Tag Archives: journalism

“The New York Times is Always Right”: A Media Literacy Lesson

Animal School - Pigs in a classroom - image

Readers of George Orwell’s Animal Farm should remember Squealer, the pig whose “journalism” manipulated the entire animal society into unquestioningly supporting the dictatorial pig Napoleon.

When a democracy is tottering, should its schools care?

If they studied Animal Farm in the classroom, the depressing odds are they learned it as a good, all-American attack on socialism. The most simple-minded of our teachers make a travesty of the novel’s allegory along these breathless lines:

Napoleon, children, equals Stalin and Karl Marx all rolled up in one. And Squealer equals their propaganda machine, the communist newspaper Pravda. Write ‘Pravda’ in your notes, children, because you have to know it for the test. It’s very important. It’s an example of journalism in communism, and how it prints government lies instead of the truth that we get in newspapers in free democracies.”

Of course, Animal Farm was more than that. Orwell was a socialist, after all — but he was also a thinker. So he could condemn what Stalin had done in the Soviet Union as a perversion of the socialist vision, while at the same time condemning the capitalism of  the United States and Western Europe with equal scorn.

That second part tends to get left out, I suspect, in discussions of capitalism and communism in most Western classrooms, whether English classes teaching Animal Farm or history classes teaching the 19th and 20th centuries. Instead, capitaliAnimal Farm Coversm is trotted out in the white hat of “freedom and democracy,” and communism in the black hat of “tyranny and totalitarianism.”

Teachers and textbooks who frame the issue this way strangle the baby of inquiry in the cradle, and slip in its place a plump little bundle of propaganda to comfort the kids and teachers by cooing that they’re on the right side of history, and the enemy was on the wrong. But “Capitalism versus Communism” and “Democracy versus Dictatorship” aren’t simple “Good versus Bad,” “Right versus Wrong” stories. Both sides, the communist and the capitalist, have their strengths and weaknesses, their angels and demons, their moments of heroism and of villainy. Both sides.

So you don’t have to be a communist to criticize capitalism, or a capitalist to criticize communism. Thinkers in both camps criticize not just the other system, but their own. (Politicians do this routinely when they craft legislation.) Any classrooms learning about these two systems should front-load their explorations with that truth — assuming, at any rate, that we want to produce thinking citizens in our classrooms instead of bleating farm animals. It sometimes seems we don’t want to.

Breaking News: War is Peace. Torture is Justice.

From the indispensable Plum Line blog’s Greg Sargent at the Washington Post:

Harvard’s school of government has released a study of how major media discusses waterboarding that really seems like it was done for Glenn Greenwald.

Click on “released a study” above and you’ll get the full report in PDF. The Greenwald link is a rich resource for the classroom too.

And they’re “rich” because they call into question America’s mainstream media — the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and all the rest of the “free” press — and the bald similarities of Squealer and Pravda to the editors of those trusted institutions and their newspapers. (Torches down, dear nationalists: you should agree we have to read newspapers on two feet, like free-thinking humans, and not four, like all the sheep in Orwell and too many sheeple in America. Remember the good old days when an “informed citizenry” was a national ideal in America, before it was replaced with “a productive consumer” — a patriotic shopper?)

Need a teaser? From the study’s abstract:

The current debate over waterboarding has spawned hundreds of newspaper articles in the last two years alone. However, waterboarding has been the subject of press attention for over a century. Examining the four newspapers with the highest daily circulation in the country, we found a significant and sudden shift in how newspapers characterized waterboarding. From the early 1930s until the modern story broke in 2004, the newspapers that covered waterboarding almost uniformly called the practice torture or implied it was torture: The New York Times characterized it thus in 81.5% (44 of 54) of articles on the subject and The Los Angeles Times did so in 96.3% of articles (26 of 27). By contrast, from 2002‐2008, the studied newspapers almost never referred to waterboarding as torture. The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles (1.4%). The Los Angeles Times did so in 4.8% of articles (3 of 63). The Wall Street Journal characterized the practice as torture in just 1 of 63 articles (1.6%). USA Today never called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture. In addition, the newspapers are much more likely to call waterboarding torture if a country other than the United States is the perpetrator. In The New York Times, 85.8% of articles (28 of 33) that dealt with a country other than the United States using waterboarding called it torture or implied it was torture while only 7.69% (16 of 208) did so when the United States was responsible. The Los Angeles Times characterized the practice as torture in 91.3% of articles (21 of 23) when another country was the violator, but in only 11.4% of articles (9 of 79) when the United States was the perpetrator.

