My parents are in town. My dad watches the news. Constantly. CNN, BBC, DC (German), NHK (Japanese), Al-Jazeera. As a result, my kids, ages 15, almost 11, and 7 have also been watching the news. And we all know what’s been on the news the past few weeks. Constantly.
My master’s degree is in Media Analysis. In the past, I’ve deconstructed children’s cartoons and the messages they send about intermarriage, Christmas TV programming, and an infamous Cheerios commercial.
In other words, I cannot watch television like a normal person. And that includes the news. That especially includes the news.
My own kids have been hearing me drone on and on about this since before they could talk back (one of the ways I guarantee a captive audience). It is never too early to start teaching kids to be critical consumers of media. Everything has a bias, whether deliberately inserted or not, and the sooner you can suss it out, the sooner you can decide for yourself what you think about a given situation, rather than being passively lead by a slick combination of words, images, and agendas.
For example, last night on BBC World News, a half-hour long program produced in England ostensibly about international issues that affect the lives of their citizens at home and abroad, exactly 20 minutes of the broadcast were taken up by the Israel/Gaza crises. Another five minutes were delegated to Ukraine, and the last five to the Central African Republic (for those playing along at home, Syria was nowhere to be seen).
Depending on the age of your child, you can ask some of the following questions:
1. How far is England from Israel? How far is it from Ukraine? How far is it from the Central African Republic? (Now is a great time to whip out a globe and have a “Learning Moment.”) Now let’s look at how big each of the countries is. How many people? Whom do they trade with? Of the three countries mentioned above, which is the one whose problems are more likely to spill over and thus are most critical to the well-being of English citizens? Why, then, do you think the BBC chose to focus so much attention on Israel, and not Ukraine?
2. People dying is always, always, always very sad. Children dying is especially sad and also very scary. How many people died in Gaza yesterday? How many died in the Central African Republic? Why do you think the BBC chose to spend 20 minutes on one story, and only five minutes on the other?
3. You can also look critically at a headline such as: “Three Jews Charged In Palestinian Teen’s Killing.” Or, conversely, “Palestinian Man Arrested for Killing Three Jewish Teenagers.” This is not a matter of content, but classification.
Parity is allegedly very important in journalism. For instance, you would not write an article about John Smith and Mary Jones and refer to him as Smith and her as Mary in the text.
Following the same guidelines, the headlines should have either read: “Three Jews Charged In Muslim Teen’s Killing,” or, “Three Israelis Charged In Palestinian Teen’s Killing.”
The word Palestinian comes with very particular, very charged baggage and connotation around the world. So does the word Jew. The way the headline is worded now, the boy is a particular person in a particular place, the martyr for a particular cause. The killers, on the other hand, could be any three Jews anywhere in the world. The victim-hood is specific. The villainy is generalized. Who killed the boy?
The same is true for the alternative: “Palestinian Man Arrested for Killing Three Jewish Teenagers.” Here, the killer’s justification is broadcast in his specific identity. You don’t have to read any further to suspect why he did it, and why he felt justified. As for whom he killed, they were merely generic Jews, collateral damage in the cause of collective guilt. Doesn’t matter if they actually were oppressors. Just sharing the same religion with those who are is enough.
In my opinion, these kinds of headlines make it harder to hide behind the standard, “I’m not anti-Jewish, I’m anti-Israel,” rhetoric. Well, that and the whole taking out your anti-Israel-ness on Jews in other countries. If attacking Muslims in other countries post-9/11 was wrong (and it absolutely was), then how is attacking Jews in France, Germany, and Holland, and telling them to get out, warranted?
These are the kinds of questions that I constantly ask my kids when we watch the news (to the point where my father hisses for me to be quiet because he can’t hear anything).
My oldest son, who’s had 15 years of my indoctrination, has gotten ridiculously good at deconstructing everything he sees. Not just the news, but fictional TV shows, books, advertising, even his high school teachers. He pays attention to word choice, context, chronology, emphasis and, most importantly, the implicit subtext, because he understands that what’s left out is often just as important as what’s put in.
My younger two aren’t quite as good as it yet, though I got the feeling something was sinking in when, after reading a PJ Library book, “Snow in Jerusalem,” about an Israeli and an Arab boy who fight over a stray cat, then decide to call a truce and just split up her kittens among themselves, my 10-year-old indignantly asked, “Don’t they care about taking the kittens away from their mother?”
The 7-year-old chimed in, “Did they ask the cat what she wanted? Did they ask the kittens?”
Their older brother offered, “I think it’s a metaphor for the two-state solution being imposed on Israel from above by the other countries’ peace treaties, instead of being decided by the people on the ground who actually have to live with their choices.”
Yup, something is definitely sinking in.