Tag Archives: Frank Baker

How to Help Kids Be Active Video Viewers

FrankBaker-new-Nov13-130By Frank W. Baker

Every educator I know uses video and film in the classroom. We all know that whatever we put on that screen will grab your student’s attention.

Most of you are quite careful about what you chose to show them because you’re hoping that the video/film will help you deliver your lesson. You don’t have time to show video purely for entertainment.

Fortunately, video is not only a student “engager;” it can also help demonstrate concepts that would be difficult to get across otherwise. It can also take your students to places they would not normally be able or likely to go.

The challenge is to get students to view moving images critically and not passively.

This is where media literacy skill-building comes in handy. Media literacy is all about strengthening students’ critical thinking, listening and viewing skills.

However it’s been my experience that some teachers don’t take the time to consider the importance of “active viewing” when using movies, documentaries, and other video media in the classroom. We assume students “get it” when in fact many may not.

Promoting active viewing in your classroom

So how do we help them to “get it”? There are simple ways to get your students thinking BEFORE you push the “play” button.

iron-jawed-angelsFirst: Does the film or video include a companion teacher viewing guide? It may be provided by the filmmakers or created by specialized sites (like Teach with Movies) or teachers themselves. If so, take a look at the suggestions it includes. More than likely, it will include the next few recommendations.

Second: If there is no teacher guide, consider creating a list of critical thinking questions you can pose before playing the video. The list could be a handout or simply a list you project on a Smartboard.

Third: Introduce vocabulary words, phrases, or concepts your students are sure to see and hear during the playback. Again, you want to make sure they know these beforehand.

Last: Create a list of post-viewing questions that ask for student understanding of what they’ve just seen.

Utilizing these suggestions (and others) guarantees that your students will become more attentive and diligent about their viewing. What’s more, these skills will transfer to their viewing experiences outside the classroom as well.

Collage from The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Teaching the language of film

I’ve previously written that films are in a very real sense texts designed to be read and analyzed. But again, many educators don’t have the background knowledge or training to understand what this means.

Films can be read like texts. Their images should be unpacked just as we would unpack the imagery in a written passage. (Students should) think carefully about how visual or aural tools enact, reshape, change or critique an author’s textual expressions.” — Holly Blackford, “The Basics of How to Read a Film”

Film language encompasses everything on the screen—from camera angles to lighting, sound, set design, editing, costumes, expressions and more. The experts who make movies/videos understand this language, and film literacy encourages us to help our students better understand how films create or imply meaning.

baker-liefenstahlWhy do you think filmmaker Reni Liefenstahl photographed Adolph Hitler from below in the 1935 propaganda film “Triumph of the Will”? Is it possible she knew that by tilting the camera up, she would make him appear strong and powerful? (That’s one of the rules cinematographers know and use and one we could also be teaching our students.)

baker-ampas-cvrThe Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has produced a series of free film literacy teacher guides which you can download and read. Among the topics are Costume Design, Film Editing, Sound & Music, and Visual Effects.

These are perfect introductions for any teacher who wants to know more about how to better teach the language of film.

Contribute your favorite film idea

Do you have a favorite film that you like to use in the classroom? I invite you to contribute that film to our growing list on the Film Canon Project website.   The web page was created by my colleague Heidi Hayes Jacobs to accompany a chapter we co-authored on teaching film in the book Mastering Media Literacy (Solution Tree Press). The idea is to create a canon of films that are appropriate for every grade level.


I have also created a “Language of Film” web page which is part of the Media Literacy Clearinghouse. The page is designed to help you learn more about a specific film language and provide some guidance. The page is divided into many categories. Each of those categories lists current news stories, recommended websites, videos and books. (NCTE, a longtime advocate for using film in instruction, offers several excellent books on teaching film.)

Specific content areas: So what resources and film titles do I recommend? On this web page, I offer more advice on teaching with film in specific disciplines (like arts, character education, science, math, social studies and more) with links to online resources to assist you in using those films.

