For the last few days I’ve been in Istanbul talking with school officials, teachers and students about media education. The discussions have led to some interesting differences in what we call “media literacy” in American and Turkey.
In a third grade class I saw students preparing television news programs. Now, to be sure, the students were writing third-grade-level stories about their pets, their hobbies and what their families did last weekend.
Many American third graders do the same thing. But here’s something that caught my eye: in the middle of the writing exercise the teacher asked each student who the stories were intended for. Was the upcoming newscast supposed to attract adults, teenagers or other third graders? And depending on the answer, the teacher made suggestions for improving the stories.
So at an early age students are learning how audiences and programs are connected, and how media target audiences with particular messages.
One thing that is immediately noticeable about Turkish newspapers is the diversity of political and religious bias. Unlike in the United States, political and religious leaders often resort to intimidation and outright violence to promote their specific belief system. Furthermore, it is obvious which position a news outlet is supporting. Headlines, stories and photographs are all slanted toward this or that particular point of view.
What is particularly interesting, though, is that everyone knows the stories are biased. But when I asked some older students how they determined which stories were true and which were simply political hype, almost all of them said they read two or more newspapers, plus they get news from overseas.
So we have an interesting comparison: American media generally try to be fair and balanced, and there is little in the way of education in media literacy. Turkish media are openly biased, but students learn at an early age how to distinguish truth from hype.
None of this is to say media education in Turkey is perfect. Both teachers and administrators are quite vocal in their opposition to the imposition of curricular and assessment requirements from both secular and religious sources.
Nevertheless, the exchange has emphasized the need for better media literacy education here at home, and the verification that globalization should be an important part of American education system at all levels.