BOB GARFIELD: The Peterson's Guide to Summer Opportunities lists the following programs available to curious students: archeology, mountain climbing, foreign and public affairs, caring for chimpanzees, medicinal plants of Kenya, the carnivores of Madagascar and field hockey. But what about media literacy? Don't worry. A summer came in Fairfield, Connecticut called Media Mania has just ended its two week program. OTM's producer at large Mike Pesca was there.
MIKE PESCA: As summer approached you could imagine the parents of the middle school students enrolled in Media Mania pleading--: will you get out of the house and watch some TV already?! But the students at Media Mania are doing more than watching TV, though they are doing that. They're also making TV.
MAN: Imagine this is the camera on, on its secured tripod, right?
MAN: Now what happens is this....
MIKE PESCA: According to Diane Samples who runs the program, hands-on time with video equipment is the main draw, and the best way to really learn how the media work.
MAN: ...the camera stays with the, with the floor. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
CHILD: So, so while it's going like this, it's going -- the camera is-- staying.
CHILD: I get it.
MIKE PESCA: At Media Mania camp there are lessons on how teen magazines convince girls to diet, how hamburgers in fast food commercials are propped up with toothpicks and all the meat pushed to the front, and how computers can manipulate images so that what you see isn't always what you get. Samples is looking to spread the gospel across the land.
DIANE SAMPLES: Once they get through their video project --and they have had to decide the camera angle, the lighting, how long the shot is, what graphics are going to go along with it -- once they've had to make all those decisions --then they start to get the notion that everything that they watch there's these invisible people somewhere and they begin to understand how much power those people have.
MIKE PESCA: In Canada every provincial government mandates media literacy courses, and advertising aimed at children is closely regulated. A lot of the commercials on American TV would be banned in Canada. As a result, Canadian advertisers are forced to regard children as something more than prey.
DIANE SAMPLES: My perspective is that media literacy is so important that it is something that should be mass-marketed!
MIKE PESCA: Max Valiquette advises marketers through his Toronto-based firm Youthography.
MAX VALIQUETTE: It's helping to give rise to maybe a more empowered young person, a young person who understands business a little bit more who's willing to look at advertising, look at current culture, looking at marketing and think about it in a more formal fashion. We've been hearing young people say "oh, you know I don't think that brand is targeted to me." I mean it's amazing when you hear a young person talk in a language like that cause it means they're really starting to get and understand marketing.
MIKE PESCA: And they probably use impact as a verb. But more importantly there's a whole new generation of Canadians that rejects a brand like Nike despite the slick commercials and to a lesser extent quality footwear. Valiquette says that Nike's association with sweatshops hurt the company's image among teens steeped in media literacy.
MAX VALIQUETTE: I think that what it means is that you've got to be more authentic. I think that what it means is that you have to have made sure to actually speak to young people. I think it is making it easier to reject certain brands out of hand.
MIKE PESCA: Back in the classroom in Connecticut Diane Samples teaches the Media Mania campers about the pernicious effects of tobacco advertising.
DIANE SAMPLES: The tobacco company thought: men won't smoke a cigarette that's marketed only to women, but women will smoke a cigarette that's marketed to men, so they thought....
MIKE PESCA: Speaking of media manipulation, this isn't an actual lesson. It's a re-staging of the previous day's lesson for the benefit of a U.S. News & World Report photographer who wants to shoot in good light. [CAMERA CLICKING SOUNDS] That's his camera you hear.
DIANE SAMPLES: Okay, this is Virginia Slims. And Michaela, what do you...?
MIKE PESCA: If nothing else, Samples is able to draw upon her background in corporate PR to get press attention for the program. She also has the kids' attention.
MAN: Congratulations. How do you feel?
TOM HANKS AS FORREST GUMP: I got a day. [LAUGHTER]
MIKE PESCA: Clips from Forrest Gump and a display of the Time Magazine cover that darkened O.J.'s mug shot serve as examples in a lesson on digitally altered images. It seems this group of mini-McLuhans may be learning their lesson too well. I asked a group how many photos in, say, the New York Times were digitally altered. The lowest estimate I got was half. "Half of all photographs in the New York Times were faked!" A week after the program ended I called camper Michaela Walsh and asked her again about the prevalence of digitally altered photographs.
MICHAELA WALSH: Well I think it goes on a lot, because they can change basically anything with computers and technology, so I think most pictures that we look at in magazines or newspapers are digitally changed.
MIKE PESCA: The camp taught that a newspaper can alter photographs. It didn't teach that doing so would violate the standards and practices of most legitimate news organizations. That's the difference between what you get from an abbreviated summer program and a year long class. But getting media literacy as part of the standard curricula of schools may be a tall order. Plain old literacy is elusive enough. Also, Canada, Australia and the other countries where media literacy is taught have far different political cultures. Youthography president Max Valiquette.
MAX VALIQUETTE: Our institutions and our, our government tends to be more, more to the left than, than institutions and government in the States, and that's a huge difference for us. It's not in the kids who are consuming this stuff; it's in the adults who are determining how this is going to happen.
MIKE PESCA: So -- will media literacy like the metric system and professional soccer become one of those nearly universal ideas that never really gets off the ground in America? Actually the most outspoken American politician on all things media, Connecticut senator Joseph Lieberman, supports media literacy. He even supports putting some money behind it. Lieberman communication director Dan Gerstein.
DAN GERSTEIN: At this point we are looking at some possibilities for getting some funding from the entertainment industry to establish some pilot programs in different parts of the country, you know, hopefully expand funding for it both through public education institutions but also through private sources.
MIKE PESCA: Teaching media literacy in schools gets the endorsement of camper Michaela Walsh.
MICHAELA WALSH: I think in my opinion that what we learned at camp is really important because it tells us, like, what they're trying to do and how they're trying to sell us.
MIKE PESCA: Can you imagine a day when smoking in the bathroom won't get you suspended -- it will get you an F for naivete? When wearing name brands sneakers is the source of school yard taunts? How about themeless proms to avoid charges of branding? Sound farfetched? That's because changing the content of what children learn in school is no easier than changing what they learned everywhere else. For On the Media, I'm Mike Pesca. [THEME MUSIC UP AND UNDER] 58:00
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Janeen Price and Katya Rogers; engineered by Irene Trudel and edited-- by Brooke. We had help from Sean Landis, Andy Lanset and John Keefe.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Mike Pesca is our producer at large; Arun Rath our senior producer, and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and get free transcripts at onthemedia.org and e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is On the Media from National Public Radio. [THEME MUSIC TAG UP AND UNDER] I'm Brooke Gladstone.