Media Literacy and Media Isolation: An Ethnography of Media Needs in a Study Abroad Program

Tamara L. Gillis, Ed.D.
Associate Professor
Department of Communications
Elizabethtown College

This paper describes the media literacy and media isolation of students and other community members on a voyage of the international study abroad program of the Institute for Shipboard Education, Semester at Sea.

Using a combination of research methods -- including participation-observation, surveys, interviews, and student journals -- an ethnographic narrative is used to illustrate the socializing factors and the impact of media interaction -- and the lack of media interactions -- that this community experienced.

Critical issues addressed in this paper include the media's framing ability; stereotypes and expectations that develop from media exposure and from the lack of media exposure; and the impact of the media on global issue perceptions and world views among participants of this international study abroad program. The categories of participants were included in this study: traditional college-age students (19 to 21 years of age) and retired professionals (60 or more years of age).

The mass media in any society inform citizens about what is going on and what their place is in the greater scope of the world community. News reports keep citizens grounded in their local surroundings and in McLuhan's global village. This should be a critical component or consideration in developing international educational programming.

In review, most study abroad programs require students to incubate themselves in one particular cultural setting, i.e. the country in which the study program is located. Under such conditions, students may study a number of subjects concerning cultural and intercultural aspects of that country and its relationship to the world. Students in such a program have access to mass media on some level to understand local and international events that may affect their studies and their understanding of the immediate and greater world around them.

While an understanding of the historic principles that have influenced the development of a particular culture and society are critical to appreciating and understanding its current conditions, exposure to mass media messages, i.e., news of current events, is critical to keeping that understanding focused in the present.

A unique program like the ISE Semester at Sea program that exposes students to at least ten different cultures over the course of semester, instead of incubating students in one culture for the same time frame, requires that students not only grasp the historical underpinnings that have influenced a culture, but also the countries' current relationship with their world neighbors. For the students, such relationships and understandings come from not only cultural study but from exposure to the current news of the day distributed by mass media. Furthermore, it requires media literacy skills on the part of these traveling students so they appreciate the constraints on the media and the construction of reality that is put before them.

Isolation from mass media, like the conditions aboard the S. S. Universe Explorer during the spring semester 2001 create fertile ground for media isolation behaviors among students and adult passengers. While this media isolation encourages more community-focused behaviors among the shipboard population, it also creates cultural and information deficiencies within this population that is expected to interact with citizens of ten different countries during this study abroad program. Not only deficiencies, but when limited only to text learning, creates understanding out of context that may be erronsous.

The mass media, while bias in interpreting the news issues of any given day, are a critical component for understanding the ever-changing current political and cultural conditions of each country on the study abroad program itinerary. Historical lectures and course studies may help students and adult passengers appreciate the circumstances that have influenced, but also historically led to, a country's current state of affairs. But it is current events and news of the day that help students and passenger understand the conditions in which they will live in these countries when they disembark the ship at each port of call.

To provide the information necessary to keep passengers and students up to date on the current news of the world and the countries they will visit requires some media service like a satellite link to connect with daily news broadcasts that provide rich details of world events. The USA Times news wire service compilation was a good start for headline news in brief, however an entire news story was often boiled down to one paragraph of two sentences. But a news source that could provide a more rich and in-depth look at current events on a regular up-to-date basis would help students achieve greater cultural understanding of the relationship between the different cultural exposures of this program.

Further study of the media literacy and media isolation conditions of this program and others like it may include:

  • the implementation of mass media and current events materials into course offerings across the curriculum;

  • the effects of mass media exposure during such a program; and

  • the need for further education of students and adult passengers alike in the media literacy process.

This brief study has shown that in the absence of news and information provided by mass media concerning world events, the community of an international study abroad program becomes introspective and parochial, thus losing sight of one of the key elements or goals of such an international study abroad program, i.e., the study of intercultural relationships.

In conclusion, a more rich mass media environment onboard an international study abroad program like Semester at Sea could create a more informed community, provide more details to bond the community together, and create more interest in the interconnected relationships of ten different cultures visited during the study program.

Note: Post publication note ... the fall 2001 voyage did include access to the Internet on the Semester at Sea ship. I hope to investigate the influence of this connection in future writings.

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