Media Alert

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Concord High is no stranger to the media machine.

You know how eager your students are to show you up in class. Imagine if they had the chance to outsmart two of the nation's top daily newspapers, a highly respected weekly magazine, and several political analysts. That's an opportunity the media literacy course taught by Joanne McGlynn and Beth York has given 11th graders at Concord High School in Concord, New Hampshire-and the students have proved themselves to be more than a match for sloppy journalists.

Concord High is no stranger to the media machine. Reporters descended on the campus when one of the school's social studies teachers, Christa McAuliffe, was chosen to ride the space shuttle Challenger in 1985-and again, after the shuttle exploded. It's not surprising, then, that when the English department restructured its curriculum three years ago, a committee of teachers decided to create a required course for juniors that teaches students to think critically about messages delivered through radio, print, television, and the Internet. McGlynn and York served on the committee (York led it), and now, the two teach the new course, along with five other instructors.

Last fall, as the all-important New Hampshire primaries approached, York, McGlynn, and a committee of students from their two classes invited the presidential hopefuls to speak to Concord High students about violence in schools. Visits from Republican candidates Alan Keyes and Orrin Hatch garnered barely a mention in the press, but Al Gore arrived with reporters and news crews in tow. During his talk, Gore recounted a story from his days in Congress in the 1970s. A teenage girl from Toone, Tennessee, wrote him expressing concern about contaminated drinking water, he said, and her letter sparked an investigation that ultimately led to the Love Canal hearings. The problem in Tennessee "was the one you didn't hear of," Gore said, "but that was the one that started it all." The students left the auditorium inspired by the idea that a peer could exert so much influence.

But the next day, a student came to McGlynn's class abuzz about Chris Matthews' coverage of the speech on CNBC's Hardball the previous night. The political analyst had misquoted Gore as saying, "But I was the one that started it all," and then ridiculed the vice president for exaggerating his personal achievements-a criticism first raised earlier in the fall when Gore was quoted as claiming to have invented the Internet. Later, a friend showed McGlynn a similar report from Katherine Seelye of the New York Times.

As other reporters began to disseminate the misquote, York and McGlynn turned it into a new lesson. In the weeks prior to Gore's visit, York had impressed upon her students the importance of word choice. "Word choice shapes our perception. It's hard to make students understand the effects of that on the perception of reality, and this piece reinforced that idea," she says. McGlynn recalls her class spent a great deal of time discussing "who is telling the story and what impact that speaker has on how the story is being told."

As other reporters began to disseminate the misquote, York and McGlynn turned it into a new lesson.

The two teachers assembled the committee of students that had originally invited Gore to determine how to react. They phoned Matthews and Seelye to correct the misquote, but it had already begun to snowball. Ceci Connolly of the Washington Post wrote a story similar to Seelye's; ABC's This Week mocked Al Gore for his "Pinocchio problem"; U.S. News and World Report included the line in its "In Quotes" feature; and the Late Show With David Letterman lampooned the veep with "Top 10 Other Achievements Claimed by Al Gore." McGlynn and York suggested the students issue a press release, which they faxed to media outlets: "Top ten reasons why many Concord High students feel betrayed by some of the media coverage of Al Gore's visit to their school." The students' number one reason? "The experience teaches kids that the coverage was Wag the Dog in reverse-the media had a story to tell that it wanted to tell regardless of context. Once the joke began, there was no stopping it in the pundit pipeline."

As the Times, the Post, and other publications printed corrections, word got out about the Concord High watchdogs, and the teachers and students now find their roles reversed —-National Public Radio, Brill's Content, and the Boston Globe, among others, have all called to interview them. McGlynn and York are proud of the way their students are handling the press. "[They] are rising to the occasion and have become very articulate," says McGlynn.

Students are keeping things in perspective. "I don't think the class is making me more cynical of the media," says Tara Baker. "It's just making me more aware." An aspiring journalist herself, the incident has forced Baker to consider just what kind of reporter she wants to become. "I don't want to be like Katherine [Seelye] or Ceci [Connolly]," she states. Says student Jonathan Croteau, "The class teaches kids not to sit around absent-mindedly. You need to take time to really think about what the media is teaching us."

For the teachers, the recent events have served as a reminder of how keenly perceptive teenagers can be. McGlynn recalls a class discussion looking at how the story had been covered: "A student said to me, 'Ms. McGlynn, you have to remember this day-the day the media literacy course was perfect.' "

Vol. 11, Issue 7, Page 78

Published in Print: April 1, 2000, as Media Alert
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