National Program Helps Youth Become More Media Savvy
By Keith Martin, Assistant Editor

Recent statistics show that young people spend more hours watching television every week than they do in the classroom. With this in mind, there is an increasing push towards media literacy so that youth have a better understanding of how television works and the messages they are being exposed to. One program, Creating Critical Viewers, aims to do just that and is being used in nearly 10,000 schools across the country.

"The goal of [Creating Critical Viewers] is for youth to become critical users of media," says Hubert Jessup, National Coordinator for the program. "By critical, I don't mean anti-media, but instead smart - to find opportunities to better understand media and how it influences them."

The program, launched nearly a decade ago, was created by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (NATAS) as a media literacy tool for the nation's school-aged children. The Creating Critical Viewers curriculum is available free of charge from NATAS for educators to incorporate in the classroom and encourage students to take a closer look at what they are watching at home and why.

Jessup said one reason the program focuses on this population is because young people are some of the biggest consumers of media.

"[Young people] are also the most influenced because of the power of media and, by virtue of their age, are the most impressionable," he says. "Therefore, we are trying to create an educational environment for them to be more skeptical about what they are seeing. Also, media, if used well, has a great advantage for them. They can learn to separate the valuable from the less valuable, by being more critical viewers. They can use it in a positive, more responsible way."

Students are not the only ones finding value in watching television in the classroom and as homework. The curriculum is also supported by the National Department of Education and many state departments as a valuable way to learn medial literacy. While this support is a great boost for the concept, Jessup said not all teachers are easily convinced.

"Some educators think students should not pay attention to media at all and it is not the educator's [role] to teach using media positively," he said. "Some view media as the enemy of what school aims to do, interfering with their goals. Because [young adults] are spending too much time with media, there is some dispute [over the value of media literacy]."

Jessup contends, however, that the program reaches out to young people early so that they grow into older, savvier critics of media and pass what they have learned onto their children.

Television Under the Microscope

Developed in 1992 by Jerome and Dorothy Singer of Yale University, the curriculum uses a young person's hours of television exposure as a learning tool, to make them more intelligent, critical consumers. By looking at issues from identifying illusion and reality to who creates the television programs they watch, the curriculum aims to "teach television" to young adults through analysis and discussion.

For example, the chapter of the curriculum that deals with stereotyping counts among its objectives: developing the ability to identify stereotypes on TV, understanding that TV influences our feelings about and knowledge of ourselves and our relationships with others as well as the comparing and contrasting the traits of TV characters with those from literature, films and people students know.

Providing information on the history of television's portrayal of different races, sexes and ages through characters in shows, the curriculum then suggests ideas for presentations and discussions. Included in these suggestions are asking students if they can recall when a character in a television program was faced with issues of prejudice and how it was handled, as well as looking at Saturday morning cartoons and the impressions children get about personality traits of those presented.

Dissecting and Discussing Television Programming

In an effort to attract national attention to media literacy, NATAS designated March 21st as "Creating Critical Viewers Day." As part of the celebration, schools using the curriculum from across the nation participated in a number of activities. In Cleveland, local high school students attended a "How the News Happens" session at a television station. News directors, anchors and editors showed the students how the nightly news is produced and the how the process of selecting stories works. In New York, middle and high school students examined the positive and negative influences television has on their lives and created websites expressing their thoughts.

In Boston, local television stations were partnered with an individual school so that students could analyze their programming and provide feedback. Young people from middle and high school were asked to identify the 10 best things about the programming as well as 10 improvements the station can make. The students then traveled to the station to share their thoughts with decision-makers, giving them the opportunity to pose specific questions and concerns to those in charge.

"There's the experience of meeting each other and answering questions and challenges from the students, so it is a real learning experience for the staff [of the television station]," says Carol Wintle, the Media Literacy Program Coordinator for the New England chapter of NATAS. "Young people can be strong in their viewpoints."

Wintle recalls such a session a year ago when students asked why their assigned station had very few teen programs on the air. The station executives answered that teenagers were not within their demographic, to which the students expressed their point of view about the value of teen audiences. From the meeting, the station fostered a relationship with the school and went back to them later to get their input on future programming.

"Students are becoming more critical thinkers," adds Wintle. "Many have told us that they will never watch television the same way after participating in the program. Instead of being passive, they have a whole other level of awareness. They begin to understand the people and the economics behind what they watch. They begin to see television as a business and the decisions made around issues of profitability."

Through the curriculum, Wintle has noticed that, among other things, students are truly amazed at how much television they watch and older students show concern for their younger peers.

"Older kids are really concerned about what younger kids are seeing on television, especially the times that shows with violence and sexuality are on," she said. "They have addressed topics such as why these shows are on [in early evening hours] when younger kids are watching as well as why none of these shows seem to deal with consequences and responsibilities [of actions]."


Hubert Jessup, National Coordinator, Creating Critical Viewers, (800) 508-2080

Carol Wintle, Coordinator, Media Literacy Program, New England chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, (617) 787-6576

To receive a free copy of the "Creating Critical Viewers" curriculum, contact your local NATAS chapter.
159 Burgin Parkway | Quincy, MA 02169
617-471-4445 | Fax 617-770-3339