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Canadian book on television useful
despite omitting Quebec, sexuality
Book Reviewed by Derek Boles
There is little doubt in anyone's mind about the tremendous influence of the mass media on children and adolescents, not to mention the rest of us. The most powerful of these media on children are television and popular music. Their recent marriage in the form of rock videos has finally galvanized the educational establishment into addressing the issue of helping students to become media literate. Canadian curriculum guidelines are slowly being revised across the country in varying degrees to reflect this new awareness.
Individual teachers, many of them influenced by Marshall McLuhan in the late '60's, have been addressing the issue of media literacy for years but have been forced to rely on American textbooks and teaching materials. Recently the Irwin Publishing Company of Toronto published a high-school text Television and Society. It's by Charles Ungerleider, a U.B.C. college professor, and Ernest Krieger, a high school teacher from the Vancouver area. Irwin claims that "the main purpose of the book is to take readers beyond the improvement of their own viewing habits to a critical consciousness about the use and influence of television in Canadian society." The book is of interest beyond the classroom.
The book is intended as an introductory overview of television. Its 10 chapters cover such areas as history, production, news, politics, commercials, technical procedures, and various social issues such as stereotyping and violence. This material is available elsewhere but I can attest to the convenience of having it all in one place. One unique chapter, which I've not seen elsewhere, is "The English-language Media and Canadian Identity." In it, the authors argue that Canada's cultural mosaic is simply not represented on Canadian TV with any kind of fair balance. They provide many statistics to support that claim.
The authors are also careful to point out that their book reflects the experience of Anglophones; it makes no attempt to document the Francophone experience. That's too bad. There's much to learn from even a superficial overview of the Quebec media. There simply isn't the massive American domination of popular culture in Quebec that one finds elsewhere in Canada and the reasons are not simply explained by differences in language.
A modern high school text has to do more than simply dispense facts and information in an attractive package. Assignments must engage students in a variety of communications skills: reading, writing, listening, speaking and viewing. This is one of the most important mandates of a media literacy program. Students must be encouraged to think about what they are watching within some kind of critical framework. However, teachers must be careful about imposing their own value judgements on their students particularly regarding specific programs. The recent spate of shrill anti-media diatribes directed towards teachers and parents can be a real turn-off to most kids. They care about their media and resent it when adults try to change their viewing habits. Television and Society's authors recognize this and the chapters devoted to social problems such as violence and stereotyping are arranged so that students learn about these problems through a discovery process.
If the book has one major failing, it is the lack of a bibliography.
Two important issues ignored in this book are rock videos and the impact of the home video-cassette recorder. The gestation, development and publication of a school text can often span several years and these are relatively recent phenomena so the omission is understandable.
While a number of the student investigations broach the area of sexual stereotyping, the book virtually ignores the topic of sexuality itself. I can understand the apprehensions of a publisher trying to market a textbook for use in classrooms across Canada. There are many forces at large that would ban the book simply for raising the issue. Most kids, however, learn more about sexuality from television than they do any other single source. The omission is regrettable.
Some of the authors' statistics suggest Canadians watch 20% less television than Americans. Any evidence that I've seen suggests that our consumption is in fact higher. Our harsher climate encourages people to stay indoors more than do Americans. The installation of satellite dishes in remote northern communities has had a significant effect on their social life.
The book devotes an entire chapter to politics and television, yet ignores what I consider to be one of the most pernicious effects of American domination of our media. We live in a Parliamentary democracy which is being increasingly subverted by U.S.-style presidential television campaigns which focus on the media image of the leaders rather than on policies. Despite its flaws, Television and Society is useful. We need more such books.
Derek Boles teaches media studies at Thornlea Secondary School, Thornhill, Ont.
Published in Sources, Summer 1986