The bottom line is to engage your students when viewing films and videos. It’s not difficult. In the 21st  century, with visual media being predominant, it’s imperative that we prepare our students to see and experience media differently. If we don’t prepare them in this way, we’re doing a disservice to ourselves and to their futures.

Read a 2014 Frank Baker MiddleWeb article
about CCSS and the close reading of films

Frank’s Recommended Resources

► NYT Learning Network: “Anatomy of a Scene” tool
Fisher & Frey: Using Film & Video In The Classroom
Edutopia: 6 Tips For Making the Most of Film In The Classroom
Education Week: Teachers Look to Film to Foster Critical Thinking


productimage-ashxFrank W Baker is an avid movie fan and includes film literacy in his media literacy educator workshops around the country. He is the author of the forthcoming Close Reading Media Texts: Literacy Lessons and Activities for Every Month of the School Year (MiddleWeb/Routledge), as well as the new 2nd edition of Media Literacy in the K-12 Classroom (ISTE, 2016). He maintains the Media Literacy Clearinghouse website and tweets @fbaker.




Media Literacy: How to Watch the Debates

FrankBaker-new-Nov13-130By Frank W. Baker and Karen Zill

It’s that time again– the quadrennial activity we know as the presidential debates is about to begin.

The 2016 campaign has already provided a wealth of dramatic moments, thwarted expectations and unusual exchanges between candidates and other public figures.

The nature of the two major party candidates—one from the world of business and reality television who has never held public office, and one a highly experienced political figure aiming to be the first female president—has led to eager anticipation of their face-to-face meetings.

presidential-debate-schedule✻ UPDATE ~ 3 topics for Debate #1 (9/26) announced.

✻ UPDATE ~ CSPAN Video & Transcripts from Debate #1

✻ UPDATE ~ CSPAN Video & Transcripts from Debate #2

✻ UPDATE ~ Topics for Debate #3.

✻ UPDATE ~ CSPAN Video & Transcripts from Debate #3

The debates provide rich teaching opportunities in social studies, language arts and media literacy. In addition to helping students understand the role of the debates in our election process, using the debates as a teaching tool will help students examine the candidates’ use of language and word choice, and analyze the media’s influence on both the debate process and on the electorate.

Learn more about related Common Core and state standards
for ELA, Civics and History/Social Studies

Karen Zill
Karen Zill

Media literacy is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create and act using all forms of communication. According to the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE): “Media literacy empowers people to be critical thinkers and makers, effective communicators and active citizens.” (Source)

Simply put, media literacy is the ability to apply critical thinking to media messages – in this case, analyzing all aspects of the televised debates, from the sponsors, to the candidates’ words, to the images and the media production techniques.

Preparing Students To Watch & Analyze the Presidential Debates

What do your students need to know before they watch the debates? Simply taking notes is no longer sufficient. Students who plan to watch the debate should, ahead of time, learn the two candidates’ positions and prior statements on various topics. Reading news stories that analyzed the primary debates also would be helpful.

► Students can research the candidates’ positions, using candidate websites: Clinton | Trump

► Ask students to choose 3 or 4 issues listed on the candidates’ websites and present the pros and cons of each one. Succinct summaries and arguments for and against many major issues are available at ProCon.org.

► Review the glossary terms in our Handout #1.

One thing to keep in mind is that the presidential debates are not debates in the classic sense. A debate is a formal, oral contest between two individuals or teams that present arguments to support opposing sides of a question (the pros and the cons). Debates follow a set of rules so that participants can state their positions and attack their opponents’ views in a fair and orderly manner. (Source)

American election year debates instead follow a Q-and-A format covering multiple topics, with each debate focusing on a specific area, such as foreign policy. The rules of formal debate are not in play.

Key Media Literacy Concepts and Student Questions about the Debates

  1. All media are constructed. Who is responsible for creating the debate? Who decides the questions? How are audience members involved, if at all? Who is omitted from participation and why? (See reference to Two-Party system in Topics for Further Exploration, below.) What topics might be left out and why?
  2. Media sources use language unique to the medium. How are symbols, stagecraft, split screen, and cutaways used and why?
  3. Many media are created for commercial purposes. Who is the audience? Who benefits from these debates? Are they sponsored? Who are the advertisers?

