Mixed Messages

Media constantly bombard us. Some of it’s good, some bad. That’s why schools and Scouting believe teaching media literacy can help young people critically evaluate everything they see, read, and hear.

Brothers Robert and Tom Step of Stillwater, Okla., don’t believe everything they see on TV.
Infomercials, for example.

“When people say the knives they demonstrate are so sharp and all, I don’t think that’s true,” asserts 12-year-old Tom, a Boy Scout in Troop 802.

“And the acne stuff,” adds 13-year-old Robert. “Everyone says their product is the best, but sometimes the before and after pictures look like different people.”

Robert and Tom don’t watch much television. But when they do, a parent is usually nearby, answering questions and creating teachable moments about advertising and other media messages.

“There are a lot of weird shows out there, and lots of times there are questions,” says mom Cheryl Step. “The boys ask, ‘What are they doing?’ Or, they hear a word and want to know what the word means.”

Cheryl also might discuss with the boys the payment plan for those infomercial knives, to help them figure out the product’s total cost despite low monthly payments. Or she might seize an opportunity to affirm the family’s values.

“They had questions about one of the home makeover shows,” Cheryl recalls. “My kids pointed out to me that the people often say ‘Oh my God, oh my God.’ I explained that some people don’t consider that to be using God’s name in an improper way. We talked about how different people use different words.”

The Steps are working to keep the media in perspective.

Messages from every direction

We live in a media ecosystem, where the ubiquity of media is unprecedented. Piped-in music puts us in the mood to spend. Talking heads spin the news. TV, computers, radio, newspapers, music, and movies pump out a cacophony of messages clamoring for attention. And we are just starting to understand the media’s power to shape and reshape our values and worldview.

Kids need help developing sharp critical thinking tools to hack through their media jungle. That’s why courses in “media literacy” are showing up in school curriculums and Scouting programs. And for many adults, the fast-paced reality facing today’s young people seems alien and intimidating.

“It’s a whole new world, this whole digital media environment, and it’s changing so quickly,” says Kathryn Montgomery, a professor at American University’s School of Communication. “That makes it a real challenge to figure out what to teach your kids. Parents need to be educated as well.”

Teenagers especially, with their relatively large disposable incomes, find themselves the target of diverse media messages. Advertising teaches them what David Walsh, founder and president of the National Institute on the Media and the Family, calls “More, Easy, Fast, and Fun.”

Walsh, author of No: Why Kids–of All Ages–Need to Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It, believes that the media’s relentless “Yes!” message of instant gratification can interfere with kids’ development and their ability to succeed.

Minnesota has made Walsh’s book the backbone of its “Say Yes to No Campaign,” a statewide program designed to introduce media literacy to schools, parents, and groups, including the BSA’s Northern Star Council in Minneapolis/St. Paul.

At a recent Webelos Scout event, for example, leaders distributed surveys to boys and their parents that prompted discussion about how adults could and should monitor kids’ Internet, TV, and video-game use.

Watch your kids’ video games

Richard Neuner, the council’s marketing chair, knew that his then-14-year-old son, Ben, played video games. But Neuner had never thought much about it until he saw Walsh’s presentation.

“What was new to me, ” Neuner says, “was the very graphic illustrations of violence and pornography that’s imbedded in some of the video games that I’ve seen on the floor of our house and in other parents’ homes.”

When he approached Ben with his concerns about the content of one particular video game, his son’s response didn’t surprise him. “Ben said, ‘Dad, it’s not real. It’s a game,’” Neuner recalls.

But according to Bob McCannon, co-president of the Action Coalition for Media Education, kids (and adults, too) often don’t perceive the subtext or effects of the music they listen to, the Web sites they visit, the TV shows they watch, the games they play, or the thousands of advertisements they encounter daily.

In his presentations to schools and other groups, McCannon illustrates his message by citing a beer commercial that uses a “blonde joke” punch line.

McCannon says the joke always gives the kids a laugh, and even he concedes that it’s funny. But he also encourages youngsters to look beyond the easy laugh. “I ask, ‘Who’s the joke on here? What color is her hair? Do we have those kinds of jokes elsewhere in our culture?’”

In that way, McCannon leads students toward the connection between blonde jokes and sexism.

“Advertising, as does most mass media, conveys much more than just desire for individual products,” he says. “It conveys attitudes and values and lifestyle choices.”

For that reason, Neuner told his son he didn’t care if the video game wasn’t real and that he didn’t want the game in the house. “I said, ‘I’m so concerned about this game in terms of respect for women and in terms of the values that you’re saying you uphold, that I would ask you to think seriously about whether this is a game you want to own.’”

Question, don’t strong-arm

Steering kids toward good decisions about media is not a matter of strong-arming them. That can backfire. McCannon cautions adults not to rail at kids about media they find distasteful or wrong-minded.

