How to teach Representation

The media don’t just offer us a window on the world. They don’t just present reality, they represent it. Media producers inevitably make choices: they select and combine, they make events into stories, they create characters, they invite us to see the world in a particular way. Media offer us versions of reality. But audiences also compare media with their own experiences, and make judgments about how far they can be trusted. Media representations can be real in some ways and not in others: we may know that something is fantasy, yet it can still tell us about reality.

Examples for Students:

Example 1: In the news

Most newspapers have a particular political ‘line’, or a particular party they will support. This is normally very clear from the ‘editorial’ sections of the papers, where journalists are allowed to present their own views directly. Yet political beliefs may also influence the kind of new stories they choose to cover, and how they interpret and present them. Compare how a couple of newspapers cover a political story, or an election. How are their beliefs shown in the choice of language and images? Does bias in the news necessarily influence readers?

Example 2: Representing social groups
Critics have often argued that the media ignore minority or less powerful groups, or show them in a negative light. The proportion of women or people from ethnic minorities who appear on television, for example, is generally much lower than the proportion in society. Researchers also find that non-white characters are more likely to be shown as criminals or villains; and that women are less likely to be shown in powerful roles. What do you think are the consequences of this situation? Can you think of any important exceptions to this, and what do they tell you?

Example 3: Access
Mainstream media are often dominated by powerful groups. However, many TV and radiostations have ‘access’ slots that allow ordinary people to present their views: this might bein the form of a phone-in or a studio talk show, or a separate programme. Many minority groups also publish newspapers or make videotapes to communicate ideas on issues that concern them. Try to get hold of an example of a minority newspaper or magazine, or watch an access show on TV. How is it different from mainstream media – both in what it is saying, and in how it is saying it?

Key Questions

Looking at representation means looking at:

Realism. Is this text intended to be realistic? Why do some texts seem more realistic than others?

Telling the truth. How do media claim to tell the truth about the world? How do they try to seem authentic?

Presence and absence. What is included and excluded from the media world? Who speaks, and who is silenced?

Bias and objectivity. Do media texts support particular views about the world? Do they put across moral or political values?

Stereotyping. How do media represent particular social groups? Are those
representations accurate?

Interpretations. Why do audiences accept some media representations as true, or reject others as false?

Influences. Do media representations affect our views of particular social groups or issues?
Source: 2003 Center for Media Literacy Literacy for the 21st Century / Orientation & Overview
Source: Buckingham, David: Questioning the Media: A Guide for Students.