|The Wall Street Journal
December 17, 1999
`Media Literacy' Sparks a New Debate Over Commercialism in Schools
By Daniel Golder
BILLERICA, Mass. -- When the Locke Middle School agreed to air the advertising-sponsored Channel One newscast in return for 30 free TV sets and a satellite dish back in 1993, many parents were outraged that their kids were forced to watch commercials in the classroom.
To calm them, the school mandated a "media literacy" component in its sixth-grade English classes, in part to help students figure out when advertising and other mass-media messages don't tell the truth.
Now Locke and the 12,000 other schools that air the daily Channel One broadcast are about to receive a free media-literacy curriculum that deals with such thorny issues. The benefactor? None other than Channel One, one of several companies that are now offering their own version of media truths to schools. Such efforts have sparked a new debate about educational commercialism that echoes the fight over Channel One's original introduction to schools a decade ago. Critics liken companies such as Channel One teaching media literacy to beer companies promoting safe drinking.
"This is nothing less than a battle to define what media literacy is, and who should be teaching it," says Andrew Hagelshaw, senior programming director of the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education in Oakland, Calif. "It's Channel One trying to co-opt media literacy."
"Kids are bombarded with 400,000 media images a year," says Paul Folkemer, vice president for education at Channel One, a unit of Primedia Inc.. "It seemed appropriate, when I started to talk about it in the company, to share some strategies with teachers to make kids smarter consumers."
In recent years, a number of Internet companies have followed Channel One's model: providing free goods or services in return for students' eyeballs. "Our position is that there's always been advertising and there always will be advertising," says James O'Halloran, vice president of marketing for one such company, N2H2 Inc. of Seattle. "The answer is for children to become wiser." The market-share leader in Internet filters that block out objectionable sites for schools, N2H2 offers its system to school districts free of charge as long as they accept ads on its portal and on the page that gives notice that access to a site has been denied. Since the price otherwise is $4,000, most schools that use N2H2 prefer the ads -- even though some students say they find them distracting.
"I really don't like having the ads there," says seventh-grader James Ghiloni, as he researches a report on soil erosion in the computer lab in South Middle School in Braintree, Mass. "It gets annoying. If you try and print, it prints the ad right in the middle."
N2H2, which went public in July, is developing its own media-literacy curriculum with the Washington state parent-teacher organization. CEO Peter Nickerson says the company plans to fund similar ventures nationally with other PTOs scrambling for media-literacy materials.
The clamor is growing as educators see a need to help students decipher rapidly proliferating media, including cable TV and the Internet. Educational guidelines in 48 states call for some form of media education, usually in English, social studies or health class. Materials include understanding how TV news is edited and produced, reading labels on food packages and studying whether Internet information sources are reliable.
At Locke, in Billerica, students are also told to keep a close eye on disclaimers such as "batteries not included" or "supplies may be limited." Most of the programs are informal, so media companies are developing materials themselves. In 1995, Discovery Communications Inc., parent company of the Discovery Channel and the Learning Channel, distributed a free curriculum to schools on understanding nonfiction television, in the hope of inducing local cable systems to carry the channels.
Billerica, a blue-collar suburb of Boston, has been a leader in the field, largely because it wanted to placate parents over Channel One. School administrators joined a nearby college in sponsoring a master's degree program in media literacy for teachers, and successfully pressed Massachusetts to include the field in K-12 guidelines and statewide testing. Teachers at the Locke School say they have accumulated so much media literacy material that they don't need Channel One's curriculum; each teacher has the option to use it or not.
Roger Goldsmith, a 53-year-old language arts teacher at the school, already discusses such issues with his sixth-grade class: "How many of you are wearing clothing that advertises a product?"
Ten hands shoot up. "You're walking billboards," the teacher says, and turns to one girl who is wearing a familiar logo. "Renee, how much is Nike paying you to wear that shirt?" he asks.
Renee blushes. "Nothing," she says.
"Nothing!" Mr. Goldsmith exclaims.
Behind his mock amazement is a larger point: From scoreboards with Coca Cola logos to ads on book covers, marketers are increasingly targeting kids and many schools are willing partners.
Over the past year, for example, 220 schools have each bought $90,000 worth of high-tech equipment from Zapme! Corp., of San Ramon, Calif. Six thousand more schools are on a waiting list. Zapme, which went public in October, offers 15 multimedia computers, a network server, a laser printer, software, maintenance and support, all free of charge. But under the contract, the computers, which flash ads continuously on the bottom left-hand corner of the screen, must be used four hours a day. And schools must provide the ages, genders and school ZIP Codes of student users so sponsors can effectively target their ads.
Such aggressive marketing is causing a backlash, particularly in California. In June, the San Francisco school board banned exclusive contracts with beverage and snack companies, and textbooks that mention brand names. The state followed in September by banning electronic advertising in classrooms without a public hearing, and allowing parents to opt out of having their children exposed to commercials. Rep. George Miller (D., Calif.) has introduced a bill in Congress requiring parental consent before companies collect market research information in schools.
Alarmed about the hits they are taking, the companies are looking for a way to change perceptions. In June, participants at the National Media Education Conference in St. Paul, Minn., were surprised to find that Channel One was one of the gathering's "silver sponsors." The network's $25,000 contribution almost provoked a boycott of the conference by Canadian educators who oppose a Channel One clone in that country -- and stirred debates at conference workshops. "I think it's selling out to Channel One," says John Pungente, president of the Canadian Association of Media Education Organizations.
Adding to the furor, Channel One's contribution was solicited by a media literacy activist with whom it had a financial relationship. Renee Hobbs was then president of the Partnership for Media Education, the nonprofit group that organized the conference. She was, and remains, a consultant to Channel One, for which she is developing the media literacy curriculum. Ms. Hobbs, who declines to disclose how much she is paid by Channel One, says her dual role was "not too uncomfortable." She believes that Channel One's involvement benefits the media literacy movement, because it has access to 40% of the nation's secondary school teachers.
"We knew we risked alienating the critics on the left for whom Channel One is the lightning rod for anticapitalism in the classroom," says Ms. Hobbs, an associate professor of communications at Babson College, outside Boston. "If we're trying to build a national movement, and we only let people into the club who agree with one particular formulation, we're going to be a very small club."
The Channel One curriculum, which will be distributed in February, includes a 30-minute video for teachers and suggested classroom activities. Teachers can use it or not, as they choose. Part is devoted to studying news, part to studying advertising.
The latter segment, according to a draft provided by Ms. Hobbs, examines the economics of Channel One as well as the pros and cons of advertising. Advantages cited include keeping mass media inexpensive, helping consumers make choices and helping the economy grow. The course also notes that "advertising is a type of free speech that is protected by the Constitution" and "does not force people to buy things."
Disadvantages of advertising, according to the video, include: "encourages people to buy things they don't really need," "encourages people to make poor choices about how to spend money" and "is intrusive and interrupts the experience of appreciating media."
Back at the Locke School, Mr. Goldsmith is asking his third-period students if they remember the ads on the Channel One newscast this morning. They do: One was for skin cream, another for Donkey Kong 64, a video game, and a third was an anti-smoking public service announcement.
"Why weren't there any ads for new cars?" he asks. "Or chicken dinners?" "Because we don't buy that stuff," a boy answers. "Kids like video games." Mr. Goldsmith nods at a lesson learned: "You are what we call a target audience."
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