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Students are also upset by a lack of diversity in what newspapers cover -- a criticism that extends to other mainstream media. Kelcey was one of many expressing anger that the poverty and racism exposed by Hurricane Katrina was overlooked by the media for so long. "I notice that a lot of what you hear is only about white people, but America isn't only white people," she says. "If the coverage was more diverse, I'd be more interested. I know what white people are like, but I don't know as much about immigrants or other kinds of people -- and I'd like to."
When it comes to television news, gore makes students snore -- or change the channel. Several of them denigrated the if-it-bleeds-it-leads mentality, with one saying he prefers to tune in toward the middle or end of newscasts because "in the beginning, it's all dead people." But what upsets them most is how television news preys on fear to attract viewers. "I think the media does more harm than good sometimes, because it can scare you off from doing things," says Rachael. "They make people scared on purpose. It's like, ŒRemember the last time, because there may be consequences.'"
There are repercussions, all right, but not ones the students like. Three seventh-graders grumble that they were warned against playing soccer and hockey, or even dancing, after relatives heard reports that children who don't abstain may suffer permanent health damage. Several others say that when reports about missing children or possible abductions air, their overseers react -- or, the way they see it, over-react -- by ordering them not to ride their bikes or play outside, even if the crime took place across town, or across the country.
Ceci is deeply suspicious of TV's fondness for pounding the panic button. "I think part of the reason they're trying to scare us is they run out of things to say, so they make up stuff," she argues. "They can go overboard with it -- take some fake stuff and put it in with the real stuff."
A MATTER OF TRUST
Many adults look at the press much as Ceci does. In September, the Gallup organization released its annual governance survey, and 49 percent of participants claimed to have little or no trust in the media. This total was actually an improvement over last year, when 55 percent of those interrogated by Gallup gave the press a de facto thumbs-down.
The St. Pius students trusted some news sources more than others. They had the most contempt for online sources, with just 25 percent of them saying they trusted news they saw there all or most of the time. Radio and newspapers tied for second-worst, at 28 percent, with television news leading the pack, albeit with a less-than-proud 34 percent.
In part, these figures reflect how little confidence the students have in the media's objectivity. "They'll interview both sides," allows Jessica, "but the way they write it, it seems like they're trying to convince you that one side is right."
"We have freedom of speech so people can express their opinions," counters Katie, the sole eighth-grader who didn't want newspaper articles to be shorter. "But I think there should be some people there to just report the facts."
The women and men attempting to meet Katie's standards don't always register with the St. Pius middle-schoolers, who seem to view The Media as an enormous, single-minded entity, not a collection of individuals, some of whom do their jobs honorably and some of whom don't. Even press types well known to many adults are often mysteries to them, as judged by another portion of the survey. The students were asked to identify NBC news anchor Brian Williams, 9 News anchor Bob Kendrick and Rocky Mountain News columnist Mike Littwin, plus Adam Brody, a star of the teen-friendly TV series The O.C., and Billie Joe Armstrong, lead singer of the rock band Green Day. Given that each name was followed by the same five multiple-choice options (actor, national news anchor, local news anchor, columnist and Green Day member), the process of elimination should have helped lead them to the right answers -- but no one got all five correct. For instance, 37 percent knew that Littwin scribbles for the Rocky, with 19 percent calling him a national news anchor, 13 percent figuring he's an actor, 20 percent thinking he's a local news anchor, and 11 percent assuming he played a big part on the American Idiot CD.
Then again, over 46 percent knew that Williams, who took over NBC Nightly News from Tom Brokaw less than a year ago, is a national news anchor. A randomly sampled assortment of sixty-plus grownups might not have done as well.
THE FUTURE IS NOW
Other aspects of the survey point to ways in which media executives could transform young people from cynics about the press to consumers of it. Many students say they closely follow the national news only after major events, like the Gulf Coast hurricanes, but nearly twice as many keep an eye on local news every day or most days. An even greater number -- 68 percent -- say they care more about local news than national news. The message is clear: Organizations that provide hometown news people can really use are more likely to be embraced than those located in far-off ivory towers. In addition, the tally revealed a consistent gender gap, with girls showing themselves to be more interested in the news than their male counterparts in every major category, and often by significant margins. If news types actively sought out information that's important to young women instead of slipping into the sort of sexism that's marred American journalism since its birth, they might secure an audience capable of helping them survive the rough times ahead.