Director Sut Jhally reveals media’s secrets
This piece is written by Neethi Baskaran, who interviewed Sut Jhally and Andrea Quijada for Daily Lobo
A is for All, B is for Bubbalicious, C is for Campbell’s, D is for Downy. It might not be the alphabet taught in schools, but it is the alphabet taught in the world around us, according to Andrea Quijada of the Media Literacy Project.
The Media Literacy Project is a local, Albuquerque-based organization that seeks to educate people about the messages they get from the media around them. This week, they brought Sut Jhally to Albuquerque to speak about media literacy issues.
Sut Jhally is a professor of communications at University of Massachusetts—Amherst and founder of the Media Education Foundation, which makes films and documentaries about media and culture, mostly for use in college classrooms.
“We produce films about the media’s effects on issues of gender, race, commercialization—the whole range of things that media is connected to. I often say our real purpose is to take the latest, most insightful research that’s being produced and translate it into a form where you don’t have to be an expert to engage with these issues. And these days the way to do that is through film,” said Jhally.
Andrea Quijada, the executive director of the Media Literacy Project, has worked on programs that seek to raise awareness about the role of media in people’s lives.
“At MLP, we define media literacy as the ability to access, analyze, and create media. We work on everything from policy issues, to getting people to think critically and deconstruct the media around them, to running programs that teach people to actually create media,” said Quijada.
Shana Heinricy, the Media Literacy Project’s communications and marketing director, has worked on a number of projects that bring the issues of media literacy to a practical level, meeting the needs of Albuquerque’s community.
“People need to be able to access the media because it’s necessary in order to live in today’s world, to be able to apply for jobs, to access medical information, and to obtain an education. So we work for affordable phone service and affordable internet service,” Heinricy said.
“There are a lot of media literacy organizations that focus only on teaching people about the media. We want to raise awareness, but we also want to give people ways to take action, so we also work on policy and organizing the community,” she said.
Andrea Quijada explained that raising awareness about how media shapes the world around us empowers average viewers to transform our culture.
“The issue we struggle with is the power that media has to shape culture: are they shaping it in a way that works for us or in a way that harms us? Whose interests are being served?” said Quijada.
Sut Jhally answers some of these questions in his films and his work on media literacy.
“The focus is on money and power and how those shape the stories we hear, the stories we use to construct our own sense of self-identity,” he said.
“Who owns media? Corporations. It shouldn’t surprise us that media represent their interests. So the question becomes, what would it mean to have a democratic media?” said Jhally.
“The quote I often use to describe what media literacy should be doing is from one of the first communication theorists, a Canadian scholar named Marshall McLuhan. He said, ‘We’re not quite sure who discovered water, but we’re pretty sure it wasn’t the fish.’ When something is in your environment, it just disappears from view. That’s the way the media have become for us,” Jhally said.
One of the aims of media literacy, then, is to “get the fish to see the water.”
“Part of the function of media literacy is to get people to see the world in slightly different way. To ask, where do these stories come from? Whose interests do they represent? How is this affecting me? And importantly, whose stories don’t get told? Who doesn’t have a voice in this culture?” said Jhally.
“It’s not surprising when you think about it that some of the earliest struggles around media have come from women, people of color, gays and lesbian people. It’s not surprising that the origins of those struggles have come from groups that have been misrepresented and underrepresented,” he said.
According to Andrea Quijada, the need for media literacy is often clearest to those whose stories are not told.
“I think, for folks who don’t see themselves in the media, we already know it’s an issue. It’s really helpful when folks who are represented are able to understand the larger structure of the media. We all benefit when we’re able to participate in making the culture around us,” she said.
Sut Jhally spent the week giving discussing these issues with Albuquerque communities. He spoke about sex and alcohol, the food industry, power in journalism, advertising, and how young people can get involved in the media. He left the city with a call to action: with the Media Literacy Project right here, he said, Albuquerque residents have an unusual opportunity to make media answer to the public. That change doesn’t have to stop with Sut Jhally’s departure.