Students' Counsel

The next generation takes a pop quiz on the media.

Kids say plenty of things about the press. And most of them are disapproving.

"There's a lot of bias in newspapers," declares Ashley, a student at St. Pius X School in Aurora. "They only get part of the story."

"I like to read the sports," adds Curtis, her schoolmate, "but I don't like anything else."

Kumiko, a seventh-grader, agrees: "They just talk about stuff I really don't care about."

This skepticism has deep roots. Sierra Corriveau, Ashley and company's teacher at St. Pius, recently presented eighth-graders in her charge with a list of ten major constitutional protections, then asked which they'd choose if they could only keep five. Freedom of speech, the right to peaceably assemble and most of the other privileges received support -- but not one person in the classroom picked freedom of the press. Not one.

"I even explained to them what it meant -- how it prevented the government from dictating what reporters wrote," Corriveau points out. "But they really didn't feel it was important. I think they felt inundated by media overall, and were kind of embittered toward the press in general."

Judging by conversations with more than sixty St. Pius seventh- and eighth-graders, as well as the results of a Westword media survey they completed, Corriveau's analysis is on the nose. Although the students at St. Pius (where my wife serves as principal) are overwhelmingly bright and engaged, they often distrust or discount the information they glean from the press. Take Dexter, who says, "I don't think the newspapers tell the truth. They over-exaggerate a lot." He guesses that only about 40 percent of what newspapers publish is true -- and his estimate is far from the lowest one students offer.

Such responses can't be quantified scientifically. Still, the views of this racially and economically diverse group hardly constitute happy news for an institution beset by sinking newspaper readership, falling national-news ratings and fears that traditional information purveyors are on a path to extinction. To reverse these trends, or at least to ease the pain of the inevitable transition to other forms of technology and distribution, media mavens must find a way to reach young people like Miles, who doesn't see why he should bother watching television news. After all, he says, "My mom just tells me about the weather, and then I'm good."

OPEN ACCESS

Many tweens and early teens start developing reading, listening and viewing habits that may last the rest of their lives -- yet few academics examine their attitudes toward the press. Neither Washington, D.C.'s Pew Research Center for the People & the Press nor the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center have asked children in this age range for their takes. They've focused on the ramifications of exposure to media, but not what such kids think about the news presentations they're being exposed to.

Access isn't an issue for the St. Pius students. In the survey, 70 percent say their parents or guardians subscribe to a daily newspaper for part or all of the week. Similarly, 75 percent of their folks usually watch a local newscast, with 66 percent tuning in to national news shows on close to a nightly basis. These figures suggest that the death notices many pundits have sent out regarding these types of communication are premature -- as long as older people are around.

The availability of televised news is directly related to how much of it students see. Most of them don't schedule time to watch the news, but because so many parents do, they wind up catching it anyway. "We always watch news on TV: Fox News," says Michelle -- and she proves it by noting, "They're fair and balanced."

Michelle is among the 52 percent of students who get their news from television, as opposed to 13 percent from radio, 4 percent from other sources, and a mere 6 percent from the Internet. That leaves 25 percent for newspapers, and the number would be much lower if Corriveau didn't assign students to choose articles from copies of the dailies she receives through a newspaper-education program -- one of many efforts nationwide to interest young people in the print press. Just over 11 percent of the students say they'd read a newspaper every day or most days if Corriveau didn't make them, whereas 66 percent admit that they'd do so on few days or almost never. Dario falls into the second category. When asked what section of the newspaper he enjoys, he says, "I mostly like the ads."

FIT TO PRINT

The most common rationale for disliking newspapers? They're dull. "Sometimes I can find stuff that's kind of interesting," says Kaitlyn. "Other things we read, I usually drift off."

Adds Joseph, "If they could spice up the articles and not use such hard wording, it would be more understandable, and that would make them better."

So would brevity. When asked if they think articles are too long, every eighth-grade student but one raises his hand. Subject matter also comes in for a pummeling. Student after student complains about the predominance of violent, negative stories or reports that don't relate to their lives in meaningful ways. Corriveau practically has to force-feed them pieces about politics, which most consider to be either irrelevant or actively unpleasant. "Those people lie a lot," says Andrew. "There's too much arguing."

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