Media Violence Not a Simple Issue

When Hollywood actor Daniel Stern (Home Alone) decided kids need to learn how movies and TV were made, he called L.A.'s Center for Media Literacy. Now he's hooked on teaching. And some lucky 9th graders are learning to carefully evaluate what they watch, see and read.


LOS ANGELES, Sept. 27 (UPI) — As top Hollywood studio officials prepared to testify on Capitol Hill about marketing violent images to young consumers, they were facing tough questions from members of the Senate Commerce Committee - several of whom could be described as skeptical, suspicious, angry or downright hostile when it comes to Hollywood.

The hearings were called in response to a report by the Federal Trade Commission accusing the movie, music and video game industries of marketing adult-themed entertainment to children, but the current controversy is just the latest flare-up in an argument that has been raging — off and on — since humans first applied crude drawings to cave walls.

In the intervening millennia, there has been persistent disagreement about the boundaries of decency for a society that considers itself civilized. There has also been constant doubt and anxiety about the power of images to guide — or even to dictate — behavior. The rules of engagement in this age-old battle have changed with every leap forward in the technology of communication.

It isn't hard to imagine people criticizing the written word when it first appeared because it posed a potentially mortal threat to the oral tradition. In Washington and Hollywood, as well as in countless editorial board meetings, the focus of the current discussion has mainly to do with issues such as morality, propriety and accountability.

Some research has established a connection — if not a causal relationship — between violent images in the media and violent behavior in the real world. There is a strong current of support for government regulation to address the problems associated with media violence, though not strong enough yet to overtake the deeply-rooted American passion for free speech.

While the two sides of that question continue the struggle to dominate the political debate, some professionals who work in the media trenches have something more challenging in mind — a complete transformation in the way we use and understand media.

Actor Daniel Stern — best known as one of the stars of the hyper-violent slapstick comedy, "Home Alone" — is helping lead a campaign in Hollywood to promote media literacy among school aged children. For the last four years, he's been teaching a course that he designed, intended to help young minds process and evaluate the images they receive from movies, TV, CD's, video games and other media. Stern told United Press International he hopes his students can "see through the violence in the media as what it's supposed to be, ``a dramatic device."

Stern became involved in the issue largely because of his work the 1990 blockbuster, "Home Alone." He and Joe Pesci played cartoon bad guys subjected to a series of excruciatingly painful booby traps when they try to burglarize a house occupied by child star Macaulay Culkin. He said so many people — young and old - asked him, "Didn't it hurt when you got hit in the head with the bricks?" Of course, Stern said, "I didn't get hit with the bricks. I would be dead if I got hit with the bricks, but the kids believing in it — that was a little bit scary to me. I think that pushed a button that was waiting to be pushed, but that was an impetus for me to get more involved."

As he researched the issue, he found the Center for Media Literacy in Los Angeles, "took a seminar, talked to the director of the place, just dove in." Before long he was teaching kids at a local elementary school how to be discriminating media consumers — and has expanded his course to cover more than just violent images.

"The violence is a drop in the bucket," said Stern, "compared with the consumerism."

He teaches his students about media images that perpetuate racial and gender stereotypes, and goes into some detail about how marketing works. In one exercise, students devise a campaign to market a product - say, a can of soda — first to young consumers, then to older consumers. "There's no better way to teach them,"' said Stern, "how they're being marketed to."

"If you look at the amount of media messages coming to kids 24 hours a day," he said, "I just don't see how we can ignore teaching them to process it, how it's made in particular."

He calls upon his professional training to teach students the basics of making film and video, not to "make 90,000 video directors," but to get kids to understand how images are made by putting a camera in their hands. Stern said that seems to be a winning approach. "They're very engaged. They understand marketing, they understand media. They're experts already."

But Stern said he's still "fighting" to get the course — or something like it — funded and taught more widely.

So is the Center for Media Literacy, with increasing success. Executive Director Tessa Jolls told UPI the center reached a milestone this school year, signing an agreement with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to have its media literacy course taught in the area's parochial schools. Besides that, Jolls said her organization is working with a school district on a plan to develop lesson plans based on electronic media — as well as the conventional printed word.

"It goes beyond reform," said Jolls. "We're talking about transforming the education system."

She said the system, if it is to be effective in the future, must take into account that "children have tremendous drive and resources to learn a lot that has nothing to do with what's happening in the classroom. "Children today who are in fifth grade have CD-ROM burners," she said. "They are creating their own media ... each person in our society is capable of using those tools, and they need to know how to use those tools, in order to be a good citizen."

That's the notion that motivates Stern. He thinks media literacy makes for "better educated, more critical thinking young people," and helps "to protect not only kids but adults as well from the powerful images that we media makers are so good at making."

He wishes more people in his business would sign on for the project. "I hope the showbiz community can take on the responsibility to be the teachers," he said. "California should be the leader in teaching media literacy."

Meantime, Stern isn't sure where the argument between Washington and Hollywood will lead. "I don't know," he said, "if the media violence thing is a political bludgeon ... or whether they really want the answers."

Jolls is anxious for the changes she is convinced must come. "We have a system that's stuck in time," she said. "The challenge is to unstick it as rapidly as possible, to prepare these kids for the world they live in."

The non-profit Center for Media Literacy, established in 1989 by former high school journalism teacher and public relations consultant Elizabeth Thoman, conducts regular seminars — "crash courses" — to teach techniques of "reading" the messages contained in visual images we see in TV and movies, music videos and ads. The center also takes the position that democracy itself depends on well-informed citizens capable of critical thought about how media influence the way people live "as individuals, families, consumers, community members, and as voters."

Working with a national network of supporters — including educators, community leaders, public health professionals, parents and government officials — CML distributes media literacy educational material, both in print and on its Web site.

CML's Web site offers a number of links to other sites where visitors can read and learn more about research into media violence — including sites operated by the Center for Educational Priorities; the Center for Media Education's "Children and Media/TV Violence Resource List," the Center for Media and Public Affairs' "Studies of Television Violence"; and The Lion and the Lamb Project, a volunteer group of parents that promotes non-violent toys, games and entertainment. Visitors can also link to Parenthoodweb, which provides articles and resources to parents and educators, and Violence in the Media, a collection of links designed to help students learn more about the influence of violent media images on society.


Copyright 2000 by United Press International. All rights reserved. Used with permission.