Al Narath, a high school senior, says he will never look at television the same way again.
“I watched quite a lot of TV growing up,” he says. “What I have realized is it doesn’t take a lot of thought when you’re watching.
“I still watch television, but I’m more careful. I watch it less and, when I do, I pay more attention. And I’ve learned that TV is a business. Everything you see has been planned for weeks, even years. And most of the time they’re trying to sell you something.”
Narath, 17, is a graduate of media literacy, which has taught about 2,600 New Mexico elementary and high school students to analyze TV programs, see through advertising messages and understand how the media work.
New Mexico is at the forefront of a growing national movement to educate children about the media, driven by the concern that youngsters simply absorb what they see and hear on TV. Just as parents and educators teach children good eating habits, the thinking goes, they must also teach them good viewing habits.
As of last year, all school-age children in New Mexico must study media literacy as part of the state’s push to become “the first media literate state.” Similar efforts are under way in 15 states, and courses are springing up in schools in nearly every state, including California.
“We don’t think anybody is going to eliminate television or other media from their lives,” said Bob McCannon, director of New Mexico’s Media Literacy Project. “You can’t just turn it off. But kids can become wise consumers.”
Media literacy training is based on the premise that children should choose what they watch with care. From kindergarten through high school, students learn how television works--the mechanics and ultimate intent of programming. In the process, analysis and critical skills are encouraged.
Although some critics say it skirts the issue by shifting responsibility from the industry to the viewer, the concept is increasingly being embraced in classrooms, boardrooms and living rooms nationwide.
A surge of interest in the past year has dovetailed with the renewed focus by politicians and social critics on excessive sex and violence in the media.
“The general public, as well as the broadcasters, are getting a wake-up call on violence, whether it’s by Janet Reno or Bob Dole,” said Joe Zesbaugh, coordinator of a media literacy project in Denver. "[The subject] is everywhere, particularly during elections.”
“The violence issue is the Trojan horse that is bringing media literacy into both the home and the school,” said Elizabeth Thoman, who, as director of the Center for Media Literacy in West Los Angeles, is a movement pioneer. “It’s something we can do instead of just throwing our hands up.”
Moreover, it is seen, at least in some circles, as a simple antidote that does not involve pricey technology, advertiser boycotts or government threats.
But the very fact that it does not employ pressure tactics also inspires critics to call it ineffective or to claim that focusing mainly on viewers’ critical skills lets media producers off the hook.
Proponents respond that boycotts and other extreme measures have not proved to be successful and that inspiring children to outsmart TV will pay off in the long run.
At a time when many children spend more time watching TV than reading, many educators and parents say that teaching them to understand what they see on the screen is as important as teaching them to read and do math.
“What this is is basic literacy extended to include electronic forms of communication and new technology,” said Kathleen Tyner, a media literacy educator in San Francisco.
“We are now being inundated by an unprecedented flood of images, thanks to the cable explosion, the video revolution and flights into cyberspace,” said Brian Stonehill, a professor at Pomona College. “You need a life raft to survive the flood of images.”
To its adherents, that life raft is media literacy.
Learning to Dissect TV Ads and Programs
“Before I went into the class, I thought we’d be watching a lot of TV,” said Narath, a gangly blond who plans to major in microbiology in college.
“But reading was a large part of the course. And then we applied what we read to what we were seeing on TV.”
Narath’s class read analytical articles about the media, learned to “deconstruct"--take apart--programs and commercials, and produced their own media messages, where they learned that images and music can be more evocative than text.
In the class, which was taught by McCannon--the director of the New Mexico project--students did watch a fair amount of television, much of it programming they would regularly tune in anyway. They were instructed to watch MTV, but not to let it simply wash over them. Instead, they were told to analyze, for example, how women are portrayed in music videos.
McCannon asked the class to deconstruct a chewing gum commercial peppered with contemporary music and quick cuts of women and men in suggestive poses. Students were encouraged to look at the framing of the camera shots, what preceded or followed certain images and what was in the background and foreground. They were taught to identify media stereotypes and techniques of persuasion, such as flattery, repetition, fear, humor and sexual images.
“They would see the way it was constructed was designed to turn them on sexually,” McCannon said. “And they would never have given a thought to that before. It’s just so enlightening to kids to start to think about these kinds of things.”
The class "[taught] how to avoid being just another sucker; how to see through media but still enjoy it,” one student wrote in an evaluation. “The United States would be so much better off if we all had to take the class.”
Many states are indeed taking up the gauntlet with large-scale programs in media literacy.
The number of practitioners nationwide ranges from about 4,000 teaching in schools, according to a conservative estimate by the National Alliance for Media Education, to 15,000 teaching on an informal basis, according to Renee Hobbs, a Harvard-based professor and a movement pioneer.
Unlike other reform efforts, this one has the backing of some media industries.
The Parent-Teacher Assn. has joined forces with the National Cable Television Assn. on “Know TV,” a series of 32 workshops on media literacy held around the country. The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences recently allocated $400,000 for a two-year outreach project.
At least half a dozen conferences have taken place in the last six months, from St. Louis to Galicia, Spain. Last month, media literacy was a major topic at a conference on media and the family organized by Vice President Al Gore.
“I think a media literate child can watch ‘Power Rangers’ and not be adversely affected by it,” said Lauryn Axelrod, a media literacy teacher at a Dallas high school.
For example, kindergartners and teachers may discuss the difference between commercials and regular programming and talk about the way in which a commercial tries to sell a product (“by making it look real big,” or “by using music to make it more exciting”). For seventh-graders, an instructor might ask students what audience a commercial is targeting, discuss the choice of slogans to sell products, then send students to an advertising agency to see how commercials are created.
