as these were mostly black young people not realising how important these works are to African British culture and what this movement represented – the first time en masse Black people had made media for themselves in this country. I had to bite my tongue and diplomatically encourage a conversation about their feelings whilst trying not to dictate or preach. I think I got away with it, but it wasn’t easy.

As Rob said knowingly when I told him about it, “Why should they know how important it is?”

And it’s true. What’s important for me doesn’t have to be for them, no matter what cultural background they are, but….

…and there is a but here…..

…for young members of a media club surely they SHOULD have an appreciation of such things, even if it wasn’t to their taste. I don’t like ‘Birth of a Nation’ and am not fond of its director DW Griffith due to him being a supporter of the KKK, but I still recognise the important impact he had on the development of filmmaking.

That’s one of the things with community media education projects. It’s informal. No one can be preached to and everyone’s opinion is valid, within reason of course. Opinion can be challenged, but I am not their preacher and they are not my flock. I guess the main thing is that they were exposed to that work. They now know it exists. They had access. Whether they choose to access it or not, whether they choose to try and understand it or not, and whether they choose to create their own works or not is entirely up to them. They are their own people and have the right to choose, but as facilitators the least we could do was make them aware in the first instance. The rest is their choice. That is one of the challenging things about democracy. We may not always agree with others’ choices, but have to respect them.

With hindsight I would do exactly the same again and continue to bite my tongue and try to be diplomatic. I’ve had my time and now this is theirs. I remember the first day at film school our enthusiastic lecturers took us to watch David Lynch’s EraserHead. I thought it was awful and had (and continue to have) no real idea what it is all about. That was 14 years ago. Last year I bought it on DVD for £5. I haven’t watched it since, but it’s still there.

Connecting Bristol

I’m part of the steering group for Connecting Bristol, which is the city’s bid for the ‘Digital Challenge’, which is a national competition to win £4million from government for the iniviative use of digital technology to enhance the services of communities and to enhance social inclusion. Bristol have been selected as one of the 10 finalists.

Today we were visited by the Chair of the government’s judging panel, Bert Provan, and the Digital Challenge programme director Stephen Dodson. I was part of a ’round table’ discussion session with the theme of: “Skills, how will the Digital Challenge help people to help themselves?”

We met at the fantastic Brislington City Learning Centre, hosted by Ayleen Driver (ICT Strategic Coordinator) and Linda Brown (CLC Director). Also present were Stephen Hilton (Lead manager of Connecting Bristol), Jaya Chakrabarti (Nameless) and Stephen Wray (Director Culture & Leisure).

Ayleen gave us a tour of the CLC, and following that had a discussion about how those kinds of spaces enhance the learning capabilities of not only the school but also the wider community. Also discussed how formal learning institutions are working with informal learning providers & community groups to link activity to enhance the experience of the young people, and to greater the potential of longterm impact, (whether regarding career, health, general social engagement, etc). Also acknowledged the need for longitudinal research to track and evidence this impact, and Stephen Dodson suggested a ‘7-Up’ type media survey of participants if the Connecting Bristol bid was successful, to track impact and experience.

I felt the meeting was very fruitful and it was good to be able to share how the Digital Challenge has brought a diverse range of people together from across the city, to link our respective activities towards a common aim, across sector boundaries.

This all links very directly towards my own research looking into the impacts and sustainability of community media educational activity. If the Connecting Bristol bid is successful then I could possibly use a sample section of activity as a case study for mutual use. Fingers crossed……