Activity: Viewing vs. Listening. To sharpen the students’ media literacy skills, consider doing the following activity: Ask for several volunteers who will only listen to one of the debates. They may find it carried by the local NPR station, or they may simply put a cover over the screen of their TV during the debate, leaving the sound on. Discuss the students’ different perceptions based on whether they viewed or only listened to the debate. (See Post-viewing Discussion below.)

2016-1stdebate-clinton-trumpCBS News – First Debate

What Students Should Watch For

In any televised political debate there are two levels or types of viewing that can occur. One focuses on the content – the specific proposals and ideas offered by each candidate. The other looks at the non-content aspects of the debate, which include the television production techniques and the non-verbal cues (“body language”) displayed by the candidates themselves. Analysis of both types of viewing falls under the umbrella of media literacy.

Content. What ideas or proposals, old or new, do the candidates present during the debate? Students can note these in the Media Literacy Analysis Worksheet we have tailored specifically for these debates (Handout #2).

Production techniques. Where is the camera focused? Are there shots such as split screen, or reaction shots of the other candidate or audience members? Is there music? What kind? When is it used? What does the stage look like? What colors are used in the background? How do these techniques affect the viewer’s perception of the debate?


Candidates’ language. Since the two candidates became the presumptive nominees, they have gone after each other in speeches and in commercials. Donald Trump, for example, has repeatedly used the phrases “lyin’ Hillary” and “crooked Hillary.” Hillary Clinton has called her opponent “unprepared” and some of his supporters “phobics.” Students should be aware of these prior comments so they can listen for them during the debates.

Use of oppositional research. Consultants have done “oppositional research” and advised each candidate on which issue(s) their opponent is most vulnerable. Republican strategists began field-testing ads that they know influence voters a year before the 2016 nominating conventions. Among other things, Trump has referenced Bill Clinton’s impeachment, while Hillary has been critical of Trump’s lack of foreign policy experience. Expect Hillary Clinton’s email controversy to be a hot topic. Look for each candidate to reiterate their criticisms during the debates.

Emotional language. The candidates also have certain emotional buzzwords or phrases that they like to use. For example, Mr. Trump frequently sprinkles his statements with superlatives, such as “tremendous.” Mrs. Clinton often makes reference to “the American people.” What does their word usage tell you about the candidates?

rolled-up-sleevesBody language. Research has shown that a candidate’s body language – facial expressions, gestures, voice tone, appearance (like rolled-up sleeves, right) and performance – do as much to influence public reaction to the debates as what the candidates actually say. (Source). Texas Tech and University of Arkansas researchers report that “False smiles, toothy smiles, eye blinks and darting eyes…are the expressions that appear in reaction shots, and in the moments that are replayed for days after the debates.” (Source) All of this becomes evident during cut-aways. So when one candidate criticizes another, students should note whether the broadcaster cuts away to show us the reaction shot.

Example of a familiar political debate “split-screen” shot. Here, while GOP candidate Mitt Romney is speaking, another shot of President Obama (right, listening and reacting) is seen on the same screen.


Conducting Post-Debate Analysis with Students

Sharing our debate handouts (Glossary and Media Literacy Analysis Worksheet) can be very helpful to students and teachers as they conduct some post-debate analysis. During the discussion, students might consider these questions, among others:

► In general, did the candidates answer the questions asked by the moderator, or did they use the time primarily to repeat statements that are part of their campaign rhetoric?

► How effective was the moderator in attempting to keep candidates “on topic”?

► What new information, if any, did students learn from or about either candidate?

► Discuss each of the sections of the Media Literacy Analysis Worksheet. How would students evaluate each candidate’s overall performance in the debate?

► How did viewing compare to only listening? Ask the “listeners” which candidate came across as more informed or more eloquent. How do their perceptions compare with those of the “viewers”? How do they explain the differences?

