Media Literacy Starts Early
On the TV screen, a commercial shows Michael Jordan sailing through the air in his Nikes to score a basket. A class of 29 media-aware students at Rutgers University in New Jersey begins to dissect the "message" of the commercial."Did you hear anything about the quality of the sneaker or what you're getting for your money?" Mary Megee, professor of television studies, asks.There is a chorus of nos. Everyone agrees that the emphasis is on the star."They're telling you that Nike's the sneaker to wear, if you want to be like Michael Jordan," one student offers.In an age when young people are bombarded by messages from the media, educators are beginning to teach the A-B-Cs of media literacy. In at least one state, it's even been made mandatory. The goal, say these educators, is to help children become "active viewers," able to question and critically analyze what they see and hear.The influence of the media begins early. By the time they graduate from high school, many young people will have watched 22,000 hours of TV -- twice the hours they spent in school, according to a 1992 survey by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development.Some educators say the best way to teach children to be savvy viewers of media is to let them do it themselves. In schools around the country, young people are beginning to produce their own videos. By learning how lighting can emphasize a subject, what shots to keep, and what to cut, they can see how visual images can be manipulated, even innocently.At Rise and Shine Productions, a non-profit organization based in New York City, teens go out in teams of three or four to film videos on topics like race relations, violence, drugs and sexism.Said Samir Vural, one of the students: "I can no longer watch a film, commercial, newscast, drama, sitcom, or anything without taking it apart. I watch actively. When people become media-literate, they can't be fooled."Media literacy is gradually taking hold in scattered pockets around the country.In Minneapolis, students are for the first time being evaluated for their critical viewing skills; media literacy grades now appear on report cards.North Carolina began four years ago requiring that all its K-12 students learn "to access, analyze, evaluate and create media."In New Mexico, the movement got a jump start in 1993 with funding and other help from the Downs Media Education Center, founded by the television news veteran Hugh Downs. His daughter Dierdre Downs presented the initial training workshops.Now, in classrooms around the state, New Mexico's students are encouraged to watch TV with a critical eye rather than simply letting it "wash over them." If they watch MTV, for example, they may learn to analyze how women are portrayed, how to look for suggestive poses, and how to identify media stereotypes and the techniques of persuasion, such as flattery, repetition, humor."We also analyze newspapers, billboards, compact disc covers, all kinds of media," said Jim Ficklin of the Southern New Mexico Media Literacy Coalition, which has helped coordinate the efforts. The citizens' group brings its message to schools as well as churches, shopping malls, film festivals, with workshops and other presentations that have reached 15,000 people over the past three years.One brake on the media literacy movement has been a lack of trained teachers. With federal, state and local governments tightening their budgets, money to train teachers is scarce. "My desk is filled with rejection slips for grants to develop training programs," said Elizabeth Thoman, executive director of the Center for Media Literacy in Los Angeles and a pioneer in the movement.Yet even small communities are finding ways to promote media literacy. One initiative in Billerica, Mass., was spurred by the early arrival in its schools of the controversial Channel One, introduced by entrepreneur Chris Whittle.Viewed in 12,000 schools around the country, Channel One is a current events program for students. It includes 10 minutes of news and -- this is both the controversial and the profitable part -- two minutes of commercials. Schools are loaned television sets and video equipment at no charge in return for running the news and ads.In Billerica, near Boston, teachers voted to approve Channel One in the town's two middle schools, under one condition: that it be coupled with a media literacy program.Now, the channel is used in classrooms there as an "object of analysis," said Renee Hobbs, associate professor of communications at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass, who participated in the three-year program that trained teachers in Billerica.For example, students are asked to bring a current newspaper to class and analyze the differences in the way news is treated in print compared with Channel One. Or they may discuss how music is used in the programming to capture attention. Or they may talk about the similarities and differences between the use of music in the news portion compared with the commercials.While media literacy itself does not provoke opposition, some educators worry that the driving force behind it -- America's concern about gratuitous sex, violence and materialism in media -- may take the direction of control and censorship.Marielli Rowe of the National Telemedia Council in Madison, Wisc., said censorship is actually less likely if people's frustration gets channeled into a "positive new, expanded literacy which we call media literacy.""We must teach skepticism in all