AJR  Features
From AJR,   March 2003

Reading Between the Lines   

The fast-growing media literacy movement strives to help students understand how the mass media do their jobs. The goal is a citizenry that critically analyzes what it reads, sees and hears.

By Alina Tugend
Alina Tugend is a writer based in the New York City metropolitan area.     

About two dozen teenagers are sitting in a classroom at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, learning about manipulating photographs, the difference between local and national news, and the history of radio.

These middle-school students are spending part of their summer at Media Mania camp, a two-week course devoted to "media literacy"--an effort to help kids understand how the media, which surround them every day, work.

One day, the focus is photography and news development. Belinha De Abreu, a Connecticut media literacy middle-school teacher, explains that every photo is created by decisions--initially by what the photographer chooses to shoot, and later by photo editors and the work they do.

Students learn what it means to crop, digitize and airbrush. Then De Abreu points to the infamous Time cover of O.J. Simpson, in which the former football star's face appeared much darker than it did on Newsweek's cover that same week.

"What's the effect?" De Abreu asks.

Whitney Day, 14, responds: "It looks more mysterious and...evil?"

"That's right," says De Abreu. "By making it darker, they're giving the perception that he's already guilty."

On another day, students get a list of 25 story ideas and 30 commercials and busily set about choosing what to include in their own 30-minute newscasts.

Their network, they are told, is ABC News. (They had already learned that Disney owns ABC.) One of the stories is about a malfunction of the Disney World ride Space Mountain. How should they play it?

Many members of the media may not realize it, but media literacy has increasingly become a part of schools' curricula across the country. In fact, it is something of a movement: Four years ago, only seven states specified that students need to learn media literacy. By 2002, all 50 states referred to media literacy in their curriculum recommendations.

The premise is the same as old-fashioned literature classes except, instead of analyzing "Great Expectations," students examine advertising, television shows, Web sites and news. The amount of time and enthusiasm devoted to media literacy varies widely across the country. In some schools, it may be a separate course or series of courses; in others it may be incorporated into social studies, English or even health education classes.

Why the recent interest? After all, the roots of media education in the U.S. stretch back to the 1930s, with scattered small-scale efforts to discuss the advent of the new medium--radio. Then came television, and by 1969 the National Education Association recommended teaching critical viewing of TV to counteract what it saw as the negative effects of media violence. In the ensuing three decades, media literacy has waxed and waned with fashions in education.

Recently, however, the unparalleled growth of cable channels and the Internet has spurred legislators and educators to recognize that schools can't ignore mass media.

"It is no longer enough simply to read and write," media literacy expert David Considine said in a recent report on the subject for The Free Expression Policy Project, a think tank. "Students must also become literate in the understanding of visual messages [and learn] how to spot a stereotype, isolate a social cliché and distinguish facts from propaganda."

In the Sacred Heart University classroom, there is a neon-green poster asking: "Who produced this message and what is their purpose?" "Who is the target audience?" "What important message has been left out of this message?"

Media Mania students are challenged to think about information that is thrown at them (and everyone else) daily. They also create three- to five-minute minidocumentaries on social issues such as Internet relationships and peer pressure.

Diane Samples, who founded the camp, knows there is only so much kids can learn in two weeks. But she hopes they leave knowing that "everything they see and hear is touched by someone else, and they need to look at that in a critical way."

This is the third year that Samples, who once worked in corporate communications and now teaches media literacy courses for Sacred Heart, has run the camp. About 30 teenagers attend each year.

The Free Expression Policy Project found that quite a number of media literacy programs include class discussions on production techniques and the structure of the industry. Many also include hands-on projects, requiring students to create their own advertisements, public-service spots or video games.

Despite these efforts, the United States is still behind countries like Britain, Australia and Canada, longtime proponents of media education. In fact, says Faith Rogow, an education consultant specializing in media literacy, "Most of the industrialized world is ahead of us."

