To Fully Engage With Kony 2012, Students Need to Become Media Producers


Photo by Brad Flickinger.

3.19.12 | The popularity of “Kony 2012” has raised numerous questions about truth, storytelling, and digital access—issues covered here yesterday in “How to Tell a True Activism Story.” While the video and surrounding criticism make for a great case study, for students to fully understand the complexities, and to approach it as critical consumers, they need a strong grounding in digital and media literacies.

When critics of “Kony 2012” argue that it is manipulative or reductive, they are assuming that the video seduces young viewers with its social media-friendly interface, its guilt-drenched emotional appeal, and its “good” vs. “bad” narrative. Students who understand camera editing, visual rhetoric in advertising, and the power of storytelling, among other skills, can begin to talk not just about what the video is (and isn’t) saying, but how and why it is saying it.

“We certainly don’t want to dampen their enthusiasm and optimism that they can do something to change the world for the better, but we also do not want kids jumping in blindly to support and spread the latest social cause craze, like Kony 2012,” Matt Levinson, head of the upper division at Marin Country Day School, writes at Mind/Shift

The author of “From Fear to Facebook: One School’s Journey,” Levinson encourages schools to loop parents into conversations about controversial topics by providing questions and links to articles to help spark conversations at homes. Schools and parents should also join children in examining websites and information sources, questioning the accuracy of information.

The line between fact and propaganda also made news last week when “This American Life” admitted presenting as journalistic fact what everyone involved now admits was a semi-fictionalized account: “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” a monologue by Mike Daisey describing his journey to a Foxconn factory in China that manufactures Apple products.

The elaborate self-critique—“This American Life” host Ira Glass devoted the entire show to a retraction over Daisey’s deception and the mistakes the radio program itself made—can actually provide a model for the type of critical thinking youth need to use when approaching what is often oversimplified information and reductive arguments throughout the media and their social networks.

AP writer Mark Kennedy’s story about reaction to Daisey’s show includes numerous comments on the role of storytelling, theater and journalism. It notes that Daisey has cut sections from the monologue that couldn’t be verified and added a prologue that examines the controversy.

Daisey has done damage to the idea that “anyone with a bit of passion and a flair for language can be a reporter,” writes BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones. His point, though, is not to dismiss the contributions of citizen journalists and bloggers, or to call out all professional journalists as paradigms of ethical and factual perfection. The questions he raises about responsibility on both sides would make for an interesting class discussion about effective storytelling. [Update: Also see David Carr’s column, “Theater, Disguised as Real Journalism.” There’s a kicker at the end.]

Teaching Digital Citizenship by Teaching Media Production

Putting students in the driver’s seat can help them go much further in understanding journalistic and legal issues. Several stories I’ve come across recently help to demonstrate how this can be done, at all grade levels.

To educate students about copyright, piracy and the importance of good digital citizenship, school librarian Sara Kelly Jones gives her students at Lake Placid (N.Y.) Middle/High School cameras to make their own videos. They develop an understanding of the law along with production skills.

“By the end of the year, when they have something they’ve worked hard at—their own creation—they won’t want them to be pirated,” Jones, author of the School Library Journal blog Make Some Noise!, tells SLJ’s The Digital Shift. “That’s the most direct way of teaching digital citizenship.”

Educators don’t have to wait until students reach a certain age to introduce these discussions. I love the example in this article of an elementary school librarian teaching the same lessons to very young students—instead of shooting videos, however, they baked cookies, and the children discussed how they’d feel if someone tried to pass off the homemade cookies as store-bought.

Parents play a bigger role than they may think in helping their children develop skills as media critics and producers. Veteran education reporter John Merrow, president of the nonprofit media production company Learning Matters, argues in the Washington Post that children mirror adults—most people use technology to consume information, and not enough of us are using it to foster creativity. I don’t agree with all of his assumptions about negative uses of technology, but he offers a number of useful examples of how students can use mobile cameras and other tools to gather and analyze data, and ultimately to produce information.

“Work like this is, well, real work,” writes Merrow. “Students are creating knowledge; they are designing projects and seeing them through from beginning to end. These projects have to meet real-world standards because the results are in public view.”

Collaboration and Crap Detection

An essential digital literacy students learn while tackling real-world projects is how to work collaboratively—the importance of which cannot be over-emphasized in digital networks.

In a terrific Q&A interview hosted by Roland Legrand, the writer and teacher Howard Rheingold says, “Knowing how to collaborate has become essential to individuals who want to succeed in the 21st century and to the health of the culture that is emerging.” He continues:

Collective intelligence, virtual communities, smart mobs, crowdsourcing, social production, peer learning are distinctly different forms of collaboration that have sprung up now that every desktop and every pocket is a potential printing press, broadcasting station, marketplace, community forum, political organizing force.

Knowing how to use these forms of collaboration is a critical uncertainty—the raw technical power to organize and coordinate collective action is provided by the technology, but whether that power will be used effectively depends on how many people know how to implement and deploy the right kind of collaboration in the right kind of situation.

Rheingold’s new book, “Net Smart: How to Thrive Online,” argues that the future of digital culture depends on being able to engage social media and technology intelligently and mindfully. There are specific skill technical sets to be learned—and in the Q&A, Rheingold discusses the what journalism students and journalists need to know, or be willing to tinker with—but equally important is the ability to think critically. Knowing how to question information presented as fact and how to check sources is a literacy Rheingold refers to as “crap detection” (previously discussed here).

“Now that anyone can publish anything and search engines turn up inaccurate information, misinformation, and disinformation along with accurate claims, the consumer, not the producer of information, must test the validity of claims,” he says.

The Invisible Children and “Kony 2012” took student engagement in political issues to a whole new level, and the mass response the video inspired is nothing short of revolutionary. Its lessons are not over yet. As I mentioned yesterday, the video’s truthiness and the question of who gets to tell a story, and how, are important discussions. But if we really expect young people to become critical viewers, we’re going to have to do more to encourage them to become producers.

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