Magazine article Insight on the News

Watching the Election with Media-Savvy Kids

Magazine article Insight on the News

Watching the Election with Media-Savvy Kids

Article excerpt

Years ago, families discussed politics at the dinner table. Now many children get their information straight from the TV screen -- and most are ill-equipped to separate truth from hype without some help.

As the campaigns swing into their final phases, political messages are flashing across America's TV screens. Though carefully packaged, many of these messages are utterly meaningless.

"Hype is hype," says David Considine, a media professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. "Whether it's potato chips or a politician that's being sold, you can't get swept up in it."

Maybe adults won't be slaves to the hype, but what about kids? They're watching, too.

"Years ago, families used to sit around the dinner table and discuss things -- important things -- including politics," says Jane Fleetwood, an educational-program coordinator for Continental Cablevision in Jacksonville, Fla. "But today's children are getting their opinions straight from the TV."

"The political gurus understand that the public is watching and listening," says John Splaine, a professor at the University of Maryland and a consultant for C-Span. He says he once asked a group of teachers what they remembered about the 1992 debate. One recalled that President Bush seemed detached. Another considered Ross Perot defensive and abrasive. A third remembered Bill Clinton's warmth.

"They had all these feelings, but nobody could give me one line of substance," Splaine says. Author of The Road to the White House Since Television, he identifies techniques of persuasion used in TV news and political commercials to sell candidates. Splaine sheds light on the way campaign staffs orchestrate events -- for example, staging a 50-person campaign rally in a room built to hold 25. (A crowded room gives the impression of more support.) Or making a candidate seem to be a "regular guy" by dressing him in a flannel shirt instead of a business suit.

While Ross Perot spoke during the 1992 debate, the camera focused on Bush, who was glancing at his watch. "The message on TV was Bush is bored," says Splaine. "But what he was doing was timing Perot's response -- they didn't tell you that."

One of TV's most blatant short-comings is its lack of in-depth coverage. On commercial television, the message always is boiled down. A reporter usually only has two or three minutes to relate a complex story. Parents can help children understand this by comparing coverage of the candidates on PBS or C-Span with a commercial newscast. …

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