Key Question #3: How might different people understand this message differently from me?

Core Concept #3: Different people experience the same media message differently.

Keyword: Audience

How do audiences interact with the media in their lives? Our bodies may not be moving but in our heads, we're constantly trying to connect what we're hearing, seeing or reading with everything else we know. Key Question / Core Concept #3 incorporates two important ideas: first, that our differences influence our various interpretations of media messages and second, that our similarities create common understandings.

When you think about it, no two people see the same movie or hear the same song on the radio; even parents and children do not "see" the same TV show! Each audience member brings to each media encounter a unique set of life experiences (age, gender, education, cultural upbringing, etc.) which, when applied to the text - or combined with the text - create unique interpretations. A World War II veteran, for example, brings a different set of experiences to a movie like Saving Private Ryan than a younger person - resulting in a different reaction to the film as well as, perhaps, greater insight.

The line of questions in Key Question #3 turns the tables on the idea of TV viewers as just passive "couch potatoes." We may not be conscious of it but each of us, even toddlers, are constantly trying to "make sense" of what we see, hear or read. The more questions we can ask about what we and others are experiencing around us, the more prepared we are to evaluate the message and to accept or reject it. And hearing multiple interpretations can build respect for different cultures and appreciation for minority opinions, a critical skill in an increasingly multicultural world.

Our similarities are also important to understanding how media makers "target" different segments of the population in order to influence their opinion or, more typically, to sell them something. The concept of "target audience" will be explored more deeply in Key Question #5.

Finally, exploring this question reminds teachers that they must not only be open to various interpretations among their students but also that students and teachers don't experience the same media the same way, either! The goal of media literacy is not to ferret out one "right" interpretation that resides in the head of the teacher but rather to help students think through the "constructedness" of a media message and then substantiate their interpretation with evidence.

Guiding Questions:

  • Have you ever experienced anything like this in your life?
  • How close is this portrayal to your experience?
  • What did you learn from this media text?
  • What did you learn about yourself from experiencing the media text?
  • What did you learn from other people's response? From their experience of life?
  • How many other interpretations could there be? How could we hear about them?
  • Are other viewpoints just as valid as mine?
  • How can you explain the different responses?

from Five Key Questions that can Change the World