Tuning in to youths' media culture

About this article

Integrating media literacy into the curriculum is the focus of this August-September 1998 article from Momentum. Because the media do shape our students' worldview, the author suggests that the media can offer an effective way to call them to re-examine behaviors and values. The Archdiocese of Cincinnati and the University of Dayton propose a four-stage model for integrating media literacy into religion and language arts curriculum. The article includes many helpful examples from teachers in the field.

Rather than criticize teens' preoccupation with the media, these religion teachers use it in their faith formation efforts.

Adolescents often feel most fully alive and in tune with their peers in the midst of a media experience--a rock concert, a movie, a favorite TV show or video game. They live in a culture of media sounds and images, so that's where educators can help them to find Christ. This is the rationale for integrating media literacy into high school religious studies curricula and parish youth programs.

Media education supports the most basic educational goals by developing young people's abilities to access information, critically evaluate it and effectively communicate with others. Religious educators, recognizing the impact of media messages on beliefs, values and behavior, are using media education in their faith development and spiritual formation efforts. The media that shape and reflect teens' worldviews can provide an entry into their worlds, and the starting point for the reexamination of personal behavior and its underlying assumptions and values.

Media literacy can be integrated into religious education in three ways. Media, faith and values courses can be offered as a junior or senior elective. Media-related issues such as sexuality, violence, consumerism or stereotyping can be dealt with in courses on Christian living, family, morality and social justice. Ideally, every religion course can consider each topic it covers in the context of the media culture.

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati and The University of Dayton created a model for integrating media literacy into the religious education and language arts curriculum at both elementary and secondary levels. The diocese has incorporated media literacy requirements into its newly revised curriculum guidelines.

Further, media education training for elementary school faculties and high school religion and English teachers has been funded by a grant from Raskop Foundation for Catholic Activities. Two graduate courses are offered at The University of Dayton and the Athenaeum of Ohio in Cincinnati, to prepare catalyst teachers to serve as mentors and resources for their colleagues. The training grant has provisions for ongoing consultation and mentoring.

In brief, this four-stage model, which is meant to serve as a prototype for other dioceses wishing to implement the Vatican's 1992 Aetatis Novae: Pastoral Instruction on Social Communications,1 includes these elements:

  • Building media education into diocesan curriculum guidelines
  • Training elementary school faculties and high school religion teachers
  • Offering graduate courses for catalyst teachers
  • Providing ongoing consultation for faculties and administrators

Aetatis Novae's opening words set the stage for its pastoral recommendations: "At the dawn of a new era, a vast expansion of human communications is profoundly influencing culture everywhere. . . . Nowhere today are people untouched by the impact of media upon religious and moral attitudes, political and social systems, and education."2

Throughout the document, the Pontifical Council for Social Communications urges that seminaries, schools and parishes in every diocese make media education a priority among their pastoral goals.

Acting on this directive, high school teachers in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati who have taken part in The University of Dayton's week-long intensive seminar in media literacy formed the Cincinnati/Dayton Coalition for Media Literacy to support one another's efforts in designing and teaching media courses. Some of those efforts are detailed below.

At Mother of Mercy High School in Cincinnati, OH, Paula Yerke has been teaching Media Through Values for three years. The course, called simply MTV by the students, "looks closely at the values of our culture as presented by the media," says Paula. "It teaches how to critically evaluate music, TV, advertising, news and movies. The students are given a few simple tools to aid them in deconstructing the media."

As students learn to deconstruct, they see that the media don't portray reality, but create a reality designed to the specifications of commercial interests. Students become more aware of the techniques each medium uses to grab and hold an audience's attention. Most important, they learn that the viewers ultimately give meaning to the message as they filter it through their own store of knowledge and previous experience, their own personal structure of beliefs and values.

This awareness can transform students from passive media consumers to critical thinkers who choose to live intentionally rather than to be manipulated by the media's commercial interests.

