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Educating for Freedom: Media Literacy by Zoe Weil

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No matter where we go or what we do, we are always surrounded by media, advertising, marketing, images, sounds, and experiences that are meant to shape our world view, drive our buying habits, influence our consumption.... and impact just about every aspect of how we live our lives. In the United States you always hear that we are a "free people" (compared to people in some other nations) but are we really truly free if we don't recognize how we are being manipulated to behave in ways that are not necessarily in our best interests or in the interest of sustaining a healthy and peaceful world? Media literacy is critical for people of all ages if we are to maintain the freedom to make decisions that are good for us, good for each other, and good for our planet.

In the above newly released TEDx talk, Reach And Teach friend and founder of the Institute for Humane Education, Zoe Weil, demonstrates how we can all take a giant step forward in liberating ourselves and our children from simply digesting the media around us and moving us to becoming better critical thinkers. In this talk Zoe Weil shows us how to ask five key questions each time we notice media in any form that we perceive is, in fact, trying to influence us. And, if as adults we make it a practice to ask these questions when we are with children and explore the answers together, we can help our children achieve a greater level of freedom from those who are trying to enslave them to brand loyalty and enslave them with thinking that their lives are somehow missing something if they don't have certain products in their hands or live their lives in prescribed ways.

And, as Zoe Weil points out at the end of her talk, given that our planet is facing some of the most difficult challenges in generations, equipping our young people to make better, more well-informed decisions, can help protect the world's people from unnecessary violence and environmental catastrophes. The stakes are high and media literacy is essential. 

Here are the questions:

  1. What product or service is being advertised? 
  2. What deep need or desire is the ad promising to fill?
  3. Who is the target audience? What might their response be?
  4. What suffering, cruelty, and/or destruction is hidden from view?
  5. What product or service might do more good and less harm? 

These are mostly pretty straight-forward questions, although I have to admit that we often see advertisements for which the answer to the first question is not immediately clear. Who among us hasn't seen a billboard with a beautiful man or woman, half or completely naked, and unable to see the logo or other brand information can't figure out what the advertiser is trying to sell? 

Teen Magazine Spread

What's Wrong With This Picture?

The 4th question is the most intriguing. That one takes a bit more deep thinking but it is so important. When you see an advertisement for a store that's offering the VERY LOWEST PRICES, for example, taking some time to think about how that store manages to get things at such low prices could provide a great lesson in suffering, cruelty, and destruction.

Lower prices might make you happy, but what damage do they do to get those low prices? Child labor? Slave labor? Bankrupting suppliers by making them sell the store products at a price lower than it costs to produce? 

One of the key things our friend Amy Jussel, founder of, has been doing in her media literacy education efforts is to uncover the hidden damages caused by the way "happy children" are portrated by the media. 

What damage might the images in this magazine spread on the left cause?

First, you need to know that the girls in that spread DO NOT look the way the image portrays them. They've been completely "PhotoShopped." What harm is there in that? Imagine you are a tween or teen girl thinking about going to the beach with your friends and looking at yourself in your bathing suit. How many girls will see girls like those in the magazine spread staring back at themselves in the mirror?


How many girls will realize that they don't have to look like those models to have a great time at the beach with their friends?

Not enough.

How many girls will starve themselves, eat but then throw up their dinners, or do other incredibly harmful things to their bodies in an effort to try to get themselves closer to the impossible? 

Too many.

And worst of all, how many girls won't live long enough to become adults?

Even one is too many.

Beyond looking at the negative consequences inflicted on the consumers of these magazine spreads, what harm and destruction are being imposed on the models for spreads like this? What are their lives like?

Teenager Julia Bluhm took this issue head on, as Amy Jussel blogged about in this story on the web site. 

As that story showed, children can and will challenge harmful media when they recognize it and as Amy so rightly shared at the beginning of that post, "People don't necessarily change when they see the light; they change when they feel the heat."  The magazine that ran the spread felt the heat when they heard from nearly 90,000 people due to Bluhm's hard work. 

Living in the United States we do, in fact, have more freedom than people in many other countries and with that freedom comes a responsibility to protect ourselves from being unduly influenced by media that causes us to behave in ways that negatively impact us, our neighbors, and our planet.  We all need tools to help us do that and to educate our children to do the same. At Reach And Teach we love to promote resources that help transform the world through teachable moments and we think that Zoe Weil's TEDx Talk, her web site, and Amy Jussel's are fantastic places to find such transformative resources every day.

Please do let us know (click here to email us) of any resources like these that we should promote on our web site, through Facebook, or Tweet about! If you like this post, please share it on Facebook and Tweet about it yourself! 


Green America approved