The patterns of modem Law School education were laid hi an era of nearly total print dominance (Warner Lien, 1998). The educational concepts articulated were print-centered. Media literacy occupies a very limited and marginal role in North American law schools and with veiy few exceptions, such as the University of Pennsylvania Documentaries and the Law program, law schools do not teach their students the conventions of media language. “Writing and reading occupied a space of privilege in the Western tradition of education and literacy for the most of the twentieth century, making these skills key factors in subjects’ identity and status relative to community” (Warner Lien, 1998).

In the last few decades, images have earned a new status in some educational contexts other than the law school and criminal justice programs. They have become a representational mode of choice well beyond their previous status as illustration. The visual has thus taken on a new importance not only in the scheme of knowledge representation but also in the formation of identity and community relative to how knowledge is accessed and lived (Weston and Cranton, 1986). Despite this slow change in paradigm, the prevailing teaching methods continue to be print-centered and focused on the teacher, whose role is still conceived as a major mediator between students and knowledge contained in published court decisions compiled in legal casebooks or in criminal justice textbooks (MacFarlane, 1994). The teaching methods do little, if anything, to encourage students to create and produce their own (and collective) media and popular culture legal or criminal justice texts (Le Bum and Johnstone, 1994).


The importance that popular culture stories and other media texts have in legal and criminal justice practice and the pervasiveness of popular culture texts make it necessary to help students acquire and develop media literacy skills in the law school and university classroom. These skills will help students interpret and produce media texts that are increasingly used in professional practice. At the same time, they help students become more proficient in reading popular culture texts, which, in turn, will help them with their analysis and discussion of law.

In order to achieve a high level of media literacy, you can help students both interpret and create media productions dealing with legal and criminal matters.

Interpreting popular culture texts is a complex and sophisticated process of actively working with the text. This process is shaped partly by the text, partly by the reader’s background, and partly by the situation the interpretation occurs in (Hunt, 2004). Critical interpretation of a text requires students not to stop at the information explicitly contained in a text. “The explicit meanings of a piece are the tip of an iceberg of meaning; the larger part lies below the surface of the text and is composed of the reader’s own relevant knowledge” (Hirsch, 1987).

A critical interpretation process is only possible if the interpreter uses a series of categories of analysis, some of which are common to most professional and academic communities (general categories of analysis) and some of which are specific to each academic discipline or professional field. The expert interpreter has incorporated these categories and applies them almost intuitively. But most students—particularly lower year students—ignore them. So, we need to teach both the general analytical tools and the discipline-specific values and strategies that facilitate the critical interpretation of popular culture stories with legal and criminal justice themes. The critical interpretation process also requires expressly teaching students the conventions of film language, including camera movements, angles, editing techniques, and sound effects, the meanings they can convey, media narrative structure, and media discourse. This also calls for helping students develop the skills that are necessary to realize how media construct legal meanings, influence, and educate both legal and lay audiences, and impose then messages and values in every dimension of the legal and criminal justice worlds.


General categories of analysis are tools that help students think, discuss, and interact with popular culture texts (Table 6.2).

General categories of analysis to interpret popular culture texts include the following: (1) purpose; (2) coimections to other texts, including the context; (3) deconstruction of assumptions; (4) message; and (5) stereotypes.

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