When Donna Groene first offered her Media and Values course at Cincinnati's Mount Notre Dame High School, seven classes of juniors and seniors signed up. She asked her department chair Cindy Eckerle to take The University of Dayton's media literacy seminar that summer and teach some sections of the course. Since then, Groene and Eckerle have worked together, brainstorming, sharing resources and swapping success stories.

The Media and Values course description states: "This course looks at the ways we can actively challenge our media culture as media literate women. . . . Throughout the course we will face the challenge of being a Christian living in a media culture (and) how we can follow Christ in a society fueled by consumerism."

Rather than the usual essays and reflection papers, both teachers require the use of multimedia. Students audio and videotape interviews, design CD covers, create overhead transparencies and produce PowerPoint presentations.

Media issues are explored from a gospel perspective with help from a textbook and directors manual Faith in the Media? , published by Ave Maria Press. Activities include the investigation of media portrayals of teens and sexuality, violence and conflict resolution, the Internet, pop music and advertising. The exploration leads students to an awareness that media shape people's consciousness, and that media literacy is an essential skill for Christian living.

In her freshman Christian Faith classes at Carroll High School in Dayton, Jean Nickelman combines a study of adolescent growth and development with an analysis of methods used by advertisers to appeal to adolescents' needs and insecurities. Students examine how the findings of psychologists are turned to commercial advantage by the advertising industry, and they discuss the pressures that are exerted on teens to measure up to artificial standards set by the industry.

Denise Steiritz blends considerations of media and culture with biblical themes throughout her Hebrew Scriptures classes at Carroll. After studying the creation accounts, her classes look at stewardship and ecology issues, the relationship of advertising to consumption and the resulting threats to the ecological system.

When studying Jacob and Esau and the story of Joseph and his brothers, for instance, students reflect on sibling rivalry, conflict within families and patterns of conflict resolution found in the media.

The story of Moses and the burning bush leads to a discussion of the sacredness of God's name and its contemporary use in pop music and on radio and television talk shows. Students confront a critical question: What has a greater influence on our attitudes and behavior, Scripture or our media environment?

Religious studies on the high school level is an opportunity for adolescents to reexamine their faith, to talk through issues they see as problematic, to reappropriate beliefs and values in a more personal, more adult way. Courses such as those described above facilitate this process.

Media as "gatekeepers" set the agenda as students raise questions of concern among youth: violence in the streets and schools, sexual mores and scandal, not only among rock stars and athletes, but among the nation's leaders. These are the areas where religion classes must seek the intersection of faith and culture.

Paula Yerke says that her students at Mother of Mercy analyze media "in the light of the Gospel, recognizing where there is conflict or agreement between the message of Jesus and the message of the media."

Media education is not media bashing. An awareness of goodness, courage, loyalty and other gospel values portrayed in the media is essential in creating an environment where youth can recognize Christ in culture and celebrate God's presence in the world.

A young man in The University of Dayton's campus ministry department recently shared his experience with the positive power of media. He said, "I'm doing what I am with my life because of a movie I saw when I was in college. I saw Roses in December, the story of the four church women who were killed in El Salvador, and I decided then and there that I wanted to do something worthwhile with my life."

Those using media literacy most productively in religious education understand that the key to reaching young people is to stop telling them what's wrong with their world and their media and to start helping them find the intersection of faith and culture in everyday life. Media literacy, at its best, can challenge teens to uncover those elements in their media environment that give them a sense of the sacred and nurture their spirituality.

Sister Trampiets, SC, teaches media literacy courses at the Athenaeum of Ohio and The University of Dayton and is the author of Faith in the Media [Ave Maria Press, 1997].


  1. Aetatis Novae: Pastoral Instruction on Social Communications, Pontifical Commission for the Means of Social Communication, Washington, DC, United States Catholic Conference, 1992.
  2. Ibid., p. 3.


This article originally appeared in Momentum, the journal of the National Catholic Education Association. It is reprinted here by permission of the NCEA. For more information about the NCEA, go to their web site at http://www.ncea.org.

Published August 1, 1998.