Decoding the MEDIA
A growing trend teaches children how to analyze and critique today's media messages
Educators are finally coming out of denial: Students are more interested in "The Simpsons" than in Socrates. By conservative estimates, students spend 1,500 hours a year in front of the TV and 1,100 hours a year in school.Skip to next paragraph
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What has that meant for children and society?
"Historic change" for the past decade, says George Gerbner, a dean emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania. "The change in the way our children are socialized is so major, so pervasive, that most of us take it for granted." Dr. Gerbner has been monitoring the media for 30 years.
For years, society has worked to reduce the supply of objectionable media available to children: Parents have set limits; others have crusaded for V-chips and congressional bills. Now educators are increasingly working on the "demand" side of the equation by training students to be "media literate."
Media literacy, or media education, is loosely defined as the ability to access, analyze, and evaluate - as well as communicate - messages. It's about asking questions, prompting discussions, and empowering the receivers of messages, rather than regulating or censoring the message-senders.
"The media-literacy movement is predicated on the notion that for the first time, children are born into a cultural environment that is no longer established by the parent, the church, the teacher," media-literacy guru Gerbner explains. "Television tells them.
"School has, in effect, a new task," Gerbner continues. "No longer the first dispenser of information, school needs to be the organizer, analyzer, and the critic, so children don't keep absorbing images and messages in media assuming 'this is life' ... that 'this is correct and accurate information.' "
Media-literacy teachers aim to help students learn to be thoughtful gatekeepers of their own consciousness in this Information Age. The movement is catching on nationwide:
New Mexico has formalized the concept of media literacy, requiring all students to take a course in it before they graduate from high school.
North Carolina and Massachusetts have called for media education to be integrated into school curriculums.
Individual schools and school districts are offering programs and seminars for teachers, parents, and students in media literacy. "Know TV," a project developed by Time Warner Cable and The Learning Channel, is a well-known example.
The White House has included media literacy as a strategic initiative in the 1996 Federal Drug Policy Plan. The aim is to help students examine messages about drug use in film, television, and music.
"Our young people need to be educated to the highest standard in this new Information Age," said US Secretary of Education Richard Riley, during an address at a Rockville, Md., middle school in December, "and surely this includes a clear awareness of how the media influences, shapes, and defines their lives."
Today, 'media is culture'
The movement has been spurred by the media's growing allure and pervasiveness.
Jay Dover, program director for the Center for Media Literacy (CML) in Los Angeles, puts it this way: "Media is no longer looked at as part of culture, it is culture.
"Everyone who is teaching media literacy is doing it in a different way, but most are sticking by certain principles," Mr. Dover says. (See accompanying story on media literacy's core concepts.) The CML produces training materials for teachers.
Decoding or deconstructing messages is at the core, Dover explains, offering a metaphor: "In 'The Wizard of Oz,' they're in awe of the wizard. When the curtain is drawn back, they see it's just a person manipulating."
In the late 1980s, only a handful of professors were teaching media literacy.
Today the issue is of much wider concern, Dover says. Ironically, media-literacy movements in other countries were given a boost by the export of Hollywood-produced television shows. In 1987, Ontario, Canada, issued a requirement that 30 percent of its students' language arts coursework include media literacy. Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Germany have also made media education a priority. By comparison, the United States, in the words of Dover, is "woefully behind." That is changing.