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 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal


 Vol 8|No 9|June|1999

 

 

 

Teaching
Media
Literacy
in an Age
of
Edutainment

 

by Jamie McKenzie

(About the Author)

With the nature of network news shifting and stumbling as it is, media literacy should become a priority curriculum issue for any school, especially those rushing to bring new media into their classrooms via networks .

Journalistic ethics are often
"put out to pasture"
and left to rust
in the chase
after ratings and profits.

How do our students learn to make sense of their worlds when so much of their information arrives distorted through the "looking glass" of mass media?
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Wherever we look, tabloid values prevail. We see serious news stories shoved aside in favor of more sensational items as networks battle over declining market shares. We watch "human interest" stories with soap opera qualities prevail over events and policy issues of substance. We see microphones and cameras thrust into private moments like birds of prey descending upon carrion.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

 
 
 
Decency,
discretion
respect,
balance
and context
are roadkill
- victims
of the new
entertainment
tilted media.
 
 
 
While the newsroom was once insulated from both the "ratings game" and the corporate profit center, that insulation has fallen prey to "melt down" as the networks - having lost audience to cable - fight for survival and ratings.
 
Why is media literacy so important, then?
 
Students awaken each morning to a diet of scandal, violence, tragic events and controversy. News coverage now emphasizes the most "entertaining" of stories. Startling images shoulder aside thoughtful, balanced content. The lines between Hollywood, Disney, ABC, MicroSoft, and Simon & Schuster blur as entertainment becomes news, news becomes entertainment and "life becomes the movie."
 
Neal Gabler's book, Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality, explains in some detail how sensation and entertainment have become the driving forces behind television news, as "news magazines" have grown in popularity and share of programming time . . .
 

What you have to do is give the audience a good show since presumably it is entertainment that people want. That is why television newsmagazines are so enamored of crowd-pleasing aesthetic strategems that even the network news programs wouldn't dare deploy: musical overlays on scenes of tragedy or poignance, ambush interviews, hidden cameras, the implacable lingering on an interviewee's emotional breakdown.

Page 87

 
Gabler goes on to quote Dan Rather's complaint . . .
 

They've got us putting more and more fuzz and wuzz on the air, cop-shop stuff, so as to compete not with the other news programs but with entertainment programs, including those posing as news programs, for dead bodies, mayhem and lurid takes.

Page 88

Order Life the Movie from Amazon.

 
Life the Movie
 
Being noticed by the media requires an ever increasing level of volume and outrage. Good samaritans are ignored while "shooters" grab the headlines. With their boat sinking from sight before cameras arrive, families drowning in a boating accident don't make the evening news.
 

Disasters' News Value Not Solely
Determined by Number of Deaths

by David Firestone of the New York Times

May 9, 1999

Summary: Firestone compared minimal media coverage of the Arkansas boating accident with Columbine shootings and other disasters.

"On the swiftly calculated sliding scale of death, accidents are assigned a news value based not on how many lives were lost, but on how and where they happened to die."

 

 
Cameras swing instead to capture a body falling from a school window. The shot is played over and over again for twenty four hours. The body keeps falling. And the nation's psyche is saturated with pain, suffering, grief and fear.
 

With Abundance of Confusion and Few
Facts, Nonstop Coverage

by Walter Goodman of the New York Times

April 21, 1999

Summary: Goodman describes how cable channels were virtually trapped into providing nonstop coverage with little to report.

"In the most dramatic moment, a wounded student was helped from a second story window by two officers."

"These few images were repeated and repeated and repeated. Time was also used up on all channels with lists of other schools that had known shootings in the past."

 

 
It is no longer how many people died that counts as TV News decides where to point the camera. What matters is the ratings potential of each story. What matters is the sensational shot.
 
It is no longer enough to die. One must die (and suffer) in some remarkably "newsworthy" manner - the definition of which keeps changing as the stakes are raised.
 
Robert MacNeil's novel, Breaking News, reveals the inner workings of network news teams trying to decide upon their coverage of the day's events (or nonevents). It is not a pretty picture. The executive producer of one news program reveals his obsession with ratings . . .
 
 

Let me tell you about the audience now. They all sit with remotes in their hands, especially the men. The research shows men click an average of every five seconds, women less. If we want to keep the men watching, something's got to be happening every five seconds. But not only that. The new ratings can sample the audience every few seconds. You can tell right away if interest went up or down on a particular story.

Page 191

Order Breaking News from Amazon.

A Mixed Media Culture?

Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel argue in Warp Speed: America in the Age of Mixed Media that "the classic function of journalism to sort out a true and reliable account of the day's events is being undermined." (page 5)
 
They list five characteristics of the Mixed Media Culture:
  1. A never-ending news cycle makes journalism less complete.
  2. Sources are gaining power over journalists.
  3. There are no more gatekeepers.
  4. Argument is overwhelming reporting.
  5. The "Blockbuster Mentality."

pp. 6-8

Pressures to meet changing conditions threaten to undermine traditional news values such as verification, proportion and relevance, they claim.
 