media," venerable news anchor Walter Cronkite urges in a trailer for a new, hour-long documentary, to be aired on public television in the fall. The documentary, Media Literacy: The New Basic, is being produced and written by Megee of the On Television Project at Rutgers University.As communications professor Hobbs, one of the commentators, notes, "We can't let another generation grow up watching TV the way we did. It's too dangerous. It's too powerful a medium!"Contacts: David Considine, Appalachian State University (704) 262-2270 Mary Megee, Rutgers University (212) 925-5289 Marielli Rowe, National Telemedia Council (608) 257-7712 Elizabeth Thoman, Center for Media Literacy (213) 931-4177 Rise and Shine Productions (Laura Vural) (212) 265-5909 Renee Hobbs, Babson College (617) 239-4975FOR ADDITIONAL REPORTING: To adapt or expand this story, you may wish to make the following contacts:National:Media Literacy Online Project Center for Advanced Technology in Education College of Education University of Oregon, Eugene Contact Website: http://interact.uoregon.eduServing as a clearinghouse for media literacy organizations, this website is part of ongoing research and development activity at the University of Oregon. Its goal is to make available to educators, producers, students, and parents, information and resources related to the influence of media in the lives of children, youth and adults. Resources include detailed listings of organizations, associations and centers related to the study of media and communication; archived articles, guides, lists and other related resources; and files of conferences, events and news stories.Maine:Guerilla Media Project Varied Directions 69 Elm St. Camden, ME 04843 Contact: Joyce Boaz (800) 888-5236 e-mail: joyceB3955@aol.comThe Guerilla Media Project distributes videos that work to "demystify radio and TV so that ordinary people can use them." Videos produced by Tony Schwartz and David Hoffman include: "A Citizens' Guide to Using Electronic Media for Social Change" and "Secrets of Effective Radio Advertising."Minnesota:ROCORI Area Schools (Cities of Rockville, Coldspring and Richmond) 534 N. 5th Ave. Coldspring, MN 56320 Contact: Tom Westerhaus, Superintendent (320) 685-4901 Judy Neste, Director of Curriculum and Staff Development (320) 685 4908ROCORI Area Schools help staff and students to better understand the media and its influence. After receiving a grant from the Minnesota Center for Arts Education, they first conducted staff trainings on media literacy, then worked to develop curriculum and projects for students (k-12) on issues such as viewing habits and media messages as well as media production. They are currently conducting community trainings on media literacy in which participants may use local cable access to display projects and learnings.New MexicoSouthern New Mexico Media Literacy Coalition New Mexico State University Las Cruces, NM Contact: Jim Ficklin, chair (505) 646-2418 FAX (505) 646-1924 e-mail: jficklin@NMSU.eduFicklin manages a media literacy "listserv" on the internet.The New Mexico Media Literacy Project Albuquerque Academy Albuquerque, NM Contact: Bob McCannon (505) 828-3264There are now 4 regional media literacy coalitions in New Mexico working to promote media literacy throughout the community, including the schools. Each sponsors "catalyst teachers" who help to train teachers and encourage them to teach media literacy.North Carolina:Appalachian State University Department of Curriculum and Instruction Media Studies Program Contact: David Considine (704) 262-2270A media literacy pioneer this program is the first to offer media literacy training for teachers as part of undergraduate teacher education.Citizens for Media Literacy 34 Wall St. Suite 407 Asheville, NC 28801 Contact: Wally Bowen, executive director (704) 255-0182This is a non-profit organization dedicated to teaching critical thinking in TV and advertising and to ensure citizen access to the media environment through newsletters and media literacy workshops for students (K-12) and adults. They also conducted the first comprehensive media teacher training in North Carolina. This coincided with and was supported by the state mandate.North Carolina Department of Education 601 N. Wilmington St. Raleigh, NC 27601 Contact: Mike Fry, Chief Consultant for Language, Arts, and Social Studies (919) 715-1886North Carolina mandated in the 1992 Standard Course of Study, the Communication Skills K-12 Viewing Strand requiring that students be able to "access, analyze, evaluate and produce media." The purpose is to expand reading, writing, and speaking curriculum to visual media and to prepare students to be able to compose and interpret visual and written media.South Carolina:South Carolina Department of Education Office of Technical Assistance 1429 Senate St. Room 800 Columbia, SC 29201 Contact: Joanne Fraser, Education Associate for Health Education (803) 734-8490 fax: (803) 734-6142 e-mail: Jfraser@sde.state.sc.= usReaching 20,000 to 30,000 students per year, South Carolina schools have been using media literacy as part of a school reform initiative to improve health education programs primarily in middle schools. Issues include consumer health, drugs, alcohol, tobacco and AIDS. Students are eligible to receive up to $500 for a positive media campaign to improve health practices and education. All campaigns must be student-driven and student-directed. They have included the production of posters, commercials and videos using media technique and technology.