Approximately ten years ago Delhi was shocked by an MMS that went viral! It was November 2004 and Delhi was shivering with cold. This MMS became the hottest news in all channels, arousing much public interest.

Those who still grapple as to what an MMS is, it’s the abbreviation for Multimedia Messaging Service. It was the time when mobile phones with camera were getting popular in the market. These cameras could shoot stills and videos and send them as multimedia messages to one or more people.

The Viral Video

Using their mobile phone camera, two Class XI students made a three to four minute long video in which they themselves were visible. The video that circulated as mobile messages turned to be the most widely known secret at Delhi Public School (DPS), R.K. Puram in those days.

The video had explicit footage of a boy and a girl, around 17 years old, engaging in sex on their own school premises. The girl’s face was reportedly visible in the clip that was in circulation among students, passing from one MMS-enabled equipment to another.

Almost ten years have passed now. We have witnessed Information and communication technologies (ICTs) constantly upgrading into advanced versions several times. Markets flood with phones having superior features at cheaper prices. Kids and youth are experts of mobile phone use and have easier access to it. Yet, we still continue to know about abuses and crimes done with the aid of media gadgets and social media in the news channels. Little has been done about the responsible use of the new media!

Teachers and Parents

In the colder month of November, the parents of the students and the teachers in DPS were alerted, but they felt lost as to how to handle the issue. The school authorities banned mobile phones in the campus and fined heavily those who violated this norm; ban announcements were stuck on the notice boards of the school; the parents thought about changing the school of their children; students of this school came to be generally branded as bad and viewed with humiliation!

Parents, teachers and other authorities still hold the immature, unproductive and negative approach of prohibition and alienation when it comes to counteracting the bad influences of media. Though, many people possess or have access to highly sophisticated communication gadgets such as a laptop computer, tablets (iPad or Galaxy Note), smart phones or feature phones, a fact which we humbly need to admit is that many of them have not been taught to use them intelligently, usefully and responsibly.

Media Literacy

One of the workable solutions to respond to the mediated world is to become media literate. Skills of reading and writing alone do not make one literate. One has to be socially, culturally and technologically literate to be successful in the modern society. This implies a deliberate and systematic learning about the social and cultural significance of media as well as its psychological impact on individuals. It also involves becoming aware of the responsible use of media and communication gadgets.

From this issue of “Companion” we begin a series to analyse the various concepts and practices involved in media literacy. The topics covered will include not only media content but also the ideologies behind it. Going through them you can get a grip on the various ways media influences your personal life and that of the society. An important aspect of this process is learning the language of media.

Media literacy is essential to help one know about the responsible use of media in a society that is undergoing rapid cultural changes. Possibly, the outcome of this learning process could be that you become masters of media, which offer us multiple possibilities for productive communication.

Perceptions about media

At the very outset let us present a few approaches and perspectives people usually attach to media. First of all media is considered as a natural phenomenon. This perspective is an outcome of the ubiquitous presence of media in our society today. And it is all the more true when it comes to the present day youth, a generation born into the lap of media. They were born into mediated families where TV was switched on most of the time. The fact, however is that media are not natural; they are created and carefully crafted.

Secondly, people think media and media messages are value neutral. The vast majority of them consider all media representations as true and objective. They believe that media messages do not affect them and that they are harmless. (Though occasionally they deem media messages are harmful to their children or some members in the parish community). Every technology comes with an ideology. The ideology inherent in Television is that it considers its viewers passive consumers; where as a smart phone with an Internet connection offers the ideology that its users are active participants in communication. These are only examples and we would explore them more in the subsequent issues. Such ideologies related to various media are loaded with social and cultural significance.

Thirdly, for many people media is not a subject to be studied seriously. This is the most dangerous approach to media content. Uncritical consumption of media messages comes from this approach. Media messages are ‘texts’ that teach the masses. People think that they are immune as they watch a show or consume media messages. However, the fact is that they are undergoing a learning process and cultural transformation unconsciously. Post-moderns learn more things from media than from school, church, or from traditional institutions like school that were once channels of values in the society. In a media saturated world one should not only be critically alert to media messages but also be a constructive contributor to the public sphere.

The Process

Schools and Sunday schools are the best avenues for teaching media literacy. However, the hard fact is that media is a much ignored topic in our schools with an exception of a few that organise media literacy programmes. Schools and teachers are highly obsessed with the score based and performance oriented curriculum rather than equipping the younger generation to be successful individuals, altruistic social beings and responsible citizens. It is overdue we realized that top score does not make one successful nor does it guarantee a better society.

To our intriguing question, many young people say that they have not received any formal training in schools about the responsible use of media. Of course they remember getting a session or two as part of some youth training, once in a blue moon. Fr Sojan, a young priest says, “Our seminary had offered a training course in media but it was about producing media, such as news writing which we do not use in our regular priestly ministry.” Fr Freddy comments, “Every priest or religious should know the bias of media and its bad influences in order to guide a parish community.” He is convinced that critical knowledge of media is very important in the faith formation of his community.

Sr Shalini makes an ironic comment: “We do not talk much about learning media in the convent. Media is considered a taboo whereas we live in a world full of media.” It is a fact that Church in India has not creatively and exhaustively approached media as a serious matter to be pursued. Our concerns with media are limited to criticising media on the pulpit or at most celebrating the World Communications Day. Sr Nancy, superior in a community of twelve sisters, says, “I am at a loss to find suitable resource persons to train our sisters in media literacy. Neither do I find any relevant course organised in this line.”

Church and media

Media literacy should be a matter of great concern for the Church. Papal documents have provided ample guidelines in this regard, and “Ethics in Internet” makes a clear direction to schools and other educational institutions of the Church to organise programmes for “the discerning use of the Internet as part of a comprehensive media education” (15). Similarly “Communio et Progressio” reminds the leaders of the Church to be media literate because without that “an effective apostolate is impossible in a society which is increasingly conditioned by the media” (CP 111).

Media and other communication technologies are bringing about changes not only in the area of news, entertainment and personal communication but it also brings about a continued cultural change. It shapes our perspectives, fashions, habits, emotions and behaviour. It directs our orientations, beliefs and spirituality. As a major aspect that sustains the society, it develops and maintains our being and becoming.

The DPS mobile scandal incident is only one among the many cases reported. Ever since the popularity and proliferation of mobile gadgets, equipped with multimedia technologies and Internet, similar problems have been on the increase. The Catholic pastoral leadership cannot just shrug from the responsibility of taking up this issue and applying remedial measures. This is both a pastoral as well as humanitarian activity.

For a sane society

Building a nation with responsible citizens accountable for the families and empowering moral values in children are things done collaboratively by parents, teachers and the society. Pastors and religious people have to take keen interest and start up initiatives in this regard. That is a fundamental requirement of the time. Then only our society will have a safe, sane and peaceful life style and an atmosphere of conviviality even in the midst of communal turmoil at times.

(Names used in this article are psuedonyms)