It is easy to form a cynical view about the stream of TV advertising, reality programs, video games, celebrities, gossip blogs, tweets, and news tabloids that floods the cultural landscape. But cynicism is no substitute for criticism. To become literate about media involves striking a balance between taking a critical position (developing knowledgeable interpretations and judgments) and becoming tolerant of diverse forms of expression (appreciating the distinctive variety of cultural products and processes).

A cynical view usually involves some form of intolerance and either too little or too much information. For example, after enduring the glut of news coverage and political advertising devoted to the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, we might easily become cynical about our political system. However, information in the form of “factual” news bits and knowledge about a complex social process such as a national election are not the same thing. The critical process stresses the subtle distinctions between amassing information and becoming media literate.

Developing a media-literate critical perspective involves mastering five overlapping stages that build on one another:

  • ·  Description: paying close attention, taking notes, and researching the subject under study
  • ·  Analysis: discovering and focusing on significant patterns that emerge from the description stage

· Interpretation: asking and answering “What does that mean?” and “So what?” questions about one’s findings

· Evaluation: arriving at a judgment about whether something is good, bad, or mediocre, which involves subordinating one’s personal taste to the critical “bigger picture” resulting from the first three stages
· Engagement: taking some action that connects our critical perspective with our role as citizens to question our media institutions, adding our own voice to the process of shaping the cultural environment

Let’s look at each of these stages in greater detail.

1DESCRIPTION. If we decide to focus on how well the news media serve democracy, we might

critique the fairness of several programs or individual stories from, say, 60 Minutes or the New York Times. We start by describing the programs or articles, accounting for their reporting strategies, and noting those featured as interview subjects. We might further identify central characters, conflicts, topics, and themes. From the notes taken at this stage, we can begin comparing what we have found to other stories on similar topics. We can also document what we think is missing from these news narratives—the questions, viewpoints, and persons that were not included—and other ways to tell the story.

2ANALYSIS. In the second stage of the critical process, we isolate patterns that call for closer

attention. At this point, we decide how to focus the critique. Because 60 Minuteshas produced thousands of hours of programs in its nearly fifty-year history, our critique might spotlight just a few key patterns. For example, many of the program’s reports are organized like detective stories, reporters are almost always visually represented at a medium distance, and interview subjects are generally shot in tight close-ups. In studying the New York Times, in contrast, we might limit our analysis to social or political events in certain countries that get covered more often than events in other areas of the world. Or we could focus on recurring topics chosen for front-page treatment, or the number of quotes from male and female experts.

3INTERPRETATION. In the interpretation stage, we try to determine the meanings of the patterns

we have analyzed. The most difficult stage in criticism, interpretation demands an answer to the “So what?” question. For instance, the greater visual space granted to 60 Minutes reporters—compared with the close-up shots used for interview subjects—might mean that the reporters appear to be in control. They are given more visual space in which to operate, whereas interview subjects have little room to maneuver within the visual frame. As a result, the subjects often look guilty and the reporters look heroic—or, at least, in charge. Likewise, if we look again at the New York Times, its attention to particular countries could mean that the paper tends to cover nations in which the United States has more vital political or economic interests, even though the Timesmight claim to be neutral and evenhanded in its reporting of news from around the world.

4EVALUATION. The fourth stage of the critical process focuses on making an informed

judgment. Building on description, analysis, and interpretation, we are better able to evaluate the fairness of a group of 60 Minutes or New York Times reports. At this stage, we can grasp the strengths and weaknesses of the news media under study and make critical judgments measured against our own frames of reference—what we like and dislike, as well as what seems good or bad or missing, in the stories and coverage we analyzed.

This fourth stage differentiates the reviewer (or previewer) from the critic. Most newspaper reviews, for example, are limited by daily time or space constraints. Although these reviews may give us key information about particular programs, they often begin and end with personal judgments—“This is a quality show” or “That was a piece of trash”—that should be saved for the final stage in the critical process. Regrettably, many reviews do not reflect such a process; they do not move much beyond the writer’s own frame of reference or personal taste.

5ENGAGEMENT. To be fully media literate, we must actively work to create a media world that

helps serve democracy. So we propose a fifth stage in the critical process—engagement. In our 60 Minutes and New York Times examples, engagement might involve something as simple as writing a formal letter or an e-mail to these media outlets to offer a critical take on the news narratives we are studying.

But engagement can also mean participating in Web discussions, contacting various media producers or governmental bodies like the Federal Communications Commission with critiques and ideas, organizing or participating in public media literacy forums, or learning to construct different types of media narratives ourselves—whether print, audio, video, or online—to participate directly in the creation of mainstream or alternative media. Producing actual work for media outlets might involve writing news stories for a local newspaper (and its Web site), producing a radio program on a controversial or significant community issue, or constructing a Web site that critiques various news media. The key to this stage is to challenge our civic imaginations, to refuse to sit back and cynically complain about the media without taking some action that lends our own voices and critiques to the process.

We are doing our first CML as a class, and with an optional partner.  I allowed everyone to work with a partner to discuss placement of 5 high culture televisions shows and 5 low culture television shows.  

The next step is to take each show through the description stage by listing what you can from the list below.  Use websites like to help you.  


For each set of programs we need to, gather information and evidence.

On a separate piece of paper, describe the programs by listing their  narrative features, such as

  • basic plots,
  • central conflicts or tensions,
  • typical subject matter,
  • major themes,
  • main characters,
  • and how tensions are resolved.
  • you can also add other information you think may be beneficial.

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