The Children Are Watching: How the Media Teach About Diversity
Carlos E. Cortés
Teachers College Press. 224 Pages. $22.95 pb.; $52 hc.
American children under the age of 18 are subject to a “racial generation gap” because they tend to be more racially diverse than their elders, according to William H. Frey, a University of Michigan demographer quoted recently in The New York Times Magazine. These youngest Americans are not only less likely than adults to be white, but they are twice as likely to identify themselves as being of more than one race, the same article noted.

Are journalists and other media “teachers” presenting that reality in a way that helps young people and their parents manage differences? Or are they falling prey to stereotypes and scenarios that fail to do justice to America’s expanding diversity? Carlos Cortés, a multicultural teaching specialist and professor emeritus of history at the University of California, Riverside, offers ideas about how media can affect this generational divide.

Cortés’s central idea is that in the classroom teachers should pay more attention to popular media—to news accounts, rap songs, films, television shows, and Internet Web sites—treating them as “media textbooks.” Media messages often contradict or overwhelm what students are being taught in school about multicultural America, he contends, so teachers cannot afford to ignore these competing outside-the-classroom lessons. In addition to using media content more effectively in the classroom, Cortés sugggests scholars of media need to join together with education scholars to develop a more effective classroom approach to diversity issues.

Cortés’s call for schools to use popular media as a resource and context for teaching certainly makes sense. What is even more urgently needed, however, is for teachers to provide students with sophisticated media analysis tools as they receive these media messages. For example, students should learn to identify and value serious journalism as different from advertising, entertainment and propaganda, all of which might be more dazzling but less accurate than a professional account that attempts to take in all sides and verify facts. Informed news consumers are needed for real journalism to survive in a world of infotainment, embedded advertising, and “reality” television.

If teachers need a guide for what journalism is supposed to be, they can pick up another new book, “The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect,” by former Nieman Curator Bill Kovach and former media critic Tom Rosenstiel. They offer clear definitions that can be used to evaluate newscasts, television reports, Internet bulletins, and other forms of journalism. While Cortés is willing to let media be media and simply use whatever good or bad content comes out as a part of his diversity curriculum, Kovach and Rosenstiel refuse to let the media purveyors off the hook so easily.

The need for “media literacy” training in schools, to build support for good journalism and wariness about using entertainment in place of verified facts, is underscored by a recent study from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. The study, by Thomas Patterson, confirms the bad news that young Americans are “particularly uninterested” in news, much more so than their parents were at the same age.

This audience drift is happening partly because American political issues seem unimportant compared to the Vietnam War, civil rights, the cold war, and Watergate, and partly because cable television and the Internet have offered so many entertaining distractions. But Patterson also blames the journalists themselves for offering more soft news of accidents and crime, rather than hard news of major issues and events affecting the community and the nation. The soft news isn’t entertaining enough to compete with real entertainment, and the hard news is too “nasty,” the study finds. As a result, young adults in Generation Y aren’t likely to develop their parents’ habit of reading newspapers or watching TV news, Patterson concludes.

So what can be done to counter these trends and develop the demand side for journalism that informs citizens and enables them to participate in shaping their community’s future? Some news organizations have been trying for years to seed America’s classrooms by offering free newspapers, videos and lesson plans. Time magazine’s excellent student edition quizzes students not only about the news they have read but also asks them to identify which statements in the article were “facts” and which were “opinions.” This is a start.

A more systematic media analysis curriculum is increasingly necessary as the pressure builds on journalists to erase boundaries among news, entertainment and advertising. “We are facing the possibility that independent news will be replaced by self-interested commercialism posing as news. If that occurs, we will lose the press as an independent institution, free to monitor the other powerful forces and institutions of society,” Kovach and Rosenstiel write. One has only to look at Bosnia or Rwanda and the impact of “news” propaganda there on recent violent ethnic conflict to see what happens when independent media are compromised by propaganda. To counteract this, one needs informed news consumers who can tell the difference, particularly in confronting emotional issues involving diversity.

Cortés suggests that teachers or parents start by making a “media watching diary” to map messages on such topics as race, gender roles, or religious differences. It heightens awareness of those messages and is a useful way to get a discussion started with students. Quoting dozens of media studies, Cortés also observes that the media’s impact is influenced by:

  • The previous attitude of the learner: If a news or entertainment show’s message about an ethnic group, a culture, a religion or some other diversity issue coincides with the media consumer’s previous beliefs, those beliefs will be reinforced. But if the media message counters that person’s preconceived notions, the media message “will tend to be consciously or unconsciously rejected, modified or otherwise muted.”
  • The remoteness or familiarity of the subject: Cortés offers scholarly affirmation of what journalists dub “the Afghanistan effect”—The less the media consumer knows in advance about the subject, the more influential the media message becomes.
  • Competing messages on the same subject from teachers, parents and peers: Content analysis of media might not reflect its true educational impact. “While scholarship has demonstrated that media contribute to (not determine) multicultural learning, the precise assessment of that influence remains a perplexing scholarly challenge,” Cortés writes. “One scholar’s content analysis does not necessarily mirror another consumer’s learning from that same content.”

Cortés concludes that the news and entertainment media’s impact is often cumulative and includes powerful “sleeper” factors that appear in the background, rather than the main body, of the media presentation. The “Willie Horton” political ad during the 1988 presidential race is perhaps the most famous example of this effect. Indeed, Cortés asserts that background information and images may stick more in consumers’ minds than the more obvious images which are designed to attract their conscious attention.

Alas, Cortés’s book is too flawed to serve as a media analysis textbook. Too many of his tripartite distinctions appear to be academic devices, rather than useful insights. Instead of building arguments by walking through the actual academic research findings, he offers personal anecdotes and assertions, followed only by academic citations of previously published studies. The job still remains open for someone to frame the right questions, argue the main points, and assemble the best advice for journalists, teachers and others who are involved with these deliberate—or unwitting—“media textbooks” describing our multicultural world. As Patterson and others keep reminding us, the shrinking audience for fact-based public affairs journalism—and our increasingly diverse citizenry—make this job an urgent one.

Ellen Hume is a journalist, teacher and former executive director of The PBS Democracy Project.

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