“Many media educators tend to do that—they show a lot of examples of bad things and talk about why they’re bad or ask why they’re so bad.”

The trouble is, says McCannon, kids may like that bad media or laugh at blonde jokes and other poor taste in advertising. After all, ad-makers spent millions of dollars making sure their ads are effective.

“Ads are the most carefully crafted media that our civilization has produced,” says McCannon. Make kids feel guilty about buying into these expensively crafted messages, and they might shut you out.

Instead, he says, make like Socrates and ask questions (see sidebar). The goal is teaching kids to think critically, not telling them what to think.

Neuner did not insist that Ben give up the video game, but Ben made that choice anyway.

“He came back to me the next day and just handed me the game,” Neuner says. “He said, ‘I can’t really say that I understand, but if you feel this strongly about it, then something must be wrong.’

“That’s pretty much everything a parent could want to hear,” Neuner concluded with a laugh.

Of course, not all media is bad. (After all, the magazine you hold in your hands is part of the media.)

The term covers newspaper articles as well as Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction, PBS’s “American Experience,” as well as Fox’s “America’s Next Top Model.”

“I have taught for years that all media are good and bad,” says McCannon. “There is almost never any piece of media that is value-neutral.”

Part of the trick is teaching kids healthy skepticism, not dark cynicism.

“Cynicism is ultimately negative and can be pretty soul destroying,” says McCannon. “Skepticism, on the other hand, is that affirmative attitude of inquiry that allows you to learn and teach others. Skepticism is what Socrates died for.”

Create a dialogue

Leading kids to a healthy media diet also requires mutual respect. When their 15-year-old grandson, Kevin Somers, came to live with them, Cerie and Stan Segal of Plano, Tex., knew he had grown up on a diet of hip-hop and sitcoms. World traveled and avid about current events, the Segals don’t try to force-feed Kevin more nourishing news. Instead, if they find an article that Kevin might relate to in the newspaper about, say, a local controversy over sagging pants, they leave it on the kitchen table in the morning.

“I’ve noticed if I put out a page with an article I think would be of interest to him, he’ll read the whole page,” Cerie says.

And when the Segals talk with Kevin about the media (and other issues), they listen to what he says without judgment.

“We don’t ever put him down for his thoughts,” Cerie continues. “We don’t ever put him down for the way he’s approaching something. We just include him in the conversation. We ask him why he thinks that.”

Media messages come at us in a variety of ways, so it’s important to stay aware of the images and language, says professor Montgomery. “What are they trying to say to you with the choice of symbols and visuals, like the American flag behind a candidate?” And kids need to ask themselves the same questions about the Internet.

“Who’s putting this message on this Web site and what is their motivation? Are they trying to sell me something? Are they trying to convince me of something?”

In addition, Montgomery says, “I don’t think young people realize when they’re on MySpace, that companies are monitoring everything they say, everything they post, everything they do. They’re collecting that information and using it to market to each individual.”

Therefore, because media represent an ever-present force in modern life, kids should learn to approach it with caution, an inquiring mind, and strong reasoning skills.

“Media education has to be a participatory process that the kids buy into,” McCannon says. “It has to be done intelligently and compassionately, and it has to involve dialogue.”

Award-winning travel writer Sophia Dembling resides in Dallas.

The Socratic Method of Evaluating Advertising

Pretend you are Socrates and ask these questions about advertising:

  • Who paid for the ad?
  • Why does the company need to advertise?
  • What group is targeted by the ad?
  • What about the ad leads one to that conclusion?
  • What is the ad’s “text” and “subtext?”
  • What kind of culture(s) does the example create?
  • What value(s) is reinforced?
  • What techniques of persuasion are used?
  • What is not told? What related stories are missing?
  • How does the example try to move emotions? Is it simple/complex? Is it logical?
  • Is it closer to fantasy or reality?
  • Does it use stereotypes?
  • In what ways does this depict a lifestyle that is healthy and unhealthy?

McCannon also encourages giving kids the opportunity to make media themselves to gain a deeper understanding of how media work. A class with younger children might involve creating a cereal box that makes kids want to buy the cereal, while older kids can make videos.

“The trick is to get them to make media about something that informs them and causes them to recognize that communicating something of value is important,” he says.

Sources of Media Literacy Education

Read Bob McCannon’s suggestions on how to raise media-savvy children athttp://acmecoalition.org/files/ACME_kids.pdf.

PBS has a lively interactive Web site for kids called Don’t Buy It, http://pbskids.org/dontbuyit/. Kids can see the manipulation behind cover-girl photographs, learn about the trickster magic of food styling, and make their own ads.

Read about the Minnesota “Say Yes to No” campaign at http://www.sayyestono.org.

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