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Posted by on Dec 18, 2007 in Media | 5 comments

Nothing Strange About Media Assumptions

In the United States, there really are two groups of people. People who know how the media works – media professionals – and people who don’t – the public.

This divide, in the information age, has created problems severe enough that they make news. Media professionals use the media tools, that they learned in journalism school and other media schools – public relations, marketing, film, etc. The general public knows nothing about these tools. They write letters to the editor, like this one by San Diegan Stuart Jewell, which go to the heart of the issue in a single sentence:

“It’s strange to me,” Jewell began, “that almost all columnists and reporters assume the talent of being able to define what ‘the people’ want to know and how urgently they want to know it.”

It’s not strange at all. Columnists and reporters don’t assume anything. They go to journalism school, where they learn the definitions of what the people want to know, and how urgently they want to know it. The study of journalism is no mystery; it is as black-and-white as mathematics. Journalism uses definitions, rules and values that are as clear-cut as the conjugation of verbs. If my college “Introduction to News Writing” students can’t define what news is by the end of the semester, and its relative levels of urgency, then they flunk the class.

This “talent” appears strange to the general public, who Stuart Jewell represents so well, because they never studied “News” in school. Not their fault; it isn’t taught, or at least hasn’t been. But it should be, right alongside English, civics and computer literacy. In this age, of all ages, the study of “News” should not be confined to university journalism studies; it should be at least introduced in elementary school, and become a core curriculum class in every American high school.

Though that goal is not around the corner, the availability of media to children in the digital world is attracting the attention of public school educators. The Alliance for a Media Literate America was founded in 2001 with the mission “to stimulate growth in media literacy education in the United States by organizing and providing national leadership, advocacy, networking, and information exchange. To become a successful student, responsible citizen, productive worker, or competent and conscientious consumer, individuals need to develop expertise with the increasingly sophisticated information and entertainment media that address us on a multi-sensory level, affecting the way we think, feel, and behave.”

One of the alliance founders, Dr. Renee Hobbs of Temple University, in March published a book, “Reading the Media: Media Literacy in High School English,” a study of high school teachers who incorporated media analysis – journalism, television, movies, and Internet media – into the English curriculum. That is a logical step, and in the right direction, though understanding the media tools might require a curriculum unto itself.

Actually, my students never flunk my class because they don’t know what news is. They may flunk because they can’t spell, can’t punctuate, and slide around grammar as if it were a greased flagpole. But they don’t flunk the news part, because of a wonderfully elegant wrinkle: they know what the news is before they ever get to my class.

I didn’t understand that until about five years ago. I had been teaching, for some years, a survey course titled “Mass Media and Society.” Doing that work, it became clear to me that the definition of “news,” and the values and categories of news, were not created by the media. They were created by early humans, tens of thousands of years before the media existed. Taken together, they constituted a “reaction package,” that humans from the earliest days to the present, carry around with them all the time. The media simply took that reaction package, starting about 3,500 years ago, and turned it into a business.

It made me curious. I wanted to test it. Back in my “Introduction to News Writing” classes, on the first day of the next semester, I said, “Before I teach you a single thing in this class, you already know what the news is.” I gave them a page of notes, several lines of details, arranged randomly like notes in a reporter’s notebook, about an event that had “happened” that day.

I said: “Imagine you are reporters for the morning paper. I want you to look at this information, then write the first sentence of the story – what this information is about – and bring it with you to our next class. I will ask you to read your sentence, and we will see if you know what the news is.”

Their rate of success was about 90 percent, and after 10 years – 20 semesters – of testing, it remains steady at about that level. They were carrying the reaction package around all along. It must mean that most – practically all – of the American population knows what the news is. It must mean that Stuart Jewell knows what the news is. So what is it, about what columnists and reporters do, that seems strange to him?

It brings us back to the beginning: education. A free press is vital to the survival of a democracy, so vital that it predates the Constitution. Very interesting to realize that the Constitution did not create press freedom. The First Amendment states, in part: “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press.” The key word is “abridging,” which means to reduce in scope, or diminish. That means the framers understood, in the infant democracy after the Revolution, that freedom of the press already existed.

The First Amendment guarantees the press almost absolute power to do its job. The press assumed, and certainly now maintains, a huge presence in the lives of Americans. But nowhere in American history was education provided to citizens about how the huge presence worked, or went about its work. Now we have evidence, more than 200 years later, of citizens to whom this work, of columnists and reporters, seems “strange.” I remember that kind of strangeness very well, in the ninth grade, leafing through an algebra book that had just been issued to me and thinking, “I’ll never learn this stuff.” But I did, and I was allowed to move on toward graduation.

What is strange to me is that if algebra is required for high school graduation in the United States of America, then media tools – you could call it “media algebra,” or even, “the media code” – sure as hell should be, too. This knowledge is vital to a basic understanding, and a basic acceptance, of how this enormously powerful, beyond abridging, press, the mainstream media, does its job.

There is something else the public needs to understand. The media originally turned the human “reaction package” into a business to keep people informed. But that same reaction package makes people vulnerable to manipulation. Over time, the media, and groups (entertainment, marketing, political, terrorists) who are expert in using media, learned and developed extremely sophisticated ways to use the package to manipulate public reactions. That is a second, and also enormously powerful, function of the media, and a powerful second reason for public media education.

When people learn to use the media tools in reading the media, they become more informed consumers, whether the product is news, entertainment or persuasion. Informed consumers have the best chance to make choices they will feel good about. When the media starts to realize that the consumers know what is going on, it will move the media-public relationship toward a more honest balance of power. To change the media, change the audience. The goal of my work is to give you the knowledge to read the media like a book, just as the media has always read you.

Cross-posted to my blog.

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