Moscow's plan: Teach students to see through Kremlin spin

The proposed course, which is pending approval from the Education Department, will teach high school students to analyze, compare, and criticize advertisements, news stories, and TV reports from a variety of sources.

By , Correspondent

MOSCOW – In Russia today, there appears to be little relief in sight for dissidents trying to break through the solid wall of Kremlin-spun news coverage.

But maybe there's a non-confrontational approach – one that won't raise the Kremlin's hackles too much – that can help the next generation navigate around that wall.

That, at least, is the hope of a group of Moscow city lawmakers who, working with the journalism faculty of Moscow State University, have developed a program for the city's schools that will encourage students to "form a critical attitude to the mass media. . . [and] teach children how to separate useful from manipulative information," according to Moscow Duma deputy Lyudmila Stebenkova.

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Few independent journalists, and lots of PR glitz
A great deal has been written about the concentration of Russia's media outlets into the hands of the Kremlin and pro-government businessmen, and also about the ongoing crackdown against the few independent journalists still endeavoring to do their jobs.

But in a metropolis that rocketed to the top of the world's most expensive cities in less than two decades after the USSR collapsed, an awareness of media influences also includes the vast realm of business communication, say proponents of the media-criticism program.

"We're living in a society where marketing and PR of all kinds plays a huge role, and we need to start training people to be critical," says Veronika Kochetova, a Duma aide who's been involved in preparing the media-criticism program.

Students to compare reports, launch their own media
She says the course, which has been agreed by the city Duma but is yet to be approved by the Education Department, will teach high school students to analyze, compare, and criticize advertisements, news stories, and TV reports from a variety of sources.

Students will also be encouraged to set up their own media, such as school newspapers and websites, a type of activity that remains very undeveloped in Russia's conservative school system.

"Sometimes to criticize the principal of your school is more difficult that to criticize the president. You really need to think about it and consider what you're doing," Ms. Kochetova says. "That kind of direct experience is what we want to promote, to prepare better informed consumers and more responsible citizens."

Russians tend to be passive
The program's main author, Yelena Vartanova, dean of Moscow State University's journalism faculty, says that studies show Russian media audiences tend to be extremely passive and trusting of the information they receive via TV and newspapers.

"We find that people are too dependent and uncritical, and there's a real need for a broad education to handle this," she says.

Kremlin vies for influence in infosphere
Though the Kremlin already enjoys virtual command of Russia's media, there are signs that it, too, is preparing to wage a more sophisticated battle for its viewpoint in the infosphere.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev recently launched his own LiveJournal blog that, at least in theory, gives average Russians the opportunity to complain and comment directly to the Kremlin.

And a Kremlin-connected think tank, the Fund for Effective Politics, last week set up a "school of bloggers" that aims to instruct young people on how to defend Russia's interests in cyberspace. (For readers of Russian, the portal is here: http://www.liberty.ru/).

Ms. Vartanova says the key is to teach people to handle the growing flood of information, and filter it for themselves, while they're still young.

"We think this [media criticism course] is necessary not just to get a better educated public, able to deconstruct media messages, but also to get more effective and critical journalists in future," she says. "That's a very long-term goal."

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