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COLUMN ONE : Teaching Children to Watch TV : Screen sex and violence won't go away, some say, so youngsters must learn to see through stereotypes and special effects. New Mexico is first to require such classes as 'media lit' movement grows.

Teaching Children to Watch TV. FIRST OF TWO PARTS


ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Al Narath, a high school senior, says he will never look at television the same way again.

"I watched quite a lot of TV growing up," he says. "What I have realized is it doesn't take a lot of thought when you're watching.

"I still watch television, but I'm more careful. I watch it less and, when I do, I pay more attention. And I've learned that TV is a business. Everything you see has been planned for weeks, even years. And most of the time they're trying to sell you something."

Narath, 17, is a graduate of media literacy, which has taught about 2,600 New Mexico elementary and high school students to analyze TV programs, see through advertising messages and understand how the media work.

New Mexico is at the forefront of a growing national movement to educate children about the media, driven by the concern that youngsters simply absorb what they see and hear on TV. Just as parents and educators teach children good eating habits, the thinking goes, they must also teach them good viewing habits.

As of last year, all school-age children in New Mexico must study media literacy as part of the state's push to become "the first media literate state." Similar efforts are under way in 15 states, and courses are springing up in schools in nearly every state, including California.

"We don't think anybody is going to eliminate television or other media from their lives," said Bob McCannon, director of New Mexico's Media Literacy Project. "You can't just turn it off. But kids can become wise consumers."

Media literacy training is based on the premise that children should choose what they watch with care. From kindergarten through high school, students learn how television works--the mechanics and ultimate intent of programming. In the process, analysis and critical skills are encouraged.

Although some critics say it skirts the issue by shifting responsibility from the industry to the viewer, the concept is increasingly being embraced in classrooms, boardrooms and living rooms nationwide.

A surge of interest in the past year has dovetailed with the renewed focus by politicians and social critics on excessive sex and violence in the media.

"The general public, as well as the broadcasters, are getting a wake-up call on violence, whether it's by Janet Reno or Bob Dole," said Joe Zesbaugh, coordinator of a media literacy project in Denver. "[The subject] is everywhere, particularly during elections."

"The violence issue is the Trojan horse that is bringing media literacy into both the home and the school," said Elizabeth Thoman, who, as director of the Center for Media Literacy in West Los Angeles, is a movement pioneer. "It's something we can do instead of just throwing our hands up."

Moreover, it is seen, at least in some circles, as a simple antidote that does not involve pricey technology, advertiser boycotts or government threats.

But the very fact that it does not employ pressure tactics also inspires critics to call it ineffective or to claim that focusing mainly on viewers' critical skills lets media producers off the hook.

Proponents respond that boycotts and other extreme measures have not proved to be successful and that inspiring children to outsmart TV will pay off in the long run.

At a time when many children spend more time watching TV than reading, many educators and parents say that teaching them to understand what they see on the screen is as important as teaching them to read and do math.

"What this is is basic literacy extended to include electronic forms of communication and new technology," said Kathleen Tyner, a media literacy educator in San Francisco.

"We are now being inundated by an unprecedented flood of images, thanks to the cable explosion, the video revolution and flights into cyberspace," said Brian Stonehill, a professor at Pomona College. "You need a life raft to survive the flood of images."

To its adherents, that life raft is media literacy.

Learning to Dissect TV Ads and Programs

"Before I went into the class, I thought we'd be watching a lot of TV," said Narath, a gangly blond who plans to major in microbiology in college.

"But reading was a large part of the course. And then we applied what we read to what we were seeing on TV."

Narath's class read analytical articles about the media, learned to "deconstruct"--take apart--programs and commercials, and produced their own media messages, where they learned that images and music can be more evocative than text.

In the class, which was taught by McCannon--the director of the New Mexico project--students did watch a fair amount of television, much of it programming they would regularly tune in anyway. They were instructed to watch MTV, but not to let it simply wash over them. Instead, they were told to analyze, for example, how women are portrayed in music videos.

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