Here's a riddle for you: 98 percent of American households have one. By the time most American children enter kindergarten, they have spent more hours doing this than they will spend in college classrooms getting a degree. In fact, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children spend about 900 hours a year in school but they spend between 1,200 and 1,800 hours a year on this activity, devoting more time to it than anything except sleeping. What is it? Why, television, of course -- the great American activity.
It's hard to call watching television an "activity," since it doesn't involve physical exertion or include interactions with other people. Perhaps that's one reason television has become a symbol for apathy and ignorance, deservedly or not. "Kill Your Television" bumper stickers aren't just a rebellion against bad content; they express a mindset against the stereotypical characteristics TV represents. But one local organization says it doesn't matter whether you're a TV enthusiast or holier-than-thou critic; as long as people engage in discussions about media industries and deconstruct the cultural messages mass media emits, TV-watching, video game-playing and movie-going can be a truly great American activity.
"How can we teach people to use media but not be used by media," muses John Caputo, director of the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media (NW-ARM). Caputo, who is also the director of Gonzaga University's department of Communication and Leadership Studies, says a critical dialogue about media content is overdue in America. He promotes media literacy, a movement that has only recently gained momentum in the U.S.
"Media literacy started really big in Canada, the UK and Australia, where there was a lot of concern with American products being advertised so incessantly," says Caputo, explaining that media literacy began attracting attention in America as citizens became increasingly concerned with violent content and subversive advertising.
That's one reason he formed the NW-ARM, which offers training, funding and puts on events (like the Jackson Katz appearance this week) to educate people about how to become media literate. Caputo says NW-ARM was fashioned out of the community response to a presentation he gave to parents at the West Central Community Center.
"The West Central neighborhood in Spokane has the highest concentration of poverty and violence in the state," Caputo says. "The [participants] saw one of the root causes of the breakup of families as media. Home, school, church -- these were secondary, not the main portrayal of values."
Caputo, who was already a member of the Spokane Academy for Family Television, a University of Washington-sponsored foundation, realized how much public interest there was in discussing violent media content, so he worked with Gonzaga to host a series of forums on the topic. Eventually the NW-ARM became its own entity and recently moved into the newly opened Media Literacy Center on the Gonzaga Campus.
"[The publics'] feelings are pretty much in line with what research shows," Caputo notes, referring to how many parents complain about violence on TV "[People are] primarily concerned with the whole cultural menu of what comes at us through the venue of television."
Creating responsible media is not just the job of media company executives and writers of content, Caputo explains, but also of citizens. It involves learning about the industries that produce different media, and thinking critically (but not cynically) about how those businesses work. For instance, Caputo says that after discussions in class, his students often notice subliminal messages on the TV they hadn't paid attention to before.
"They start to figure out that tobacco is associated in commercials with fresh mountain air, the outdoors -- yes, like the Marlboro man. They start to look and see that on the sitcom Friends, the number one most advertised product during commercial breaks is Slim-Fast."
NW-ARM goes against mainstream grains, but it's careful not to align with religious or political groups. Instead, NW-ARM aims to represent people in the Inland Northwest who are concerned with the ways media influences their lives and the lives of children. The alliance doesn't promote censorship but says there has to be a limit to what media can produce.
"The Fourth Amendment of the constitution of the United States is about the health and well-being of children," Caputo says. "And we have to ask, what is more important, the First Amendment [freedom of speech] or the Fourth? What if the First is inflicting on the Fourth? We're always walking a tightrope."
For those who censor media for their families, Caputo warns that isolation isn't always responsible, either.
"I can't tell you the number of times I've done presentations and people stand up and say 'We threw out our TV set 10 years ago and it's great.' I'm not in the 'shoot your television' mode. NW-ARM thinks TV is good for a lot of reasons."
Caputo says it's empowering when people realize media is not just an entity outside their control.
"One way to teach people about media is to create media," he says. "When [NW-ARM] knew that the Cable Advisory Board (CAB) was hosting meetings [to talk about Spokane's cable franchise with Comcast] we tried to get on the agenda." NW-ARM wanted to submit a proposal to Comcast: if the alliance created TV spots promoting media literacy, would Comcast air them? Caputo says the CAB was open to listening to his ideas about promoting media literacy, but he doubts his proposal was taken seriously.
"The were less concerned with media literacy than they were with getting better signals and HDTV and so on."
You may not see any commercials promoting responsible media on your television, but even if media industries aren't ready to encourage critical thinking about media content, plenty of citizens are engaging in it on their own.
"You have to change your own behavior," Caputo says. He suggests using the time exposed to media to ask questions rather than absorb messages.
"What is the responsibility of the media? And what is the [media consumer's] responsibility? Since we can't put the technological genie back in the bottle, how can we teach people to be more critical viewers?"