Schools Begin To Infuse Media Literacy Into the Three R’s

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — December 06, 2000 8 min read
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Sweatshirt-clad students at Westgate Elementary School don’t have to look far for a lesson on the powerful influence the media have in their lives: It is right under their noses.

The unwitting Lakewood, Colo., students proudly display the animated cartoon characters, professional-sports logos, and brand names that adorn their clothing. Their enthusiasm quickly fades, though, once teacher Sue Lockwood Summers suggests they have been duped into marketing the products, and the images they are designed to portray, for free.

Ms. Summers hopes the exercise is a step toward fostering a healthy skepticism in students who are bombarded daily by thousands of images from a host of telecommunications and print media.

“Students are sponges until you cause them to stop and think about things they see in the world around them,” said the library specialist, who has written two books and organized a local group of parents and teachers to enhance students’ media literacy. “When you grow up in a world of messages, you just take them in until somebody teaches you how to question what you are seeing.”

Violent movies, sexually provocative advertisements, carefully packaged news programs, newspapers, magazines, and commercial Internet sites channel a steady stream of messages—3,000 a day by some estimates—before the eyes of media-hungry young Americans.

Some educators are working lessons into the curriculum to help students—as early as preschool—become media-savvy and able to evaluate critically the messages they get from the news, entertainment, and advertising industries. Moreover, most states have incorporated critical- viewing skills into their academic standards.

Such skills, educators say, are as essential today as the three R’s.

“The average child watches three to five hours of television a day. Unfortunately, they only read about 20 to 30 minutes a day,” said John Splain, an associate professor of education policy and leadership at the University of Maryland College Park. “It is educational malpractice of the worst sort not to prepare people for the world they go into.”

Facade of Sophistication

For generations, English teachers have taught students how to evaluate sources for research papers, and the use of propaganda throughout history has become a staple of the social studies curriculum. But those lessons have not necessarily prepared students to deal with the explosion of information available through the Internet, as well as an ever-expanding number of print, broadcast, and entertainment sources.

“Students generally think that everything they hear on television or find on the Internet is true,” said Tim Oldakowski, who teaches television production at University High School in Orlando, Fla. “Kids are being bombarded by media whether they know it or not, yet they don’t think they are affected by it.”

And with all they are exposed to, students are having more and more trouble discerning which sources are trustworthy. Even those adults and students who have learned to question marketing pitches and news reports can fall under the spell of a visually appealing Web site that delivers the desired information in an instant, according to Elizabeth Thoman, the president and founder of the Center for Media Literacy in Los Angeles.

“When a new technology like the Internet bursts into reality so suddenly, it is mesmerizing, fast, and graphic,” Ms. Thoman said. “You say, ‘Wow, look at that,’ and you put aside your critical faculties. It was easier when you could just send students to the library to use a print resource, like the encyclopedia, which you knew had gone through several vetting processes.”

In contrast, the Internet, Ms. Thoman said, requires the users to edit and verify the information.

As part of his class, Mr. Oldakowski asks students to review their favorite television programs for violence, sexual content, and other factors. He has them analyze popular magazines for messages in the ads and articles. He sends them on scavenger hunts to find credible and accurate information on the Internet.

The latter task is not always easy, even for technology-savvy students, say some educators.

“Teachers and parents are often fooled by students because they demonstrate some sophistication [in accessing] information,” said Renee Hobbs, an associate professor of communication at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass. “When you actually talk with kids in the classroom, you discover they have a variety of misunderstandings about who created the information, whether it is credible, how it communicates a point of view, and what’s been omitted.”

Over the past few years, a more intense effort has been under way to equip young people with the tools to view the media through a harsher lens.

Doing so, some experts say, can promote informed citizenship, build students’ immunity to commercialism, and limit the appeal of risky behaviors.

“We need to help young people read more critically, to look at presidential debates more critically, view commercials more critically,” said Mr. Splain, who helped produce a pamphlet and video guide to the 2000 elections, “View Smart To Vote Smart,” sponsored by the National PTA, the National Cable Television Association, and Cable in the Classroom.

