Media Minds

It’s time for me to call it a summer and head back to school. As my thoughts turn to my classroom, I’m humbled by the importance of the work we teachers do. Yet, I’m also proud of the magic that often happens there. It warms the soul to see that young people are better equipped intellectually and better citizens because they have spent some time with us. Of course, it’d better work like that, or we’re not doing our job.

When I consider preparing students for the world outside of school, there’s one course, in particular, that I believe all students should be exposed to: a media literacy course. Given the proliferation and manipulation of media messages in today’s culture, every young person should be well-girded to withstand the onslaught.

I used to be an advertising executive. I enjoyed the work overall, but I can’t recall ever saying I was proud of it. I’m now a high school teacher, I teach a course in media literacy, and I’m proud daily. I have the opportunity to watch my students develop into critical consumers of media messages, well on their way to becoming savvy citizens. It starts with an anatomical inversion of sorts, encouraging them to use their heads rather than their hearts or guts – the exact opposite of what we tried to do in advertising, concealing our iron-fisted capitalistic coercion deep within the “velvet glove” of emotional appeal.

We begin each class by barking out our class cheer, “Show Me the Money,” that catch phrase from the film, Jerry Maguire. It reminds us, first and foremost, that money drives the media machinery, but it also sets the analytical tenor for the course. We don’t employ avoidance strategies; we borrow directly from the media – in this case, an entertainment medium – in order to critique the media. Following this daily ritual, we employ yet another. Students voluntarily report the “headline news” of the day. This practice encourages them to know their world and to develop their antennae, those essential accoutrements for being good citizens who can help resuscitate an ailing democracy. In reporting the news, we are afforded another opportunity to scrutinize the message and those who deliver it. We check to see how the report of earthquake casualties on day three has been revised from day one. Students challenge each others’ sources, confidently pitting the information gleaned because Dad tuned in to National Public Radio against that of the local morning drive DJ running through his take on the police blotter.

Then we get into the heart of it all, cutting an intellectual swath through the ever-present media sizzle in order to get to the steak. We use a formula to zero-in on elements that influence media messages:


Encapsulated here is the melding of economics and psychology present in all media messages, and it provides the impetus for asking the tough questions. Who’s sending the message? What are they trying to say? Who’s paying for it? What space and time constraints limit the message? Who owns the media concern sending the message? Isn’t everybody trying to profit? These critical questions help us cover some vast terrain, from the Pavlovian conditioning of celebrity endorsements to the “If it bleeds, it leads” surrender of local news programming. From Disney’s manipulation of ABC’s 20/20 to selling presidents like bars of soap. We even examine my own personal 15 seconds of fame on MTV, where a simple sound byte portion of an interview response I gave aired while my more thoughtful, yet more lengthy, comments found themselves on the cutting room floor.

Through such exploration, we come to understand that every media message is filtered and manipulated. This raises more than my students’ eyebrows; it raises their awareness. It makes me feel good, but it makes them feel better. You see, teenagers are a lot like the media. They use sizzle to distract you from the steak. They don’t want us to know how powerless they feel against the constant pelting of propaganda and piffle. Of course, anyone inculcated in a media culture that promotes feelings over thought would feel powerless. Adolescents, for whom attempts to control their world are often tenuous at best, feel this tenfold. They have no vote, no real status. They probably have a say in channel selection if Dad doesn’t preempt them (or if that struggle is long since over and there’s a TV in the teen’s room). And they certainly have the power to spend those discretionary dollars with indiscretion. But they realize that that is not real power. They are thrilled when finally given a chance to control the media rather than to be controlled by it.

It’s a joy to witness their newfound critical abilities. Monday mornings are especially enjoyable, for that’s when they scoff at all of the product placements they saw at the movies over the weekend. They’re not at the point yet where they’ll stand up and shout “product placement” as the actor on screen slugs down a Pepsi, but they’re close. They watch movie trailers more closely to see if the critic who claims “Breathtaking” actually has his name mentioned or at least shown in a discernible type size. They’ve figured out that if the movie promoters didn’t tell us who said it was “Breathtaking,” then they probably don’t want us to know (and it’s a safe bet that it wasn’t Roger Ebert).

In the information age or “knowledge economy,” my students will still be on the receiving end of a media barrage. And while I remain concerned for their well-being, it’s comforting to know that they’re a bit better equipped to handle it, and that I played a small role in developing their armor. I’ll take that as my 15 minutes of fame any day.