Media Literacy Missionaries

Friday, March 25, was an adventure, and not just because six of us were breaking out of the house. The ninth annual Northeast Media Literacy Conference at the University of Connecticut ran from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., packed with two keynote addresses, three workshop sessions with 15 topics to choose from, and a panel presentation by four of 23 international guests from Africa, Asia and eastern Europe. These guests were media educators participating in a three-week tour of the U.S. as part of the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program. According to the U.S. Embassy’s press release, “the IVLP is the U.S. Department of State’s premier professional exchange program. It seeks to build mutual understanding between the U.S. and other nations through carefully designed short-term visits to the U.S. for current and emerging foreign leaders.” It marked the first time that the State Department sponsored a media literacy event.

Press “Pause.” What exactly is media literacy? Like traditional literacy at its most basic level, it’s the ability to decode communication symbols to understand and analyze the message being communicated. In the case of print, those symbols are letters and words. In our day with the variety of media within our reach, those symbols also include images, sounds, movements, colors, rhythms and techniques.

But there’s more. Media literacy presupposes the skills of understanding the communication systems and the cultures that are shaped by these media — whether print, broadcast, recorded or digital. It also involves knowledge of the political, social and economic powers behind them.

If you’re thinking that’s plenty, wait. To be really literate we need to not only have access to media and understand them and the culture, but we have to be able to evaluate them, conform our behavior to the values we’ve adopted, and then produce media messages, communicating in turn, not only for our own benefit, but for the community, family, work environment and, in our case, the Church.

“Resume Play.” The sheer scope of this aspect of modern life explains the array of topics related to this year’s theme at the conference we attended: “Media Literacy in a Digital Media Age.” We divided up the sessions among us so we could benefit from their richness and share that with each other: pediatrics and digital devices, media literacy in middle school, Facebook and mood management, trends in kids’ media, Internet privacy, toxic media, and the influence of media and incarceration are only some of the entries we found on the menu.

What we walked away with was a more complete tool kit for our mission, plus direction for planning. Three of us, in fact, serve on our FSP province’s ad hoc committee for media literacy education, or MLE, (“media mindfulness”). We’re preparing a proposal for implementing MLE at all stages of our own life, from vocational discernment through to the “senior years.” Of course, we’ll be offering mission strategies for integrating Gospel values with the principles of MLE: How do we draw people to discover the message of faith through their media encounters, then deepen it, live it, and pass it on?

Like last year –was it because the nuns were there? –one of the presenters referred to MLE educators there as “media literacy missionaries.” If my barometer reading of the room was accurate, I would say that, with its distorted image of the self-righteous Bible-thumper, “missionary,” is not the word most of the people there would ever choose to describe themselves. Yet, with MLE’s imperative to conform one’s behavior to one’s principles, as well as to exercise social responsibility, they were all, in an MLE sense, regardless of the prayers they say or the rituals they practice, as “missionary” as we were.

Several international guests were visiting from countries where the Daughters of St. Paul and the priests and brothers of the Society of St. Paul carry out their media mission for the Gospel: Romania, India, Uganda, the Philippines, Russia, United Kingdom. These Paulines labor within very different political, religious and educational environments, within diverse media parameters, attempting to bring the Church’s religious and social teaching to bear on public policy as well as into people’s private lives. Listening to and talking with the conference’s visitors, I sensed that in spite of our different perspective on ethics, spirituality and human and religious values, when it comes to the goals of media literacy, they share a great deal in common with Paulines everywhere. Here at home, too, we can continue to work so that together challenges can be met, and both persons and society can hear “good news.”