Iowa Media Literacy, The Professor, The Ad Man, The Story

The professor, Douglas Gentile, and the Ad Man, Peter Komendowski, each had their own world view.  They attended fine schools, grew up in good communities, and eventually had families of their own, moved to Iowa, and continued their work.

Only this is where the story gets really interesting.  Douglas became a respected researcher and educator. In fact, he is a world-renowned child psychologist.  And Peter, he became an advertising executive, with a reputation for improving bottom-line profits. Both of them began to think about why they were here, the meaning of life, and how they could contribute to the making of a better world.

You see, they had both learned some very powerful secrets about how we think, and react, to the world around us.  And both noticed that the media were becoming very powerful in shaping the thoughts, desires and actions of our children.

Peter, the Ad Man, learned the techniques, the tricks, and the professional skills it took to get people to react predictably.  In short, this is called the sales process, and in the media it is called advertising – setting up all the ducks in row so the consumer unsuspectingly adopts the view of the advertiser and ultimately buys their “stuff.”

Douglas, the Professor, learned the techniques, the tricks, and the professional skills the media use to influence people, and also realized that a lot of the “stuff” that children liked was not necessarily good for them.

One day these two parents from very different worlds met, and realized they had a lot in common.  Today they share that with you as The Professor and the Ad Man, through the Iowa Media Literacy Project (available as a curriculum to participating schools).


What is Media Literacy?

Media Literacy is a set of critical thinking skills that help people to understand how the media work, what effects they have, and how to manage them to get the maximum benefits while minimizing potential risks.


Why is it Important?

Children are constantly surrounded by media, all trying to get their attention and to leave an impression.  Children today spend vastly more time with screen media than with traditional print media, and the Iowa Media Literacy Program is designed to help educators enhance the teaching of traditional literacy with media literacy.

Children need new literacy skills to go with the new media. Without these skills, they are at the mercy of marketers and are unable to manage the information either for appropriateness or truth.


Connecting the Classroom with the World Outside

The average school-age child now spends over 10 hours a day OUTSIDE OF SCHOOL devoted to electronic media.

Media Literacy training can include (but is not necessarily limited to):

  • Understanding that media are carefully constructed to represent only one version of reality, and why
  • How to understand the tricks advertisers use
  • What effects the media have on your ability to make decisions
  • How to recognize persuasive techniques and propaganda
  • How to create media (e.g., music, video, etc.)
  • Understanding techniques used by different media, including print, photographs, video, music, video games, Internet, etc.


Three Reasons to Teach Media Literacy

Some have noted that there are at least three stages in gaining media literacy*

First, one needs to become aware of how and when we use media.  When people actually start counting the hours they spend with various media, they tend to be surprised at how much time they spend on televisions, cell phones and computers. The average school-age child now spends over 10 hours a day OUTSIDE OF SCHOOL devoted to electronic media. Once we are aware of how we use the media, we can begin to be more thoughtful about our choices with it.

Second, one needs to learn critical viewing and thinking skills.  These include asking questions of any given media product to consider whose point of view is being represented, what meanings should be taken away from it, what technical and psychological tricks are used, and what points of view were left out.

Third, one needs to pay attention to who creates the media we consume and what are their goals?  This includes political, economic, cultural, and sociological forces behind media creation and distribution, critically evaluating who stands to profit or lose.


These are Important 21st Century Skills

It is easy for any medium to claim to only have benefits or to be “fair and balanced,” so it is important that consumers learn not to accept any claim without first applying some critical judgment.

Critical analysis of media is not something that has traditionally been taught, and children often have “blind faith and acceptance” of what is shown.  This alone is dangerous. Consider, for example, the phrase “As Seen on TV.”  This very phrase connotes that if something is seen on TV, then it should be not only trusted, but better than something that wasn’t seen on TV.  Although that may be true in a given case, it should not be simply accepted as true.


Media Literacy and Critical Thinking

Media literacy education supports other critical thinking skills that youth need to learn in schools.  It can be easily integrated into multiple classroom curricula, including language arts, health, and social studies.

Historically, teachers find critical analysis skills difficult to teach in the classroom, perhaps partly because children expect that most subjects have a “right” answer.  Critical thinking is therefore easier to train with media because it is easy to demonstrate that different people can take away different meanings from any given media portrayal or advertisement.  This is the foot in the door for helping them learn to question their initial interpretations and to begin a process of critical evaluation.