Order Warp Speed: America in the Age of Mixed Media from Amazon.

Simple Answers to Complex Questions

Schools are responsible for showing young people how to examine complex social issues in a thoughtful, deliberate manner. Every major citizenship document of the century has emphasized that responsibility.
 
Unfortunately, the way that social and political issues are now reported, calm deliberation has become increasingly difficult to achieve as there are fewer models in the adult world.
 
In the current context, we see media pressures for simple answers to complex questions. The Colorado school shooting became a national obsession as the press provided round the clock live coverage. Even before the victims were buried and memorial services were completed, some parts of the media began a frenzied hunt for blame and cause, for scapegoats and incompetents, for policy and bromide.

Even though the New York Times reported that the actual number of school shooting deaths has been falling (with the Colorado numbers included), the press created the impression that we were facing a growing crisis.

 

By the Numbers: Science Looks at
Littleton and Shrugs

by Sheryl Gay Stolberg of the New York Times

May 9, 1999

Summary: Stolberg shows how it is hard to apply science to understand cause and effect relationships in school shootings because they happen too rarely to provide much of a theoretical basis.

"But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fewer than 1 per cent of the child homicides occur in or around schools. While the number of school shootings with multiple victims - the kind that attract media attention - has risen recently, from an average of 2 to an average of 5 a year, the annual total has declined."

 

Instead of just reporting the news, the media began to shape the news in the way it spotlighted the issue and forced all kinds of decision-makers ranging from school administrators and members of Congress to prove that they were "doing something" about the crisis.

Unfortunately, many of the solutions hastily proposed by erstwhile leaders showed little knowledge of life in schools and the difficulty of predicting or managing extreme behaviors. Some of the proposals might even make matters worse by increasing the alienation and anger of students who are different.

While it may be reassuring to some if we invest more money in metal detectors and tightened school security, it is doubtful that violence will be reduced or safety increased by making schools into armed camps with fewer civil liberties and more repressive routines. It is doubtful that bans against trench coats will reduce the number of killings. It is unlikely that intense pressure on non-conforming students will make schools safer places.

The best solutions are incredibly complex. They involve the development of caring school communities that reduce alienation and minimize the prospects of rage boiling over into violence. Unfortunately, as the New York Times article pointed out, the Columbine example (with substantial social resources) demonstrates that there are no guarantees even when a school and a community has invested in such measures.

 

By the Numbers: Science Looks at
Littleton and Shrugs

by Sheryl Gay Stolberg of the New York Times

May 9, 1999

 

"There is a lot of randomness in the world," said Dr. John D. Graham, director of the Center for Risk Analysis at the Harvard University School of Public Health. "Part of understanding risk is understanding that things are not fully explainable and not reducible to zero."

Later he is also quoted as follows . . .

Graham says there is a danger to the "emotional gush" over Littleton. "It diverts energies from the big risks that adolescents face, which are binge drinking, traffic crashes, unprotected sex."

What the press failed to explore with much commitment was its own role in the development of a "copycat" phenomenon that seems to escalate the scope of violent acts. In their quest for drama and ratings, the cameras propel teenage gunmen into the national attention so they become instant celebrities. Each new gunman or team of gunmen seems quite aware of the media spotlight and quite aware of the numbers killed by others. The press shows little restraint and little capacity for understanding of its own ability to throw gasoline on the sparks of adolescent rage.

The Primary Elements of Media Literacy

The disturbing trends outlined above suggest that media literacy - the ability to review, critique and digest information created and disseminated by media of various kinds - has become an increasingly vital citizenship skill for life in a modern democratic society.
 
Literacy goes beyond skepticism. While we would hope that our students might challenge the reliability of information served to them by the media, the most important issue is understanding. Doubt standing alone is an unworthy goal. Illumination and insight are the prime outcomes. We seek to equip students with the skills to peer past the fog, the smog and the distortions. We want our young to learn how to make sense of their world.
 
Because it is beyond the scope of this article to summarize the best thinking of educators who are offering media literacy models, I will provide the following excellent resources for further study:
 
The Media Awareness Network
http://www.media-awareness.ca
A non-profit organization promoting media education. Their web site, one of the largest educational web sites in Canada, provides expansive media and web literacy resources for parents, educators and community leaders. Great lesson plans for teachers.
http://interact.uoregon.edu/MediaLit/HomePage
Based in Oregon at the University of Oregon, this project provides a wide range of excellent support materials for those who wish to infuse media literacy throughout the curriculum.
Center for Media Literacy
http://www.medialit.org/
Quoting from the site . . .

The Center for Media Literacy develops and distributes educational materials and programs that promote critical thinking about the media: from television to t-shirts, from billboards to the Internet.

NewsWatch
http://www.newswatch.org/
A Web site that critically reviews the quality, accuracy and fairness of current new coverage.
Benton Foundation Review of Violence and the Media
http://www.benton.org/News/Extra/media061799.html
Summarizes and links to recent news coverage of the violence and media issue.
 

 

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