A Plea for Media Literacy in our Nation's Schools

Originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times., November 30, 2003. Reprinted with permission.

We are, all of us, awash in media. Television. Movies. The Internet. Billboards. Newspapers. Magazines. Radio. Newsletters. Individually and collectively, we spend more time with more media than ever before — an average of 10.5 hours a day, about 25% of that time using two media simultaneously, according to a recent study of "Middletown, USA" by the University of South Carolina.

Children in particular have become media–obsessed. Another recent study, this one by the Kaiser Family Foundation, found that 68% of kids 2 and younger spend an average of two hours a day in front of a screen, either television or computer. Children under 6 spend as much time in front of a screen as they do playing outside — and three times as much as they spend reading or being read to.

Those numbers don't decline as the children grow older. Douglas Rushkoff, a professor of media culture at New York University, has coined the term "screen–agers" to convey the depth of this inundation.

Moreover, yet another study — the 2003 Roper Youth Report — shows that kids ages 8 to 17 have 10% more say now than they did a year ago in their families' media purchases: magazines, newspapers, music, DVDs.

Young people use the media primarily for entertainment and recreation, not for information and education. But news is ubiquitous — headlines, snippets, bulletins, crawls — and the very fact that young people spend so much time with media that have the potential to inform and educate gives our schools an enormous opportunity (and obligation) to teach new and increasingly valuable skills.

The opportunity goes beyond just helping children make sense of the news, of course. On the Internet in particular, a single click takes them into worlds at once forbidden and fascinating, sites with hidden (and not–so–hidden) agendas and pop–up commercial messages that don't even require a click.

Consider today's column a plea for media literacy classes in our nation's schools.

We live in increasingly complex times, and unless we teach our children how to read about, watch, interpret, understand and analyze the day's events, we risk raising a generation of civic illiterates, political ignoramuses and uncritical consumers, vulnerable not only to crackpot ideas, faulty reasoning and putative despots but fraudulent sales pitches and misleading advertising claims.

Teaching media literacy is, in a sense, teaching critical thinking, and it should "start early, with simple activities in preschool, and continue through high school," says Tessa Jolls, president and CEO of the Santa Monica–based Center for Media Literacy, which provides guidance and curricula for school districts interested in taking on this most challenging task.

"The Internet caused a sea change in what kids need and how teachers should teach and in what parents want for their kids," says Elizabeth Thoman, who founded the center four years ago. "The Internet has changed our understanding of how kids are learning, in every sense of that term, and now instead of parents worrying about their kids watching too many commercials on Saturday morning cartoons, there is this much larger issue of all the images and messages that come pouring in over the Internet."

Education transformation

Thoman, Jolls and their center draw their inspiration, in part, from the writings of the late David Berlo, a noted communications scholar and the former president of Illinois State University. Berlo believed that the transformation of our culture from an Industrial Age to an Information Age required a similar transformation in education.

"Most of what we have called formal education has been intended to imprint on the human mind all of the information that we might need for a lifetime," he wrote in 1975. But the simultaneous explosion in information and technology mean that "for the first time in history," it is no longer either possible or necessary to store all available information within the human brain, and Berlo argued that education must adjust accordingly.

"Education needs to be geared toward the handling of data rather than the accumulation of data," he wrote. "Humankind needs to be taught how to process information."

Kids today are confronted with "every conceivable content," Jolls says. "I want them to have the tools and skills to make good decisions for themselves on the media messages they see.

"For teenagers, that might start with learning to evaluate commercial messages so they can buy a car intelligently. But with the right instruction, that could ultimately lead to applying moral criteria in looking at violence or pornography, learning what's healthy and moral as well as what's practical and useful."

Jolls is not suggesting that educators abandon the 3 Rs in favor of some New Age gobbledygook or religious teaching — only that media literacy be incorporated in the teaching of existing subjects.

She and Thoman and their staff of six have developed the MediaLit Kit(tm),a detailed curriculum for doing just that. The essence of their approach is what they call the "five key questions" students should learn to ask about every media message they see:

•  "Who created the message?

•  "What techniques are used to attract my attention?

•  "What lifestyles, values and points of view are presented in or omitted from the message?

•  "Why was this message sent?

•  "How might different people understand the message differently from me?"

"If we could teach kids to routinely apply those questions to every message that comes at them," Thoman says, "they would be much more sophisticated and understanding — and empowered, because they would then be able to make distinctions and judgments about their lives and the world around them."

Some roadblocks

That all seems obvious. But Jolls, Thoman and others in the national Alliance for a Media Literate America have run into a few problems in trying to sell their arguments. One is that education in America is very structured, resistant to change, and media literacy is not an accepted course in the formal canon, not part of what is known as the "K–12 standards."

With school budgets tight everywhere, it's difficult to introduce programs or classes or hire more teachers to administer those programs and teach those classes.

Advocates of media literacy education say the solution is to incorporate that subject in existing classes.

In Pennsylvania schools, for example, a cross–disciplinary approach to "reading standards" uses the media so students can "compare information received on television with that received on radio or in newspapers … discuss the reliability of information received on Internet sources; explain how film can represent either accurate versions or fictional versions of the same event, [and] explain the role of advertisers in the media."

Reading is just one of many "natural homes for media literacy," Thoman says. "In Canada, it's required for high school graduation, and it's embedded in the language arts program. Different aspects of it can be taught as part of social studies or health or any of a number of other subjects.

"Look at health, for example. Look at all the media messages kids get in the form of fast food commercials, stories on obesity and the sedentary lifestyle. They should be taught how to evaluate those messages and apply them in their own lives."

But someone has to train the teachers to teach this material, and that too takes time and money.

"People say, 'Come in and teach us how to do it,' " Thoman says, "but you can't do it in a day. It takes time."

The economics and politics of the textbook industry are also hurdles to be overcome.

"The books and teaching materials we have are supplemental material, not basic texts," Thoman says. Adoption of supplemental material requires both lobbying and extra expenditures.

Despite the obstacles, Jolls and Thoman are optimistic. They have no statistics on the number of schools now teaching media literacy, but they say requests for their materials are increasing significantly, and visits to their Web site (www.medialit.org) have more than doubled in the past year.

"We're still in missionary mode," Thoman says.

It's a mission well worth pursuing — for our children, for our society and for our future.

Pulitzer Prize winner David Shaw is the media/technology columnist for the Los Angeles Times.