This type of study is not new, I know. But this particular one recommends itself for use in the classroom for several reasons: it’s current. It’s clear. It’s free. It’s from Harvard. Oh, and it’s about the survival of the rule of law and human rights in the United States. Almost forgot that one.

Or we could just give the lambs a handout about Pravda and follow it with a quiz. Continue reading

On Using Technology Without Understanding It

This editorial from our high school student newspaper is a must-read for its criticism of the school-wide technology integration initiative. It’s a must-read for other reasons too — and other readers — but read it first, and we’ll get to that very different party afterward.

hs edtech editorial
hs edtech editorial 2

The first thing I did when I read this was mentally applaud.

The second thing I did was wish I could reply to it and, better still, promote it for a wider audience than the guaranteed one in the schoolhouse (I’ve always thought school newspapers were a bit like busywork, since they were monopolies without real-world competition, and had no incentive to earn a bigger audience through superior quality — especially silly in the Information Digital Age).

I wanted to start a conversation with the writer, share ideas and viewpoints, extend the topic — you know, basically learn more from her, and ideally give such quality feedback in my comments that maybe the author would learn more too. Surely she knew that authors have far less authority in the Information Digital Age, that the nature of those things called texts and authors has been revolutionized by the ability of readers to write on the same page, to (in the language of AP exams) “challenge, qualify, and extend” the author’s ideas and words and worldview.

Surely she knew that the 21st Century writer learns as much from the 21st Century reader as the reader does from the writer. (Because 21st Century readers — the best ones, anyway — write with the writer. Just look at Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman’s blog, all the references he makes in his writing to what his readers are saying in comments. Look at Rolling Stones’ Matt Taibbi having conversations with his readers in the space beneath his articles — you know, those silly “forum”-like things. Just look.)

So yeah, I wanted to respond to it, and share to the world here on my (real) blog. I thought the writing and the critique of the rush to laptop use in the classroom were that good.

But the editorial was on that precious resource and traditional tool called — what was it? It’s been so long since I’ve written on it — oh yeah, paper, so no luck there (for me, or the forests, or the atmosphere, or the students’ future environmental situation).

The third thing I did was figure, since the student says her “generation is more than adept at using technology,” that she would surely know that journalism lives more and more online now, that print news is dying. Since she says, after all, that she’s a “member of the Information Age,” she would know that the Huffington Post — a newpaper that has never been in print — eclipsed the venerable old Washington Post (that traditional newspaper that actually still uses paper) to take the number 2 spot, after the New York Times, in total traffic last September. I figured she’d know that the, what shall we call it?,  traditional NYTimes itself is taking out loans on its headquarters building, due to its almost nonexistent profit margins in this post-Gutenberg age. But surely this student knew all this stuff too, because I’m sure she uses an RSS reader, and reads links from the thousand smart people she’s built up in her Twitter network — surely Tweetdeck is one of the applications open at the bottom of her screen, and surely it’s populated not by people who share her blood or her table at the school cafeteria, like most of the silly Facebook crowd, but by like-minded peers (and unlike-minded ones) around the world.

Surely she uses these by-now old tools to stay more informed about the world than people who don’t use them.

I figured, in short, that I could find an online version of the editorial — since the student surely knew that that’s not only writing’s future, it’s its present — and be able to respond to it, and promote it to all of you readers dotting the six inhabited continents on my nifty Clustrmap at the bottom of the right sidebar. A simple select, copy, paste, and link to her site so my blog’s readers could follow the link, join the conversation, share their praise (and their experience).  Maybe offer her an internship if they’re in the publishing biz, since I figured her blog would surely have a “Contact Me” page for just such possibilities. I mean, she’s technically adept, after all, and so used to troubleshooting Internet Explorer for her parents. (She surely dropped IE long ago with most geeks in favor of Firefox, Opera, Chrome, Safari, or whatever. It’s a parent thing, surely.)

The fourth thing I did was search for the online version of the paper and, sure enough, I found it — in pdf. You know, the format where, as I saw Will Richardson put it, “good ideas go to die.”

And that almost totally changed my view of the editorial. I couldn’t comment. I couldn’t read other students’, teachers’, administrators’, parents’, and purely authentic Readers-from-the-Brave-New-Web’s ideas about the text. I couldn’t copy and paste the most interesting ideas in the text for fine-grained commentary here, and link to the article to send you there. Instead, I had to take screenshots of it and upload it here. All of which suggested to me that, contrary to the claims of “adeptness” and expertise in the editorial, the editorial writer(s) have much more to learn than they realize.