“I tend to liken it to an English class,” Axelrod said. “You read ‘Bleak House,’ then you tear it apart. Then, you learn something about symbolism and metaphor. I can teach all that using ‘The Cosby Show.’ And chances are they’ll watch ‘The Cosby Show’ and they’ll just read the Cliff Notes for ‘Bleak House’.”
Avoiding Conflicts With the Industry
The movement steadfastly refuses to engage in media-bashing.
Proponents say there are worthy television programs on the dial, but their emphasis is on trying to teach young people to watch selectively and intelligently.
But some critics say this will not attack the core of the problem. They maintain that by not focusing on improving programming quality, media literacy training does not go far enough.
The movement’s tendency to avoid confrontations with the television industry has rankled media activists, particularly those who lobby for improved children’s programming. It is not surprising, they say, that several media organizations have embraced the concept because it essentially does not require anything of them.
“Media literacy will sort of take the heat off the industry,” said Kathryn Montgomery, co-director of the Washington-based Center for Media Education. “There’s a kind of implicit position here that it doesn’t really matter what’s in the media or that it’s [not necessary] really to try to change the media system.”
Montgomery is working to strengthen the Children’s Television Act of 1990, which attempts to limit the number of commercials in children’s programming and to increase educational and informational programming.
“You cannot through media literacy create better programs for children to see,” Montgomery said. “That has to come out of the industry. Nor can you correct for the really bad stuff. It’s important to teach kids about violence, but teaching kids about violence will not necessarily mitigate the effect of violence.”
“Critical thinking skills are a first surface layer of what we need to do,” said Charles Johnston, director of the Institute for Creative Development in Seattle. “The responsibility lies with all parties involved. We need to be able to protect ourselves and express our needs and views as consumers, but equally well there’s a high responsibility on the part of the media for the effect of what’s produced. And there needs to be a rather profound calling to task in terms of responsibility on the part of the media.”
Thoman, the leader of the movement in Los Angeles, counters that although it’s fine to seek better programming, it is also necessary to help children deal with what is out there today.
“Just because we don’t call for boycotts or we don’t march before Hollywood and ask for change tomorrow doesn’t mean we’re not engaging in systemic change.”
She compared media literacy to the environmental movement. “In social movements, you have to find something that everybody can do easily without a lot of exertion or expense or time, like recycling pop cans.”
She said that to create a similar change with TV, “we’ve got to find something that’s equally simple and yet profound, something that gets woven into our daily existence. . . . That would be deciding when to turn the TV on and off and making choices. If 20 million families did that, that would add up to a major consciousness change both personally and in the larger culture.”
A Foreign Response to American TV
Media literacy began as a movement that examined messages sent out by popular culture in the 1970s and was quickly adopted into school curricula in Canada, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand. It was embraced as a way to cope with the barrage of exported American programming. It intrigued some U.S. educators and the federal government in the mid-'70s but was not implemented, prompting Sen. William Proxmire to give media literacy a Golden Fleece award, ridiculing the government for spending millions just to get children to watch TV. With the rise of the “Back to Basics” educational movement of the 1980s, media literacy all but died out.
Today, educators who have jumped on the bandwagon regard media literacy as an extension of the “Back to Basics” philosophy, arguing that classes are a practical, cost-effective way of coping with the proliferation of media choices. And because New Mexico has struggled for years with rising dropout rates and low scores in basic literacy, the state saw it as a way to become an educational leader.
While the broadcast and cable industries duke it out with the federal government over establishing program ratings or encoding them with signals to electronically block offensive programming (such as the V-chip), media literacy adherents are confident that their quiet, intellectually based methods will provide the best defense.
There is no extra technology required to become media literate, nor does the government have much of a role, proponents maintain. When undertaken at home, it doesn’t cost a penny.
Indeed, proponents agree that media literacy can--and should--begin at home and as early as the preschool years, when children first are exposed to TV, computers, movies and other media.
At that stage parents and care-givers--not teachers--are on the front lines.
Parents are urged to resist the temptation to use the TV as a baby-sitter and are encouraged to watch along with their children, asking and answering questions.
Parents and very young children can talk about how television is “pretend.” Also, parents can watch cartoons with their children and point out when real life would not work the way cartoons do. Parents can ask children to solve TV problems without violence and watch a favorite show with a child and have the child retell the story with his or her own ending.
For youngsters 6 to 11, the exercises include asking children to compare what they are watching on TV with people, places and events they have read or talked about in school. They discuss stereotypes and how TV distorts reality.
“There’s a lot of joy there when people see they have more control over this than they thought,” Tyner said.
Media literacy educators are a passionate breed and much of the heat they have generated has been in smaller towns.
Over three years, Renee Hobbs--creator of the Harvard Institute on Media Education--implemented the nation’s first districtwide media literacy program in Billerica, Mass., for about 7,000 students from kindergarten through high school. More recently she developed a program in Lawrence, Mass., for second-graders and 13- to 15-year-olds.
The President’s Office of Drug Control Policy is also trying to understand the media better. Last month it sponsored a wide-ranging conference with many of the movement’s key players. Media literacy is one of several strategies being employed by the federal government to deglamorize drug and alcohol use, said Deputy Director Fred Garcia.
While training teachers in Taos to use media literacy in the classroom, McCannon shows a montage of video interviews, including this pronouncement from a 7-year-old girl: “My favorite show is ‘Married With Children.’ It’s funny and good for kids.’ ”
“I’m really distressed by what I see on TV,” said Sadie Serna, a seventh-grade math teacher in Taos, who attended the training. “You can’t stop the world from happening. . . . But we have an obligation to our kids and if we don’t meet that obligation, we’ll fail them. And I don’t want to be one of those people that fails them.”
Next: Is the V-chip really the solution?