Media literacy experts disagree about why this is. One reason is the diffuse and scattershot nature of American education, as compared with the nationally controlled curricula of many European and other countries. But that's not the only factor.

"There have been several kinds of splits in the movement," says Rogow, who is also president of an umbrella organization of media literacy educators, the Alliance for a Media Literate America. Educators had different ideas about what media literacy was, she says. Some thought TV was "mind-numbing" and should not be taught in the classroom; others believed media literacy should simply protect children from certain messages about sex, violence and drugs. Rogow and others, however, fear that such methods of education can be self-defeating by denigrating students' favorite TV programs, videos and music--therefore turning off the very kids teachers are trying to reach. So, American educators weren't united behind a common media literacy front.

Now, the ultimate goal of most educators is loftier than simply explaining how the media work. They hope that students, with sharpened analytical skills, will be jarred out of a passive viewing mode and into a more active citizenship role.

"America is now at the place where other countries were 15 or 20 years ago," says Considine, a professor of media studies at the Reich College of Education at North Carolina's Appalachian State University, where he is coordinator of the nation's only master's program in media literacy. Educators are no longer simply media bashing--they are trying to create a critical model "that leads to empowerment rather than apathy and disengagement."

But it's not just academics or the civic-minded who back this trend. Professional journalists also see value in teaching kids to be media literate. Such courses are vital, says longtime network correspondent Marvin Kalb, a senior fellow in the Washington office of the Joan Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

"It has always been my belief since the Shorenstein Center started in 1987 that we needed to get young people to understand what they see and read in journalism," he says. "In a free and open society, there is a tremendous amount of information--the question is how to make sense of it." In addition, he says, "It is also clear that [an understanding of] journalistic practices--the way journalists write, the way they present news--is drifting away from young people and therefore from American society."

In an effort to counteract this drift, seven years ago Kalb started the Media and American Democracy Institute. For eight days each year, 150 high-school teachers, Harvard faculty, politicians and some of the top U.S. journalists come together there to explain and analyze the ways in which news stories are presented.

For example, Kalb says, the seminar spent an entire day on how journalists cover war.

"It is the most exciting project I have ever been involved with," he says. "As a result of these courses, these [teachers' students] now have--or we wish to believe they have--a much more informed and sophisticated sense of the way television and newspapers present news."

Five other universities across the country--the University of Southern California, the University of Texas, the University of Missouri, the University of Miami and Syracuse University--began similar summer programs last year, and more are expected to do so in the future, Kalb says.

As media education gains a firmer foothold in this country, long-existing splits within the movement are becoming more pronounced.

Among the divisive questions: What should be taught? And who should teach it?

Politicians and educators, with their own agendas, values and constituencies, have differed on how and why kids need to learn about the media. As Considine notes, for some, media literacy can mean protecting kids from negative messages. A major proponent of this tactic is the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Two years ago, the office released a report supporting media literacy. The statement concluded that "thinking critically about media messages that promote destructive relationships, aggression and violence, drug use and inappropriate sexual behavior can help young people discover and gain control over their own perceptions and interpretations. In the end, this may be the most powerful 'anti-drug' of all."

Says Considine: "All too often [media literacy] is used as a way to implicate the media--particularly television--as a corrupting influence on children. It's about what the media can do to you rather than what we can do with the media. It sets up a mode where the audience is the victim and media is the villain."

After all, says Robert Kubey, director of the Center for Media Studies at Rutgers University, "We don't want someone teaching media literacy who hates television and films--just as we wouldn't want someone teaching literature who hates Dickens and Twain."

But Bob McCannon, executive director of the New Mexico Media Literacy Project, argues that some instructors aren't willing to be critical of the media. He says that too many literacy courses are taught by "apologists who don't want to take on media monopoly and control."

