Kids Talk Back to the News

Curator's Note

Children in the upper elementary grades are beginning to feel like stakeholders in the world and want explanations for the problems and crises that are part of daily life. This video clip serves as a letter-to-the-editor that was designed to cultivate the spirit of talking back to the media. For me, this clip invites an exploration of how practices of "critical" media literacy may or may not activate genuine critical thinking.

CONTEXT. During the summer of 2009, these children were studying the news media as part of the Powerful Voices for Kids program. Media literacy instructor Aggie Ebrahimi Bazzaz worked with a group of preadolescent children over the course of four weeks, beginning with informal conversation, where children articulated their frustration with exploitative and sensationalistic stories about violence. Students then worked collaboratively to compose a letter to local television news organizations, asking broadcasters to make changes in their representation of social reality.

QUESTIONS. As you watch the video, consider:

  1. What did children learn from completing this activity? What knowledge and skills were gained?
  2. These children want "good news" instead of "bad news." They expressed their opinions. Should these children have learned about the economic, political, historical and social reasons why local TV news is structured as it is? Why or why not?
  3. The teacher made a great effort to deliver the children's message to local TV news producers. Is such an effort an essential feature of the learning experience? How was the message likely to be understood by media professionals?

When it comes to the intentional design of teaching and learning environments, educators must consider the important distinctions between (1) the expression of critical opinions, (2) the concept of "voice," and (3) the practice of critical thinking. Those who advocate for critical media literacy may inadvertently conflate these perspectives in the context of positioning citizens as victimized by mainstream media, stereotypes, or "if-it-bleeds-it-leads" style TV news. If we want to help children and young people deepen their understanding of how symbols are used to maintain, examine or challenge the status quo, we can't neglect the practice of critical thinking which gives learners the transferable skills needed to thrive in today's complex media ecosystem.


Renee raises a question about how educators can distinguish between critical opinion, voice, and critical thinking. To me, the video example expresses several instances of critical thinking, as students notice: * the news has no problem revealing what the students consider "private information" about their own community members (even as it protects the "private information" about members of other communities). * The news focuses primarily on the negative aspects of the students' youthful communities (an observation supported in a study by the Youth Media Council that found that there are 10 stories of youth crime for every 1 story of youth and poverty). * There are stories that remain untold but that are relevant for the students' communities, such as those on nutrition and on the heroes recognized as such within their communities (and Obama is one of the better-known of those heroes). * News can be scary, particularly because it's directed to adults and isn't addressed to the young people who may have less context and might need to be reminded to ask an adult for a contextual framework to help them understand it. *Finally the students recognize that news could play a role in making sure the streets in their community are well-maintained. These observations reveal that the students have awfully high expectations for news! Going back to our first post from Paul, I think we might ask: perhaps the next step in critical media literacy rests in helping students to identify why they have these expectations. What do these expectations say about who they think the community (or audience) for the news is? I think the production aspect helps the students to realize that as citizens and members of the community, they have the right to have these high expectations of news. Furthermore, engaging in a production helps the students to raise another question: if the news can't change all of these things, then are there other venues they can find where they can discuss and represent what they think is more truthful and helpful about their own communities? In today's world of citizen journalism, such participation in the creation of alternative news stories can play an increasingly important role in the local newscast. Giving the students the means of production therefore enables them to think not only about what's wrong with media, but also about how they might create an alternative story that can better represent their perspectives and experiences.

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