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    Media literacy crucial in 21st century

2004-10-30 07:43

Tao Hongkai, a professor with Central China Normal University in Wuhan, capital of Central China's Hubei Province, has become an idol for many local parents whose children have spent too much time in chat rooms, surfing the Internet, and playing online games.

With decades of experience in high school education in the United States, the professor reportedly had a nine-hour talk with high school student Qu Jing in July and persuaded her to break free of her "Internet-addiction."

In the following months, hundreds of parents in Wuhan and neighbouring cities came to see him and asked for help with their children's Internet issues.

Now with the support of local authorities, Tao and 300 trained young teachers and psychiatrists have opened up a psychological counselling service for Internet-addicted children in the city.

As for Qu, her story has a happy ending.

However, "what has happened to young Internet surfers in Wuhan is also common in most Chinese cities," said Cai Guofen, dean of the International Communications College of China Communication University.

She said in this information and media saturated society, many young children, unsophisticated in social knowledge and experience and lacking self-restraint, are susceptible to the negative effects of mass media - television and the Internet in particular.

Cai made the comments at the first International Conference on Media Education and Media Literacy in China, which ended last week in Beijing.

Media literacy means the ability to properly access, analyze, evaluate and communicate information in a variety of format including print and non-print.

Attended by about 100 media researchers and educators from the UK, Canada, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Chinese mainland, the four-day event addressed a couple of pressing issues about media education in China.

"Mass media, in the forms of radio, TV, video games, or the Internet, have now reached almost every Chinese household," said professor Bu Wei with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences at the conference.

"Mass media have become an integral part of the lives of contemporary Chinese, including young kids."

Official statistics suggest that China now has more than 1,000 radio stations, 2,200 newspapers, 3,000 TV stations, 8,000 magazines and 371,600 Chinese language websites based on the mainland.

The number of Internet users, or so-called "netizens," topped 87 million by July this year after the country was linked by the Internet to the outside world.

Among these netizens, about 80 per cent are aged between 14 and 35.

The Internet community in China has multiplied 140 times in more than six years, soaring to its current level from just 620,000 users in 1997, according to the China Internet Network Information Centre's (CNNIC) latest report.

The number had hit 79.5 million by the end of last year.

Powerful new media

China's web savvy population surpassed Japan's at the end of 2002, becoming the second largest in the world after the United States.

Although large in size, the current number represents just 6.6 per cent of the country's total population, leaving room for vast growth.

Between December 2003 and January 2004, professors Zhang Kai and Wu Minsu with China Communication University conducted a survey of 1,000 Chinese aged between 10 and 45 in Beijing and Shanghai on their media awareness.

The survey shows that reading a book, watching TV and surfing the Internet are the top three pastimes of the people surveyed.

Also, about 60 per cent of those surveyed admitted that they are now deeply dependent on mass media and "could not stand to live a life without TV and the Internet."

News reports about the bad behaviour of young children who have been influenced by violence or pornography in TV programmes or in web pages, or addicted to online entertainment, have been abundant in recent years.

Some angry parents were even quoted by local media as saying the Internet "is an evil force, no less dangerous than drugs to young kids."

Some media experts go even further to claim that mass media in China are now helping to marginalize Chinese culture and undermine traditional values.

"The mass media ought to shoulder the responsibility of spreading knowledge about traditional Chinese culture among young Chinese audiences and nurturing their passion for Chinese history," said Liu Yongli, a media researcher with the Department of Journalism of Hebei Normal University.

However, "it is a disturbing fact to note that media coverage about traditional Chinese culture and values, no matter in the forms of print media, TV news, radio news, or news on the Internet, is diminishing," he said.

By contrast, there is excessive coverage of celebrity scandals and pop culture trends, especially those introduced from Western countries.

Meanwhile, TV series now mock historical events and figures, and focus on sports and entertainment trivia.

Research has also pointed to the fact that very few Chinese TV programmes for young children deal with traditional Chinese culture.

Most of them instead are either designed for extra-curricular purposes or purely for entertainment.

Media scholars also criticized some TV commercials and Internet ads for touting luxurious lifestyles, bearing inaccurate product information, or carrying messages with potentially obscene and violent ramifications.

Negative role of mass media

Sun Lijun, a professor with Beijing Film Academy, cited Western influences via mass media as a major reason for the declining standards of Chinese cartoon films.

He said that, in recent years, the production volume of cartoons and animated films and TV series made by younger generations of Chinese artists has been on the rise.

However, very few of them are of high quality in market appeal or artistic merit.

A major reason is "the lack of creative and independent thinking," he said.

Whenever a relatively successful homegrown cartoon, such as "The Squash Brothers" (Hu Lu Xiong Di) and "The Legend of Ne Zha" (Ne Zha Chuan Qi), is broadcast, it inevitably leads to copycats.

The most fatal defect is that most Chinese cartoons draw too heavily on both the image and story telling devices of their Japanese and American counterparts.

Responding to criticism and calls for protecting minors, law enforcement officers have, since July, launched a nationwide campaign to "uproot harmful information on the Internet."

A large number of Internet cafes were shut down because they failed to keep minors off their premises.