McCannon calls "Brave New World," the Aldous Huxley novel, one of "the greatest media literacy pieces," and argues that kids need to learn that "the media system that has come into being is grounded in profit at any cost. Censorship in 2002 isn't in the form of a strutting dictator. It's AOL Time Warner."

McCannon declined to join the newly formed Alliance for a Media Literate America because its founding sponsors are none other than AOL Time Warner, the Discovery Channel and the Sesame Workshop. He asserts that accepting money from those very companies that educators are supposed to be critically analyzing undermines the organization's ability to be objective. Therefore, he and some colleagues have formed Action Coalition for Media Education. It does not take corporate donations, and it focuses on corporate censorship, commercialism in schools and misrepresentation of women and minorities.

"We've gotten into an era of news production that is leaving people unprepared and uninterested in being participating citizens," McCannon says. "In general, I'm trying to make kids aware that fewer and fewer people control more and more of their culture."

Steve Sigmund, a spokesman for the AOL Time Warner Foundation, which funds a variety of media literacy programs in schools and after-school programs, says it is important for companies like his to be involved. "The company's expertise and the talent of our employees can make a real contribution," he says. Sigmund disagrees that the inclusion of media corporations co-opts the media literacy movement. "We try to establish partnerships and fund programs that may critically look at the media," he says. "Our expertise will help make the programs work well."

David Shaw, who writes about the media for the Los Angeles Times, says that while the principle of media literacy sounds good, "like everything else, it depends on how it's taught." He says it could be helpful for viewers to know why ABC might do a big story on Disneyland, "but they shouldn't be taught that it is evil. Just put out the facts and let them decide."

Mark Jurkowitz, the Boston Globe's media writer, agrees that one of the most important goals of media literacy is to explain which news outlets are part of which corporate organizations. "It's a huge issue for consumers and one with which most are patently unfamiliar," he says. "If they learned that alone, people would be better off. I think it affects the quality of the media and think that's something consumers need to understand, so they can make their own decisions."

However, Jurkowitz says educators don't need to make judgments about the positive or negative effects of such ownership. "In terms of corporate ownership, the barn door flew open a long time ago," he says. "You don't have to equate it with good or bad. Educating kids about the relationship is in itself an end."

An important subtext of media literacy, Jurkowitz says, "is just to get young people to consume news media--not just newspapers but all news stories. It's an effort to make news relevant to their world."

Most educators say that one of the most important aspects of these classes is teaching students about how stories get into print or on the air. "I always ask people, 'Who is the storyteller?' That's not just the byline, but who assigned that particular story and who owns the newspaper," says Rogow.

She aims to puncture conspiracy theories, she says, by showing that it is often the limitations of format rather than an organized effort to keep facts suppressed that determine what is in the news. One exercise Rogow uses is to have students read a newspaper story for 45 seconds--about as long as a CNN Headline News item. They usually get through only about half of the article. Then, she asks her students to cut the story in half. "They all come up with very different stories," Rogow says.

What's the reaction? Students understand that journalists have to make decisions to determine what is included in a report.

Some parents and educators question whether teaching media literacy is necessary for today's young people, many of whom are already more media savvy than their parents. Tessa Jolls, president and CEO of the Center for Media Literacy in Santa Monica, says that "we're talking to an increasingly sophisticated audience that know there are points of view" in all media. But typically, she says, "They don't have a framework for analyzing [the points of view]."

Will such close examination of the machinations of the media make an already distrusting generation even more cynical?

Ninth-grader Amber Ducksworth, who attended the Media Mania camp, says she doesn't feel she is more cynical, but rather more capable of gauging media--such as the reliability of Internet sites. "Before, I was a lot more naïve," she says. "It's not that you can't believe anything, but you have to be an educated viewer."

And that, experts say, is the key difference between raising a generation of disillusioned and apathetic citizens and one of active and thoughtful participants.

"Cynicism thrives in the dark of ignorance, when you feel something is wrong, but don't know what," McCannon says. "Skepticism is knowing what is wrong and doing something about it."