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.

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.

A supermarket analogy

Many media-literacy advocates in the US are encouraged by recent conferences and other events that have brought together politicians, parents, teachers, programmers, filmmakers, on-line companies, and others. Rising concerns over content - particularly violence - and what Gerbner calls "a galloping monopolization of media" have also attracted attention.

"This is the discussion that we've not had that we're finally having," Dover says. "It's going to open the door to broaden the dialogue to an amazingly diverse group all invested in the welfare of our culture."

Cable-TV companies with educational missions are also supporting media literacy, figuring that if people become better-informed viewers they will appreciate - and support - more "nutritional" shows.

"If we can help parents and teachers teach new consumers skills young people need in order to navigate this media-saturated environment," says Linda Brown, educational director of Discovery Communications, "we're providing a valuable service to our customers.

"We find that after folks have been through our 'Know TV' workshops, they enjoy watching TV a lot more," Ms. Brown adds. "They know they're good consumers."

Brown draws a supermarket analogy: Thirty to 40 years ago, the relative lack of choice made grocery shopping simpler. As processed foods and choices increased, shoppers had to make informed choices and read labels for nutrition content. We want our viewers to be label-readers, Brown says. The cable industry has a responsibility to help educate viewers, she adds. "We don't want them to feel like they're victims of our mediums."

The nitty-gritty of media education, however, happens in the classrooms. Nowhere is the ground more fertile than the schools, where teachers are sowing the seeds of media knowledge in the minds of their students.

One of nation's foremost authorities on media literacy is Renee Hobbs, associate professor of communication at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass. Dr. Hobbs created the media-literacy program "Know TV" and co-authored "TV Eye: A curriculum for the Media Arts." She is also the former director of the Institute on Media Education at Harvard University.

"Attention is the product being sold to advertisers," Hobbs says, and her job is to help people see how the media try to attract that attention. "People's biggest 'ah-ha!' is coming to a better understanding of the economics of the media industry," she says.

Hobbs recently spent a day at the Dennis-Yarmouth High School on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Teachers in the schools here, from kindergarten through high school, are integrating media education into the curriculum as one of four demonstration projects funded by a federal grant from the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention in Rockville, Md.

"If we think about it, what are the things we are most concerned about in our society?" asks Bruce MacPherson, director of health for the school district. "They are all reinforced in the electronic media. Yet we don't reinforce the few educational skills needed to interpret what we see and hear.... This is where media education steps in."

Teachers show interest

Mr. MacPherson, who initiated the pilot program, doesn't require teachers to sign on to the project; he offers training to those who want to try it. So far, 85 teachers out of 300 are practicing it. The program began in May. "We expect more as time goes on," he says.

This day, Hobbs is visiting classrooms, and will conduct an evening workshop with teachers on violence in the media.

"Now, unlike three years ago, everybody is familiar with the phrase 'media literacy,' " says Hobbs, a mother of two school-aged children. She estimates that 6 or 7 percent of all teachers claim to be teaching it.

"Sometimes, when people think of media literacy, they think it's TV-bashing," Hobbs says. "But media literacy is the practice of asking questions about what you watch, see, hear, and read. Media literacy skills can be applied to all forms of communication."

Teacher Thad Rice has been using media literacy concepts in his classes for two years. His first-period Interpreting Media class agrees to allow a reporter sit in - as long as she answers their questions about journalism.

Today, they are role playing at an imaginary metro-area newspaper. In one sticky scenario, a reporter eager to uncover corruption and racism wants to persuade his editor to let him write a story about a bank discriminating against Asians in housing loans.

The editor, on the other hand, is worried about readership and also about advertising. He wants the reporter to write about a popular circus that is coming to town. Not only that, the bank in question is a major advertiser and the editor personally knows some of its board members.

Students are timid at first with the role playing, but the scenarios escalate into thoughtful discussion about ethics and point-of-view in newspaper stories.

In another classroom, four team-leader teachers discuss their uses of media literacy. "Adsmarts," a popular program that looks at advertising, is sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton, N.J.

What techniques are used to make this ad effective? students are asked. Who makes money from this? How do different viewers interpret the ad? What is the authenticity of the message? How do language, sound, images influence? Special attention is given to cigarette ads, because smoking rates are rising among young people, especially girls.

Teachers tend to have fun with exercises. One is having his students design an ad campaign for "double-salted onion gum."

On the documentary front, a specialty of "Know TV" a science teacher invites students to compare different interpretations of the Exxon Valdez oil spill - one put out by Exxon, the other by environmentalist Jacques Cousteau. Perhaps students' all-time favorite is the BBC's 1957 April Fools' Day "documentary" about the "spaghetti harvest."

Recalling Mark Twain

After lunch, students wriggle into Mary Ellen Ackerman's English class. They discuss the fact that Mark Twain was a journalist in his time. They talk about point of view and dissect the words "history" and "documentary."

Ms. Ackerman then shows a film, a spoof about the "discovery" that the earth is flat.

"How is expertise constructed?" Ms. Ackerman asks her class.

"Older white male with British accent - makes him seem well-educated and classy," one student calls out.

"Government building in the background," says another.

Students seem to catch on to media literacy very quickly: After all, the media are more their world than was true of any other generation. Many students say they know that cigarette manufacturers try to make smoking look appealing to young people, but discovering the "how" or the hook makes the lesson non-condescending.

"I like finding out how producers try to play with your mind," says one student who sports a shaved head and baggy clothes.

In media-literacy terms, that's empowerment: being an informed consumer of information.

Some parents are uneasy about their children taking media-literacy classes. Why is my child watching television for homework? is a common question.

Dennis-Yarmouth's MacPherson finds, however, that once parents are informed, they realize media literacy can build relevance between what goes on in the classroom (education) and what goes on at home (television) and in society. On the horizon, he adds: decoding the Internet.

Hobbs agrees with this wholeheartedly: "Too often we uncritically accept information from a computer screen as authoritative. Media literacy concepts provide an effective framework to ask questions about this new growing communication tool. The same questions that we ask about the mass media we need to ask about new on-line information technologies."

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