A Sharper Reception : ‘Media literacy’ classes aim to make kids more foolproof by teaching them to take slick TV advertising messages with a grain of salt. Call it defensive driving for the information superhighway.
When 16-year-old John Newman plops down in front of the tube, he resents what’s about to happen. “I know it’s a vampire sucking my life away,” he said.
Invariably, he loses awareness until the flickering images have reduced him to a stupor. “I’m an addict,” he said. “I can’t quit.”
But as a student of media literacy at Studio City’s Harvard-Westlake School, he’s learning he doesn’t have to quit. Rather, as his teacher Cheri Gaulke tells the students in her yearlong video class, they can pay close attention to what’s on the screen, evaluate it, and manipulate it before it manipulates them.
What drives media literacy teachers, a growing and passionate breed, is the same concern of many other children’s advocates: that children mindlessly accept as real whatever the commercially based mass media place before them, from news broadcasts and Saturday morning “splattertoons” to video games and billboards. While newspapers and magazines are scrutinized, too, concern is centered on television, most recently on tabloid news programs.
“Educators want them to understand that what they’re seeing is the result of a system, it’s completely constructed, that television is not and never will be a window on the world. When they finally get that, they have a different reality,” said Patrick Scott, project coordinator for the Los Angeles-based National Alliance for Media Education.
The group, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, aims to identify and organize media literacy practitioners in the United States, estimated conservatively at 3,500. Scott said recent announcements of the project’s purpose has resulted in a deluge of calls.
Advocates comprise a divergent group, from iconoclastic media artists such as Gaulke to volunteer parent groups and conservative religious leaders. Many are frustrated over high levels of violence or commercial manipulation in the media and skeptical of self-regulation by the industry, but are repulsed by efforts at censorship.
Some teachers focus on news, others on entertainment or advertising. Some include video production. Others prefer to teach media literacy as part of health or social studies classes.
In a separate media literacy class at Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles, Susan Boyle has been teaching her students that some Disney animated films create stereotypes.
“Usually what Disney does is take the young woman and render her powerless.... The adult woman is usually divided into two roles: the numskull, the chubby fairy with a good heart, or the strong woman, like Cruella De Vil, is the witch figure. She’s also the most interesting, most powerful, and exciting and fun. In ‘Cinderella,’ the prince is almost a nonentity.”
Gaulke points out to her students how newscasters usually lead into a commercial with “happy” news. Her students make videos, focusing on deception in commercials. In one, “Be All That You Can Be” ads for the U.S. Army are spliced with war footage from the film “Jacob’s Ladder.”
At Jefferson High, Gina Lamb said her students are often upset at how minorities have been portrayed or left out of news and entertainment programs.
The class “opened my eyes,” said Marisela Gomez, 18. She noticed that the images of violence aired during the riots made her friends and family afraid of their community long afterward. She also noticed that news crews arrived to cover riot clean-up efforts in her neighborhood only when actor Edward James Olmos came--not when she and her friends volunteered.
Under the teacher’s guidance, Gomez created programs the way she wanted to see them. One altered a newscast to delete references to criminal suspects’ race. Another, titled “Jefferson, 90011,” showed her friends displacing the all-white cast of “Beverly Hills, 90210.”
“Now I have a whole TV perspective,” Gomez said. “I want to change TV. I want to become a film director to change it.”
Proponents agree that it is counterproductive to preach to kids about television.
“When you try to teach that TV is bad for you, or TV is trash, kids reject that. It isn’t trash to them. It’s their culture,” said Renee Hobbs, director of Harvard University’s Institute on Media Education, which trains teachers in media literacy.
“It’s not the quality of the TV that matters,” Hobbs added. “It’s the quality of the skills of the person who uses the TV.”
Traditionalists have argued that popular culture has no place in the classroom and that students are better off applying critical thinking skills to literature. Some students have also complained that the teachers’ are trying to instill their own form of political correctness.
But others, impressed by predictions that today’s children will have spent seven years watching TV by the time they are 70, see the mass media as part of an inevitable redefinition of literacy .
Elizabeth Daley, dean of the USC School of Cinema-Television, said she sees media literacy as central to a future liberal arts education. “I don’t know how you can live in the society we live in and not have some command of film and television,” she said.
“Over 70% of the information we get is from TV or something other than straight print. If we look at news and if we don’t have any sense of the effect of shot sequencing, editing or the sourcing of news, who’s taping it, who’s actually editing it, then we have no way of evaluating what we’ve seen. We’ve ceased to be literate,” she added.
Most recently, children’s advocates have criticized violence in the news. A national survey by Children Now reported that 65% of children 11 to 17 read or watch the news and half are left feeling “sad, angry or depressed.” More studies show that younger children get their information from quasi-news shows and “it’s increasingly difficult for them to know the difference between news and entertainment,” said Kathryn Montgomery, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Media Education.
In a speech delivered by television earlier this month to Children Now, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton also lambasted news violence, saying repeated images of children being murdered or molested distorts children’s view of reality, destroys their faith in authority and institutions and prevents them from becoming functioning citizens.
Debate continues over whether children copy antisocial behavior they see in the media. Last year, one teen-ager died after apparently imitating a scene in which two characters lie down in the middle of a highway in the film, “The Program.” Also last year, a toddler died in a fire set by a 5-year-old whose mother claimed he was imitating the cartoon series “Beavis and Butt-head.”
At the least, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communications have identified a “mean world syndrome,” experienced by people who watched more than four hours daily of television. More than light viewers, those people tended to assume crime is rising, regardless of the facts in their area, and bought more locks, watchdogs and guns for protection.
Amid the debate, the 20-year-old international media literacy movement is now picking up speed.
The Catholic Church in particular, frustrated by news stories about priests accused of molesting children, has invested in a national effort to help families “decipher a message when they see it,” said Ramon Rodriguez, national director of Catholic Connections to Media Literacy. His office has commissioned Elizabeth Thoman, a Los Angeles nun whose Los Angeles-based Center for Media and Values is the largest distributor of media literacy materials in the United States, to develop media literacy kits for every school, parish and diocese in the country.
Although some states, including North Carolina and New Mexico, have moved toward media literacy requirements, there is as yet no standard curriculum and little funding for training. Meanwhile, some teachers are measuring their success in small, subtle increments.
“My students have said I ruined TV for them,” said Harvard-Westlake School’s Gaulke. “That’s the highest compliment.”