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“Bully,” A Lesson in Media Literacy


Date posted: April 5, 2012

Bully Wordle“Bully,” a documentary film that’s been in the news a lot lately, is providing some unintentional lessons in media literacy. The film tells the stories of four young people who have been bullied and how that has affected them and their families. Two of the kids had committed suicide. The other two are dealing with bullying in different ways. I reviewed Bully (originally called The Bully Project) here after seeing it in a film festival last year.

The film received a PG-13* rating from MPAA mainly because of language. The filmmakers and other adults and young people are advocating it be shown in schools as part of bullying awareness and prevention initiatives. There is an accompanying educator’s toolkit.

It is in telling the story of Tyler Long, who took his own life at age 17, that media literacy comes into play, as detailed in an article by Emily Bazelon on Slate. Emily has written extensively on bullying and provided perhaps the most complete and thoughtful coverage of the Phoebe Prince case.

She discovered that there’s more to the story of Tyler Long’s suicide than simply bullying. According to the article, he had been diagnosed with ADHD, bipolar disorder, and Asperger’s. His parents had asked him if he was feeling suicidal. He had seen a psychologist and, even though the psychologist asked, neither Tyler nor his parents said anything about bullying, mistreatment at school, or suicidal thoughts.

Filmmaker Lee Hirsch said he didn’t include any of this information in the documentary because he didn’t want viewers to “prejudge” and that the “film would be more powerful without it.”

One of the key concepts of media literacy is that a media product (TV show, advertisement, website, brochure, mobile app) is constructed. It is carefully put together by someone to achieve a specific effect. In the course of making media, many decisions are made, especially ones about what to include and what to leave out.

Here, the filmmaker decided to leave out important information about the mental state of one of the individuals to make the film more emotionally charged and “powerful.” Every media creator faces dozens of these decisions. Media is not a perfect representation of the world. There are time and budget constraints. Some things are removed to simplify the story, others to move the story along.

It is important to note that there can be consequences to these decisions. Bazelon cites suicide prevention experts who worry that, by not including the complex issues that go into decisions to commit suicide, the film might seem to say that killing oneself is the natural response to bullying, or that this incomplete portrait may lead to “suicide contagion.”

Our job as media consumers is to remind ourselves that media is not reality. It will never be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. We must ask ourselves a few simple questions about anything we read, view, or hear.

  • Who made this?
  • What is the purpose of this media product (e.g. to inform, entertain, or persuade)?
  • What information, people, or points of view might be missing?
  • How can I find out more about this?

A skeptical consumer asking these kinds of questions is taking a big step towards being media literate. Learn more in Cable in the Classroom’s Digital Literacy section.

* Updated April 6, 2012.  Originally rated R, some of the obscenities were edited out to receive the PG-13 rating, which makes the film more accessible to schools and to youth.