The confusion that marked the television coverage of the Nov. 7 presidential election, the aggressive political campaigns that preceded it, and the continuing struggle to claim victory for both Gov. George W. Bush of Texas and Vice President Al Gore provide a case in point, according to Mr. Splain. Americans get most of their information about candidates’ views and intentions from political ads and sound bites from television news programs, he said.

“For citizenship purposes, people ought to know how the media work,” Mr. Splain said.

Changing Perceptions

Anne Sinatra has been honing those skills in Mr. Oldakowski’s class in Orlando. The junior at University High was appalled at discovering some of the tactics advertisers use to reel in teenagers. But the course changed the way she looks at movies, magazines, and news sources, she said.

As a correspondent for the Orlando Sentinel newspaper’s weekly section for teenagers, Ms. Sinatra has urged her peers to look more critically at media: from the subtle placement of specific products in movie scenes to the portrayal of adolescents in magazines as mindless consumers.

“It concerns me that [teenagers] are really not aware of what’s going on, and they will buy what’s advertised without even thinking about it,” she said.

The influence the media exercise in the lives of teenagers is particularly troublesome, some experts say. Congressional hearings over the past two years have examined, for example, advertising campaigns that marketed cigarettes and violent materials, such as movies, video games, and music, to adolescents.

“We know that Joe Camel worked, and we know that Joe Camel was designed to target 12-year-olds,” said Bob McCannon, the executive director of the New Mexico Media Literacy Project, referring to the abandoned cigarette-marketing cartoon character. “If society really understood the media and children, there is no way it would allow them to target the most vulnerable human beings on earth,” argued Mr. McCannon, whose nonprofit organization works with the state’s education and health agencies on anti-substance-abuse initiatives.

Industry officials have disputed claims that advertisements and entertainment programming and products cause children to adopt violent or unhealthy behaviors. But experts on children’s development argue that, while there may not be evidence to establish a causal relationship, research has documented a clear correlation.

The American Academy of Pediatrics launched a campaign three years ago to help pediatricians raise awareness of the impact of media messages—particularly tobacco and alcohol advertising—on children’s health.

The U.S. Department of Education recently awarded nearly $1 million in grants to 10 schools around the country to implement programs that promote media literacy.

State education officials are also beginning to tackle the subject.

The New Mexico project, for example, has provided curriculum materials and workshops in nearly every middle school in the state. Shortly, the organization plans to release media- literacy standards for each grade level.

A new program in Maryland, sponsored by cable television’s Discovery Channel, which is based there, provides professional development and course materials to help teachers weave media- literacy concepts throughout the curriculum.

Moreover, most states include critical-viewing skills in their academic standards and frameworks, according to Frank Baker, a founder of the Alliance for a Media Literate America, a new initiative to promote media literacy.

An Elective Course

To the disappointment of its advocates, though, the torch for media literacy is being carried by relatively few teachers. Where offered, it is generally an elective course taken by relatively few students. To reach more students, media literacy must be integrated throughout the existing curriculum, some educators say.

“There just isn’t time in the day for another course or another subject,” said Westgate Elementary’s Ms. Summers, “so the most effective way is to integrate media literacy into whatever topic you are already doing.”

Teacher Ken Smith reaches students both ways. In an elective course and in government and history classes at Central High School in Landover, Md., he takes on the topics of racism and sexism in commercials, music lyrics and videos, television programs, and films. Mr. Smith points out the biases in news coverage and discusses what he sees as the subliminal messages in advertising.

But he draws the line at bashing the media, Mr. Smith said. His students also learn how television breathed new life into the civil rights movement in the 1960s, how the Internet has speeded the flow of important information, and how the media can inspire changes for the better.

“My classes teach students to ask critical questions of what is real and what is not. I’m not trying to give them a negative or positive view,” Mr. Smith said. “I want them to look at the things they see and hear differently.”

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A version of this article appeared in the December 06, 2000 edition of Education Week as Schools Begin To Infuse Media Literacy Into the Three R’s


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