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."

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."

SCARE TACTICS

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."

WHO'S WHO

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.

For her part, Corriveau simply wants her students to be engaged in the world around them, and she feels that she's making progress. Her students object to reading newspapers, she notes, but some of them have started taking copies home and are keeping up with current events by their choice, not hers.

"I'll have kids who'll come up to me in the morning and say, 'Did you see the news last night? Can you believe it?'" she notes. "That's a good sign."

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