Key Question #4: What lifestyles, values and points of view are represented in, or omitted from, this message?

Core Concept #4: Media have embedded values and points of view.

Keyword: Content

In looking at the content of a media message, it is important to understand that there are no value-free media and never will be. All media carry subtle messages about who and what is important.

Because all media messages are constructed, choices have to be made. These choices inevitably reflect the values, attitudes and points of view of the ones doing the constructing. The decision about a character's age, gender or race mixed in with the lifestyles, attitudes and behaviors that are portrayed, the selection of a setting (urban? rural? affluent? poor?), and the actions and re-actions in the plot are just some of the ways that values become "embedded" in a TV show, a movie or an ad. Even the news has embedded values in the decisions made about what stories go first, how long they are, what kinds of pictures are chosen, and so on.

Sometimes, like us, media makers are careless and turn a generalization (a flexible observation) into a stereotype (a rigid conclusion). We should expect them, however, to strive for fairness and balance between various ideas and viewpoints. But we also need to know how to locate alternative sources of both news and entertainment and to be able to evaluate the alternatives as well for their own embedded values.

What's significant about Key Question / Core Concept #4 is not that ideas and values are embedded in media messages but that the values of mainstream media typically reinforce, and therefore, affirm, the existing social system. This explains two of the major complaints many people have about media: 1) Less popular or new ideas can have a hard time getting aired, especially if they challenge long-standing assumptions or commonly-accepted beliefs; 2) Unless challenged, old assumptions can create and perpetuate stereotypes, thus further limiting our understanding and appreciation of the world and the many possibilities of human life.

If we have the skills to question and rationally identify both overt and latent values in a mediated presentation, whether from the news, entertainment - or now especially from the Internet -- we are likely to be much more astute in our decision-making to accept or reject the overall message. That's vital for effective citizenship in a democratic society.

Being able to recognize and name missing perspectives is also a critical skill as we negotiate our way each day of our lives through an increasingly multicultural world.

Guiding Questions:

  • What kinds of behaviors / consequences are depicted?
  • What type of person is the reader / watcher / listener invited to identify with?
  • What questions come to mind as you watch / read / listen?
  • What ideas or values are being "sold" to us in this message?
  • What political ideas are communicated in the message? Economic ideas?
  • What judgments or statements are made about how we treat other people?
  • What is the overall worldview of the message?
  • What ideas or perspectives are left out? How would you find what's missing?

from Five Key Questions that can Change the World