Parting shots: Last month I took three days off of school to fly to the beach in Australia, all expenses paid, in order to give a talk to an educational technology conference. I got the offer via the “Contact Me” page on this blog, from a reader of this blog I’d never met (because while she did read, I’m not aware of her ever commenting). She invited me to speak simply by virtue of the fact that she said she was a long-time reader who liked what she read here.

Here. On a simple blog.

That wouldn’t have happened if I thought pdf was good enough for the 21st Century writer.

A couple months before that, I got another “Contact Me” bite from a PBS TV documentary producer asking if I’d be available to be a talking head on a show they were doing about classic literature — for the first episode, to be exact, which was about none other than Gilgamesh, about which I’ve written about 20,000 words over the last year here, on this simple blog. She’d read my take, and said it was exactly the kind of approach and tone her team wanted for the show.

That, too, wouldn’t have happened if I thought pdf was good enough for the 21st Century writer.

But at that Australia conference, much of what I said actually agreed with what the student editorial said: I agree that teachers can be excellent at what they do without technology. I agree that, worse still, pushing teachers to use technology before they’re trained, experienced, and ready can indeed lead to worse teaching and worse learning. I really do think the student writer’s criticisms along these lines should be taken very, very seriously. I’ve been in this world long enough to believe that we can’t push the reluctant to use it, and that that’s a fool’s errand. The best we can do is “pull,” I said in Australia. But even that word is wrong, since it still requires more energy than is sustainable for teachers. Now I believe the best we can do is simply attract. The sun isn’t getting muscle fatigue keeping the planets in orbit. It’s simply attracting them, effortlessly, because of its impressive mass. Teachers should be suns in this way, and students the planets worth keeping in orbit. Those with ears, let them hear.

But. What I hope I’ve given the writer pause to reflect on in all of the above is that having “six or seven apps” open on your computer, doing Facebook, and helping Mom with IE is nothing special. It’s about as impressive as publishing to pdf.

And: Here’s my pitch, and it’s to you, student editorial writer, whoever you are:

Our school is going 1:1 next year whether we like it or not. And I’m not sure I like it myself, since I’ve taught at a 1:1 laptop school before, and really wonder, as I wrote lately, if “the Web is too beautiful to waste on the young.”

Because just as you’re arguing that admin shouldn’t force teachers who don’t want to learn new ways to do their job, I’d much rather not force students to learn what I’ve learned after three or four years of self-publishing, podcasting, networking, and more. I’d much rather invite the “three out of a thousand” I see every year to come by after class so I can say, “You’re a great writer (or speaker, or artist, or photographer, or whatever), and if you want my support in sharing your uniqueness with more than the school hallway or your bedroom file cabinet, I’ll show you some things that have worked for me. They might lead places for you.”

Moreover, I’d much rather you use the laptops at home to watch podcasted lectures and whatnot, and come to school to discuss, write, plan, create in a workshop-style setting that applies what you learned on your laptop the night before.

And I have no interest in playing cop to your generation’s Facebook addiction in the classroom. Sometimes I wonder why I should have to. Students who choose to spend their school time writing graffiti on Facebook (and not, in the traditional way, on their schooldesk) instead of learning from the web activity that the teacher, after all, ideally has judged as worth their time  — that’s their choice. It’s a choice not to rise. Maybe they shouldn’t rise, then, and they should go ahead and practice their spelling of “LOL,” “wtf?”, and “rotfl.”  Meanwhile, the teacher can focus on the students in the room who want to learn, and to peacefully pursue future superiority over the Facebook scribblers sitting next to them. It’s a lesson in real-world responsibility. Sometimes we have to do things we’d rather not do, or suffer the consequences.

And while I’m not sure I believe that, this I do believe: It’s going to be messy for all of us.

And you, student, whoever you are, can help make it less messy. You took a good first step by articulating the problems you say students are talking about. Now take the next step: get those students to join you in generating solutions. (Read my “Recession Skills 101″ posts here, here, and here to get my take on how you should see yourself as a stakeholder in your education — as basically an employee who’s expected to contribute to the betterment of the company.)

Do it openly, do it professionally, do it maturely, and do it constructively. Don’t name names and if you’re going to stab something, stab a solution.

How can you do that? The simplest way would be to start a blog — or turn the newspaper into one.

And one last thing: as you’re helping the school try to launch this thing, as you’re suggesting your changes and communicating your point of view, don’t forget to be open to changing your mind and learning something new. Because there’s more to the web — to “blogs, wikis, and forums,” to quote your example (did you know the CIA and United Nations use wikis now?) — than you seem to understand.

And that’s true for all of us.