By Miriam H. Zoll
Russell Lemir used to plop down in front of the TV news and let the information flow in one ear and out the other.
Today, the 17-year-old high school junior at Concord High School in Concord, N.H., watches and reads the news with a different perspective, thanks to his school’s news literacy class.
“I notice more things,” said Lemir. “They use music in the background on TV. They say certain things to get your attention. They use more violence. They focus on the bad things in the world, not so much the good things that happen. They’ll focus more on murder than on students helping other students. It seems they focus on that because it drives up ratings.”
Though he once may have been a passive observer, nowadays Lemir is quick to express his opinion on many issues relating to the news, including the news business itself. Recent industry mergers, including the marriage of AOL and Time Warner and Disney’s purchase of ABC a few years ago, are reasons for concern, Lemir said.
“You end up with less views on the issue,” he said. “You’re less likely to get the truth and facts. There is only one main company so you only get their views; you lose perspective. CNN is the main one that goes overseas to cover issues like Kosovo. The news companies back home only go by what CNN said.”
Sixteen-year-old Julie Pizzimenti said her eyes were opened when her class watched “Wag the Dog,” a controversial film depicting how the government and the entertainment industry joined together to develop propaganda that was aired as news. “That movie gave me ideas that what I was seeing might not be true,” she said. “I’m more cynical and skeptical about what I see on TV. Now I sit back and analyze what they are telling me — and I wonder what they aren’t telling me.”
Lemir and Pizzimenti are among the more than two dozen students enrolled in teacher Elizabeth York’s class, an experimental program that teaches young people to dissect the news as well as commercials, documentaries and sitcoms. “Kids are getting their information from TV and newspapers, not always from literature in the traditional sense,” explained York, an English teacher who now integrates the study of classic literature with critical assessments of television dramas. “We read a lot of newspapers and look at content and analyze the coverage of issues.”
York, who took a teacher-training program offered by a national media literacy organization, said her class began after students in the district tested poorly in such skills as practical reading and the ability to analyze and assess what they were reading and seeing.
Students in Concord aren’t the only ones in need of a broader education in interpreting modern media. Last year, public broadcasting station WETA in Washington, D.C., conducted an informal survey of local college students and found that a majority of students gleaned much of their political information and news from Jay Leno’s or David Letterman’s nightly monologues.
The survey results should come as little surprise. A 1999 Pew Research Center survey revealed America’s young news consumers aren’t exactly consuming. Only 33 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 said they enjoy keeping up with news a lot, according to the Pew report. By contrast, 57 percent of all Americans said they regularly watched network news, while 40 percent said they regularly watched cable news.
WETA knew its young listeners weren’t tuning in, even when the volume was up. So the station, in partnership with the local chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, launched an unusual media literacy program called MediaSmart and set out to train 70 Washington area teachers committed to bringing news literacy into their middle school and high school classrooms.
Karen Zill, manager of MediaSmart, said teachers often encourage classroom discussion of current events, and they want their students to read and watch the news. But they also want their students to be savvy information consumers.
“Behind this whole idea of media literacy on TV or in magazines and newspapers are the decisions that have to be made,” Zill said. “Someone has to decide which story will be shown on the news. What goes on the air or in the newspaper and what doesn’t go in? How do you shape the story, where is it fiction or an ad, and where is it a news story?”
“We help them keep in mind some of the decisions that have to be made,” she added. “Everything is a choice, and that process can color or shape everything that is out there, which is why you have to look at things critically.”
The concept of media literacy traditionally has been used to refer to programs that teach students to critically analyze media messages and detect commercial and cultural influences affecting programming. The inclusion of news, however, is a recent development in the movement, and an important one, according to Robert Kubey, associate professor in the Department of Journalism and Mass Media at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.
“News is not the neutral entity that the news media would like us to believe,” said Kubey. “Kids need to understand that television stations, the national and local news, are commercial entities, that they stand to make a profit depending on how many people turn on. Readership is just as critical to the newspaper business. But with TV news, a big part of what news people are trying to do is gain attention and hold it, which does not always result in optimal news reporting.”
At a time when students spend an average of 23 hours per week in front of a television set, there’s clearly a need to teach them how to interpret what they see and hear in the mass media. But Kubey and other advocates say the United States still lags behind every other major English-speaking country in the world when it comes to bringing greater understanding of the media influence into America’s classrooms.
Since the mid-1990s, Australian language teachers have been mandated to teach their students from kindergarten through 12th grade how to analyze media. Canada now endorses media education nationwide. In England, more than 30,000 high school students take advanced-level exams in media studies each year.
Frank W. Baker, president of the Partnership for Media Education, a national consortium of media literacy groups, said progress is being made. In a survey he conducted with Kubey last year, Baker discovered that 48 states currently have some form of media literacy framework included in their educational standards.
“Only a few years ago, a mere handful of states had curricular guidelines that called for media education,” said Baker, who works for PBS station SCE-TV in Columbia, S.C. “Last November The New York Times reported that only 12 states were similarly situated. But by examining current educational frameworks in the states, we have found to our own surprise — and that of all the media educators with whom we’ve spoken — that at least 48 state curricular frameworks now contain one or more elements calling for some form of media education.”
However, Baker cautioned that guidelines and mandates do not always translate into implementation, high quality or systematic evaluation.
“No one should interpret our enthusiasm for this progress to mean we believe that any state’s media education goals are being adequately met,” he said. “America comes in last among the world’s major English-speaking countries in teaching for this crucial form of modern literacy.”
That may be true, but MediaSmart’s Zill finds cause for hope. Media literacy education is on the rise in the nation’s schools, she said, thanks in large part to programs like hers, which train teachers to teach students how to analyze and critique the quality of the news.
And the field is growing. The Center for Media Studies at Rutgers University is initiating a series of media education workshops for hundreds of teachers through a new program called the New Jersey Media Literacy Project. The center will become a key training ground for teachers to learn how to incorporate media instruction into their classroom lessons.
Media literacy has another payback, according to Kubey, the Rutgers professor. At a time when many are questioning whether there’s a relationship between increasing violence and violent programming, media education is being viewed as an effective prevention tactic, he said.
“Certain approaches have proven effective in alerting students, parents and teachers to the risks of a heavy diet of violence viewing,” Kubey said. “In conjunction with conflict resolution and peer mediation programs, media education is known to assist young people in finding peaceful means to resolving conflicts.”