TV, Or Not TV?

By Debra Shore — June 01, 1990 8 min read

Seated in her mother’s lap, an infant turns reflexively to the TV. Long before she encounters books and printed letters on a page, the growing child attempts to make sense of the glowing images on the screen. It becomes her first “reading’’ lesson.

From cradle to grave, television is both pervasive and persuasive. Over the past 40 years, it has captured our hearts and our minds and has told us what products to buy. And, some experts suggest, it might even be lulling us--including, of course, the youngest viewers--into a state of uncritical passivity.

Children, especially, are susceptible to the video siren song. Because they lack experience, education, and selfcontrol, children are at high risk of becoming indiscriminate, heavy viewers of television; most already are. According to Nielsen Media Research, American children ages 6 to 11 watch television an average of 24 hours and 39 minutes each week--more time each year than they spend in school.

In the face of such a mesmerizing influence, adults often feel they either have to throw in the towel--or pull the plug. But a growing number of educators are suggesting a more progressive alternative. What they recommend is nothing short of a radical reassessment of what it means to be literate.

“To me, literacy is no longer print. It’s television,’' claims Marieli Rowe, of the National Telemedia Council, the nation’s oldest organization dedicated to media literacy. “We need to reach children in the world they’re in.’'

This is by no means a concession to the old saw, “If you can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em.’' What it is, experts explain, is an acknowledgement of both the power and the value of modern communications technology.

“Why can’t teachers use popularculture materials and bring the same kind of critical tools they bring to novels and poetry and short stories?’' asks Robert Kubey, an assistant professor in the department of communications at Rutgers University. Kubey, who has devoted his career to looking over people’s shoulders to understand their TV viewing habits (see “Tune In, Zone Out,’' page 34), adds: “This can be a terrific springboard to getting kids to understand the techniques of great fiction--foreshadowing, symbolism, character development. Why can’t we juxtapose The Wonder Years with Dickens and ask, ‘How do they do what they do? How are they alike, and how are they different?’''

At the same time, teachers also have an opportunity to help children peek behind the veil of persuasion that is advertising.

“Teachers should critique the persuasive techniques of advertising,’' adds Kubey. “If we’re trained from an early age to look more critically at television, children will be more inclined to view quality material, and we’ll have a populace that is not easily duped.’'

In short, children should be taught to question and analyze what they see on the screen--arguably, a laudable goal. And yet, unlike the object of our national obsession, the concept of media literacy hasn’t found a ready audience. In the United States today, efforts to teach critical viewing skills are few, scattered, and receive little support. The reasons for this include what some would describe as an elitist view of literacy. And with the present back-to-basics emphasis, teaching about television is likely to be lumped into the same category as Baja whale watching.

“Many times, professionals in education are the biggest barriers to media literacy because they don’t see literacy as anything but reading,’' says Rowe.

Adds Barry Duncan, high school teacher and founder of the Association for Media Literacy in Toronto: “There is an obsession with ‘back to basics'--it’s got a stranglehold on the educational system in America. As long as it does, then things like looking at the media critically will be perceived as a threat or as frivolous.’'

However, television has content, which--while it may be perceived as frivolous--has a substantial impact on how people think and feel. Kathleen Tyner, executive director of the three-yearold, San Francisco-based Strategies for Media Literacy, believes it is the responsibility of educators to provide a counterbalancing point of view.

“There’s a difference between teaching through media and teaching about media,’' says Tyner, a former high school English teacher and television news public affairs producer. “We try to approach media through basic questions: Who’s communicating, and why? What type of text is it? How is it produced? How do we know what it means? How does it present its subject? Who receives it, and what sense do they make of it? How does this differ from what you read in print?’'

Teaching about media may also be as much a question of style as substance.

“Teachers need to stop the tape and freeze the frame, to stop the flow and think,’' Tyner says. “And students hate it. Nobody likes the flow to stop. I encourage teachers to stop the tape and to talk about it. If you let the flow go by without comment, that’s when it becomes second nature or wallpaper. The way a teacher presents it in the classroom can really spoil television for kids. The disappointment is something teachers have to experience with their students. Our culture is enamored of technology itself, but all the equipment and materials in the world won’t bring critical skills unless the teacher seizes the critical teaching moment.’'

Curiously, even though teachers may want to seize the moment, they may not know how.

“We don’t have any media training for our teachers,’' says David Considine, a professor in the department of curriculum and instruction at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. “Australia has media studies in the curriculum now. England has had it for years. In this country we have more mass media than anyone else and less training in it.’'

In 1987, Ontario’s Ministry of Education decreed that all schools’ grades 7 through 12 must teach media literacy. This involves about 800 high schools throughout the Canadian province and between 5,000 and 8,000 teachers. To date, Ontario is the only educational jurisdiction in North America where media literacy is the rule, rather than the notable exception.

One such exception is teacher Mary Moen’s mass-media course at Madison West High School in Madison, Wis. On the second day of class, Moen gives her students four reasons to study mass media.

“First,’' she says, “I tell them that by the time they’re teenagers, they’ve spent more of their time with some form of media than anything else except sleeping. It has invaded and pervaded their lives. Second, they need to know how mass media affects them--how advertising persuades them what to wear and influences their political biases and morals. Third, they need to know how they can affect the media--can they change it? Then, some hands-on production gives them a better understanding and appreciation of what media is about.’'

Their first assignment is to find something controversial going on in the media, write their opinions, and discuss them in groups. A recent topic, for instance, was whether condom ads should appear on buses in Madison. Next, Moen leads them through a critical look at television and radio. “What is communication, and who are the communicators?’' she asks. “How are programs put on the air? What are the differences between local television and radio in programming? How has radio changed?’' Her students review the claims and appeals used in advertising and then create a 30-second commercial.

Eventually, Moen’s students write public service announcements directed at their peers. The local television station produces several each year. Last spring, her advanced class wrote a video documentary for the Dane County Juvenile Justice System. In 1987, Moen and her students won the “Television Worth Watching’’ award from CBS and Boston University. She has received the Ernest Boyer Award for educational excellence.

Yet, in spite of all the acclaim and the support of her principal, Moen is virtually alone in Madison’s high schools in teaching media literacy, and she has conducted a running battle with some members of her school’s English department who, she says, “look down on anything that isn’t literature.’'

Moen’s current target is the University of Wisconsin, which has ruled that her mass-media course does not meet the English requirement for admission to the university. “We’re fighting that very, very hard,’' she says. “Basics today has to include media literacy for a well-informed, literate, and alert public.’'

Moen’s situation is typical. Right now, those teachers interested in learning more and wanting to introduce media studies often must work alone (see “Plugging In,’' page 32).

In the comparatively more mediaconscious Ontario--home of Marshall McLuhan and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation--a critical mass of committed teachers and a few sympathetic members of the Education Ministry led to the present mandate for media literacy in the curriculum. In 1978, Barry Duncan and a few fellow teachers established the Association for Media Literacy, and by the early 1980’s, the organization’s membership had doubled, and doubled again. “By then, the evidence about violence on television, about sex-role stereotyping, the concern about pornography, the prevalence of Sony Walkmans all combined to make an even more eloquent case of the need for media education,’' Duncan says. “So few see how pervasive media are. It’s almost like a fish who doesn’t argue about being in the water; it’s all around it. It’s the same with media. Only teachers are tuned into kids and kids’ psyches. They see what needs to be done. So teachers are of paramount importance.’'

Adds Kathleen Tyner: “The handwriting’s on the chalkboard. Teachers know they have to address the media environment.’'

A version of this article appeared in the June 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as TV, Or Not TV?