Even though digital media have provided a seemingly infinite number of ways for new voices to be heard, most of the messages we encounter on a daily basis are controlled by a privileged few. Thanks to a gradual relaxing of media ownership laws since the early 2000s, approximately 90% of what we see and hear through television, radio, film, print and digital media are ultimately controlled by the seven white men who run CBS Corporation, iHeartMedia, Comcast, Disney, News Corporation, Time Warner and Viacom. (The companies at the top of this well-known infographic have shuffled a bit and now number seven instead of six, but much else remains the same.) This concentration of power has contributed to a lack of diversity in media messaging: fewer minutes are allocated to local news; the percentage of women directing top-grossing Hollywood films has decreased since 1998; women and racial minorities are left out of AP Computing Science exams. Racial and ethnic minorities comprise a piddling – yet record high – 13% of newsroom staff. The statistics go on, but the good news generally does not.
The question of who makes the media matters, in part because all of us are limited by our own experiences. I have only ever experienced the world as a white woman, and that is a different experience than if I were African-American or male, which barely scratches the surface when it comes to all the things I am not and will never be. So when the controls of a mass media corporation roll up to a group of people who all look the same, can we be surprised by a lack of variety in media narratives? How can mainstream media be expected to innovate in an atmosphere of sameness?
Fortunately, there are more efforts now to bring traditionally marginalized communities into the fields of media and technology. Nonprofits abound which focus in getting girls, low-income youth or people of color into coding, robotics and various STEM fields. Diversifying voices in media is a step in diversifying media content, but it is only that – one step. As Sonia Livingstone, professor at the London School of Economics, said in a 2014 report, "Coding is a great idea but it's not enough. Decoding today's media – to recognise misleading and exploitative content, to appreciate what is available and to grasp the emerging opportunities – doesn't come automatically or naturally. This is a time to strengthen media education." If we can't teach people to identify misinformation or stereotypes and demand better from media, then the same forces that have contributed to our current lack of diversity will keep their stranglehold on power and popular narrative. Harmful media messaging must be called out for it to end, and the producers behind that content need to understand that it's no longer acceptable.
This means we need to be better at raising critical thinkers and apt communicators in a digital age, and that's where the MediaBreaker comes in. The MediaBreaker is a first-of-its-kind, free, cloud-based video remix tool developed by The LAMP, a New York-based nonprofit organization where I have worked since 2008, that allows users to talk back to mass media in a critical way. Like most things, the MediaBreaker is better shown than told, so here's an example:
You'll notice that the video is not super-slick, and that is by design. As an education organization focused on critical thinking about media, The LAMP has always focused on process over product – or, more succinctly, we're not trying to make the next Martin Scorsese or Steve Jobs. Rather, we're trying to foster a generation of junior Jon Stewarts, by which we mean young people who can not only critique and deconstruct media messages, but who can synthesize and share their ideas through cogent, original media remixes.
And the MediaBreaker is picking up steam. In March, we won funding from the Digital Media and Learning Competition to build a learning environment around the tool, which will allow educators and after-school program leaders to curate libraries for students of 'breakable' media, which may be based on a particular topic relevant to what students are learning in class or exploring outside of school. The platform will include a component for teaching the basics of fair use, so that students are learning to responsibly remix, but the closed nature of the learning environment means they can tinker and make mistakes as they practice becoming strong digital citizens. (The educators and program leaders will be able to view student work in progress, and if a student wants to, he or she can submit a video to go in our public library of broken videos – at which point the video must pass a legal review for fair use compliance.)
In addition to the learning environment, The LAMP has also won funding to expand its Break-a-thons, like our annual Break the Super Bowl party. At first, it looks like any other Super Bowl party, with wings, pizza and the big game on in the background, but the rows of computers with teens breaking actual Super Bowl commercials in real time is the first hint that what we're doing is a bit different. Check out this video from our 2015 event:
The funding we have won from the Hive Digital Media Learning Fund in the New York Community Trust allows us to try this model on other events, like the MTV Video Music Awards in August. It also supports the creation of what we're calling Break-a-thon in a Box, which will give educators, librarians, after-school program leaders and parents everything they need to host their own Break-a-thon. Already, Professor Virginia Kuhn at the University of Southern California hosted a Break-a-thon for her students called Rip the Red Carpet, in which participants remixed movie trailers and clips. Coming up in June, The LAMP is holding a Break the Trailer contest and screening here in New York.
We're under no illusions that changing mass media is easy. Still, we don't think it's impossible, especially if the demand for change comes from the same people upon whom media producers depend. McDonald's, for example, didn't start offering milk and fruit with their Happy Meals just because it was the right thing to do. They did it because people demanded it, and so McDonald's saw that sticking to their old menu wasn't sustainable for the long-term. In much the same way, we at The LAMP don't think the constant rehashing of gender, ageist, racial or ethnic stereotypes is sustainable. Nor do we think our society can endlessly sustain misleading advertisements, overhyped news narratives or any combination of messages preying on insecurities for the purpose of selling us stuff we likely don't need anyway. But encouraging diverse voices, asking tough questions, cultivating critical thinkers, makers and breakers – these practices are not only sustainable, but vital.