Urging Kids to Think for Themselves

The news tease promised "another Rodney King episode."

Just as George Holliday awakened in the wee hours to minicam King for the ages, a private citizen had now come forward with home video of another, more recent episode of "police brutality."

At least that's what the anchor said in introducing a chunk of amateur footage from another city, pictures that got wide national exposure recently.

You braced for something shocking.

What came on the screen, though, was inconclusive--dark, fuzzy images of police officers aggressively taking a suspect (apparently black) into custody. In the confusion, an officer appeared to strike the standing suspect on the head.

There was no way of knowing from the footage whether the punch was provoked or unprovoked, whether it was justified by something unseen or was an uncalled-for act of violence against a helpless man. In other words, there was no context, only the memory of the police-indicting headline.

Even if this were a slice of police brutality, however, equating it with the ferocious beating of King was like comparing a small vibration to the Northridge quake.

Although the story's anti-cop point of view was not supported by its pictures, that doesn't mean its perspective wasn't accepted by some viewers. "People believe what they see when it matches their own experience," notes Renee Hobbs, associate professor of communication at Babson College. She makes that statement in "Tuning In to Media," one of two 30-minute videos included in TV Tool Kits, being distributed by Continental Cablevision Inc. as part of the Boston-based firm's campaign for media literacy aimed largely at kids and teachers.

A media giant crusading for media literacy? It triggers your skepticism. Does a jailer hand out escape maps? What's in it for Continental? Is it trying to showboat for a media-bashing Congress? Do its media-literacy materials contain self-promoting subliminal messages? What's the plot here, anyway?

There's no hidden agenda, according to Nancy Larkin, Continental's vice president for community relations. "We just think that if people feel good about cable, that's good for us," she said last week. Whatever. The point is that Continental, by seeking to raise our media IQs, is on the side of the angels here.

Media-literacy has expanded somewhat due to the efforts of a few visionary advocates such as the Center for Media Values in Los Angeles. Yet hardly any schools teach it, and the subject is still given scant attention in the United States. Continental, which serves 650 communities in California and six other states, is adding wattage to the spotlight by preparing to send its tapes and study guides not only to schools and libraries but also to other cable systems.

Hobbs, who is director of the Harvard Institute on Media Education, produced "Tuning In to Media" primarily with teachers in mind. It preaches media literacy by showing the topic being examined by elementary, middle-school and high-school students in a handful of Massachusetts classrooms.

Especially valuable, though, is the way it uses coverage of the King case and the subsequent Los Angeles riots to illuminate various media techniques--and biases--that are not always apparent to the casual viewer. There on the screen, for example, is footage of chaos in L.A. streets, with a voice describing the participants as mindless looters.

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Then the identical footage is run, this time with another voice from another network, portraying those in the streets as part of a rebellion. One set of pictures, two truths. The message: Don't let media do your thinking for you. Draw your own conclusions.

As Kathleen Tyner, director of Strategies for Media Literacy, notes here, the media "are not mirrors of society . . . but carefully manufactured products."

The video also uses the L.A. riots story line in an episode of ABC's "Doogie Houser, M.D." as an example of the "interconnection" between news and entertainment, charting the overlapping values.

Called "Master of Control," the second video targets young children, using the language of television--pouring on the sound bites--to teach television. Seeking to elevate critical awareness almost at a toddler level, its messages are very general. ("Are toys always as great as they look on TV?" asks host Marc Summer of the Nickelodeon network's "Double Dare" series.) And the presentation lacks the zing of those media-education specials for kids produced by Zillions magazine for HBO and PBS.

Yet you applaud anything that urges kids to view the broad spectrum of media more acutely and seek alternative sources of information. And with the companion "Tuning In to Media," in addition to the supporting print materials, this is a TV Tool Kit that deserves space in every home.

If they're not with Continental, cable-wired viewers can always lobby their own systems to acquire and run these programs in prime access, making them available for videotaping. Still better, of course, would be to have media literacy join core curricula in schools.

"Some may feel media literacy is irrelevant," renowned media ecologist Neil Postman says in the Hobbs video. "But not if you believe education is not only about making a living, but making a life."

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