At least 700 Chinese websites containing cyber violence and pornographic content have been closed down or fined, with 329 people being arrested.

Each Chinese website now has an alert button which is used for Internet surfers to inform to the webmaster of any "harmful information" on the website.

In early August, the Shanghai People's Congress drafted a new regulation to better protect local youth from a variety of threats.

The regulation forbids under-18s from going to Internet cafes and orders institutions with Internet services to prevent young people from accessing harmful material.

Severe fines will be imposed on Internet cafes that allow minors to use their services.

No dance halls, Internet cafes, video game parlours, adult product shops or agricultural produce markets will be allowed to open within 200 metres of any school, states the draft regulation.

Local authorities in many parts of the country are drafting similar regulations.

However, the most effective way to protect younger generations of Chinese from the negative impacts of mass media should be media education rather than government-driven "campaigns" or "crackdowns," experts said at the international conference.

They agreed there's an urgent need to improve the media literacy of millions of young Chinese.

Significance of media education

"The media play a bigger role in Chinese households as a disseminator of social values, a vital source of information and knowledge outside school, a teacher of social education, and a leisure and entertainment tool," said Bu Wei.

The penetration of mass media into Chinese households has also changed the pattern of inter-family communication and education.

Easier access to a free flow of information and knowledge can boost family democracy and young kids tend to be "empowered by mass media," she said.

Against this backdrop, conflicts and generation gaps crop up.

"Only those parents or grandparents who are media literate can better handle the changing relationships with young kids," she said.

However, the fact is that "media education in China is in its infancy. Academic research into media literacy for Chinese audiences still lags far behind many other countries and regions of the world," said professor Cai Guofen.

Only in 1997 did China to have its first work on media education, a paper written by Chinese media scholar Bu Wei entitled "On the Significance, Content and Methodology of Media Education."

Since then, not much headway has been made in the field.

Even worse, no officially designated courses on media literacy have been included in the curriculum of any educational institution across the country.

And for quite some time, media literacy education has been interpreted as "teaching with multimedia materials" either in the classroom, or in long distance online education programmes.

A survey by a team led by Zhang Xuebo, a media researcher and doctoral candidate of Education Technology at South China Normal University, has found that sporadic and spontaneous teaching about the media exists in some schools.

Seventy per cent of the 46 surveyed teachers showed a strong interest in "receiving more media literacy education and then opening related courses for their students."

Early this year, Zhang and his team conducted a sample survey on media literacy awareness in 46 high schools in 21 cities in South China's Guangdong Province.

The poll also indicated that teachers at schools and universities in other parts of the country have voluntarily conducted experiments in media education in the form of extra-curricular lectures and online homework.

But the absence of a clear government policy on media education, heavy workloads under the current curriculum framework for both teachers and students, and the shortage of funds for schools and even universities, have severely hindered the development of media literacy education at the grass-roots level.

"Media literacy education, or simply media education, has become a global trend. Despite differences in social realities and local cultures, successful experiences from other nations and regions in this field can be useful to educators on the Chinese mainland," said Yang Guanghui, a media researcher with China Communication University.

At the conference, media educators and scholars shared successful experiences and lessons in media education from other countries and regions.

Although no widely accepted academic definition of "media literacy" has been set down, media education made headway in many classrooms in various parts of the world.

And yet in many major educational jurisdictions it is still struggling to be recognized as a valid part of an overall and basic education.

In some countries it has been scaled back or eliminated from the curricula all together, Lee Rother, a media expert from Canada, said at the conference.

Worldwide trends

The earliest form of media education began in Germany in the 17th century. From the 1920s, modern media education began in the UK while the popularity of cinema was on the rise.

In the 1960s, media literacy education for the UK's younger generation was officially put into the basic education framework. In the 1980s and 1990s, media education became a regular course or was integrated into other courses for high school students in Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

However, on the Chinese mainland, no media education programme has been included in the curricula of high schools or universities.

With the advent of the new century, the concept of mass media has been extended to include a wide range of issues.

They include the expansion of media conglomerates, the impact of the Internet on society, and the relationship between the media and gender, democracy, social development, pop culture, globalization, and vanishing ethnic cultures.

The task for media education has also expanded to include not only media users' access to media, analytical and critical viewing of media, but also "media construction," and "media representation."

Western media researchers at the conference pointed out that media production is a very useful way of improving media literacy.

Students can explore questions about accuracy and bias by being asked to produce contrasting representations of an institution or an area that they are familiar with.

"Encouraging students to produce their own representations of social issues, in photos and short films for example, and reflect on the ways in which audiences respond to them, is often a much better way of addressing the complexity of debates about stereotyping and about 'positive images' and 'negative images' in the mass media," said Wendy Earle, a media education expert from the UK.

According to David Buckingham, a renowned media scholar from the UK, "critical thinking" and "healthy self-esteem" are the key components of media literacy education.

In media education, teachers and researchers should not portray mass media as something totally negative.

Instead, they should respect youngsters' intelligence and accept the pleasure they get from their interaction with the media.

They should "acknowledge that the media have a powerful and amazing influence that can be used for positive and healthy ends," said David Buckingham.

(China Daily 10/30/2004 page3)


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