September 12, 2006

When a Channel One News show comes on a classroom TV set, students and teachers should be asking a few questions.

Media literacy is about better understanding the media messages that come at us so fast that they usually escape critical thinking.

It is ironic that the one TV show that needs to be analyzed the most, is analyzed the least. Students are compelled in some schools to watch Channel One and in other schools they are forced to watch. Teachers are often not trained to help students understand the powerful commercial messages on the show, and even if they were trained, they don’t have the time to discuss what was seen by the students.

Teachers and students can learn to do a little media literacy "on the fly" simply by asking a few questions as watch the show.

First, "Why am I watching this TV show?"

Is this part of the curriculum? No, it is not. You know that because it is often too silly and frivolous to be something like a lesson from a textbook. Another clue that it isn’t "instructional" is it is shown in homeroom when people are talking and doing other things and the show might not be finished before the period ends. There must be a reason it comes on each day or a few days a week. There must be a contract signed by someone. This should get everyone thinking about the corporation behind this TV show.

Who created this media message? Who is Channel One? Are they owned by another company? Is it a for-profit business or nonprofit? You have a clue that it is for-profit because there are commercials, but there are a lot of public service announcements that are not selling a product. This may indicate they are a nonprofit.

The answer to this is, of course, Channel One is a for-profit company owned by PRIMEDIA a magazine company. Why would a for-profit air public service announcements?

This is the type of thinking that can help students and teachers be better consumers of media.

Another question to ask about any media is, "Who is the target audience?" That one is easy. Students. If a student wasn’t in school watching Channel One and saw it on their home TV (they can’t), what text, images and sounds would suggest the target audience?

Notice Channel One’s use of music. The anchors look like they are in their 20’s. How do they talk? Do they use language to make themselves more acceptable to teens and preteens?

When watching a Channel One commercial, what is the text or literal meaning of the message? An Acuvue contact lens commercial shows a young girl upset about being in a school play. She wears glasses and says she rather be "blind" than go on stage wearing her glasses. Her friend tells her about Acuvue and she gets them and the commercial ends with her dancing without glasses in front of the audience. She is happy.

That is the text of the message. A girl worries about appearing on stage wearing glasses. She buys contacts and is happy.

What is the subtext or the unstated or hidden meaning of the message? In this case, it is rather brutal: if you wear glasses you are ugly. Your friends will laugh at you and you won’t be liked. Contact lens won’t help you. ACUVUE CONTACT LENS will. You have a choice – wear glasses and be ugly or buy ACUVUE CONTACT LENS.

What tools of persuasion are used? There are many. Obligation’s good friends at the New Mexico Media Literacy Project have a very complete list of techniques that help persuade and inform consumers of media. Some of the techniques one sees on Channel One are fear, hyperbole, humor, repetition, testimonials, bandwagon, bribery, and the use of beautiful people.

What healthy messages and unhealthy messages are being communicated on the show or on a particular commercial? Channel One has a segment called One Step To A Better Me and yet they have advertisements for Hubba Bubble bubble gum, Gatorade and high-fat Subway sandwiches.

Here is a clip from Channel One where the news anchor asks students if they have a "drinking problem." On the surface this is a caring anchor who wants to help any student who has a problem with alcohol. The subtext of the clip may expose the unintended consequence of normalizing "regular" drinking by teens and preteens. Is the anchor saying there is teen and preteen drinking that is NOT a problem? By applying critical thinking to Channel One’s content, students and teachers can more fully appreciate its powerful influence.

And the last question to ask about a Channel One news story or commercial is, "What are they NOT telling me?"

A Gatorade commercial doesn’t mention the value of drinking water. Why should it? They want to sell more Gatorade. Commercials only present the features and benefits of the thing they are trying to sell. Students need to be reminded of this frequently.

News stories never tell the whole story. There isn’t time to tell the "whole story" even if it could be told. Sometimes there is time to include something but the producers leave it out. It helps to be able to see a news report over and over again. This way the front part of the brain can start analyzing what is and is not being told. Then sometimes, a viewer may not have enough information to know that an important part of a story is being left out.

Take for example this Channel One story about lobbyist Jack Abramoff: video. You could watch that all day long and not know what was missing. Abramoff was Channel One’s main DC lobbyist for five years. He was invaluable to Channel One and their parent company PRIMEDIA. Would it have been embarrassing for Channel One’s anchor to have mentioned that? Is the reporting of news affected by corporate concerns for good public relations? Notice Channel One’s anchor mentions Abramoff’s "close ties" to Rep. Tom DeLay. Was this convicted felon’s close ties to Channel One irreverent to the story?

Many think that being media literate will take the fun out of watching television. It doesn’t. What it does do is make one a more ACTIVE viewer. Passively watching a bubble gum or Cingular commercial is what the advertiser wants. They don’t want you to "strain your brain." By thinking a little bit more about what we see, we all can become more effective consumers of media, even the media that one is forced to view.