Topics for Further Exploration or Debate

Two-party system. The two major political parties in the U.S. have evolved as a matter of tradition, but there is no law restricting the number of parties. In fact, many presidential races have included a third-party candidate, some getting more than 30% of the popular vote. Ask students to research and discuss the role of parties other than the Republican and Democratic in previous presidential campaigns. Have them debate the pros and cons of a two-party system. (Update: On Sept. 16 the Commission on Presidential Debates announced that third party candidates did not receive enough support in polls to enable them to participate in the Sept. 26 debate. The Atlantic)

Campaign finance. The influence of money in political campaigns seems to be a perennial issue. Ask students to research the amounts spent on the presidential campaigns of each candidate, or by the candidates in a local race for Congress or another local office. Is it fair to allow unlimited funding of campaigns? Who benefits? Who is at a disadvantage? Who should be allowed to contribute and how much? Have students debate the pros and cons of public funding of political campaigns.

political-party-statusRole of political parties. This year’s presidential campaign has been marked by intra-party conflicts within both the Democratic and Republican organizations. Some have suggested that the parties no longer wield the power and influence they once did.

Ask students to research the role of political parties in American politics. How has that role changed over time? Do the parties serve an important function in the 21st century? Have students debate the pros and cons of open elections, that is, elections in which voters may vote for any candidate regardless of political affiliation. How does that relate to the Electoral College process?

Opportunities for Rich Learning Experiences

As our discussion here suggests, the presidential debates provide a portal through which students can explore a multitude of topics that are critically important in developing their media literacy skills and preparing them for future role as voting citizens in a democracy.

In our minds, there is little doubt that the time involved in pursuing these learning opportunities is a worthwhile and even crucial investment in any student’s education.

Visit this page at the Media Literacy Clearinghouse
for many supporting resource links on the presidential debates

© 2016, Frank W. Baker and Karen Zill

The authors encourage educators to download, copy and distribute both of the worksheets linked to this post. MiddleWeb.com articles can be freely distributed provided the source and link are included in the material. 


9781138216020Frank W. Baker is a long-time professional development educator who maintains The Media Literacy Clearinghouse resource website for educators. He is a regular contributor to MiddleWeb. His fourth book, Close Reading The Media, will be published in early 2017 by Routledge Eye on Education. You can reach him at fbaker1346@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @fbaker.

Karen Zill is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC, whose work includes film discussion guides, teacher guides for public television programs, and essays and articles on media literacy.


Media Literacy in Today’s Social Studies Class

FrankBaker-new-Nov13-130By Frank W. Baker

For many years, I have taken the media literacy message to social studies educators in my home state of South Carolina. I’ve enjoyed presenting at their annual conference. With media literacy, there is no shortage of topics.

That’s why I’m pleased that the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) has recently published a revision of its Position Statement on Media Literacy, which I helped co-author. The statement provides educators with even more justification for engaging students in thoughtful medial literacy inquiry, analysis and deconstruction – including understanding media language and propaganda techniques, media economics, and so much more.

Critical inquiry is fundamental

One of the major goals of media literacy is critical inquiry. My colleague Elizabeth Thoman says it’s not about asking any question – but rather asking the right questions. What do we want students to know about the media, and how can asking the right questions help enlighten them? (I have previously written about those questions in this space, and you could use them with your students as they study and consider media messages.)

Critical inquiry is also a large part of the new College, Career & Civic Life C3 Framework in Social Studies, the product of a collaboration among 15 professional organizations, including NCSS, the American Bar Association, the American Historical Association, and the National Geographic Society.

At the center of C3 are four dimensions, all of which fit nicely with goals and objectives of media literacy.

fb dimentions
Click to enlarge.

To many of you, the C3 State Standards may be brand new. I hope social studies educators in your area are planning professional development around the dimensions to demonstrate how to better engage the 21st century learner.

The Position Statement: Video and Social Studies

Do you use videos and movies in your social studies classroom? Well of course you do. Think for a moment about the last time you used video.

Did you:
– present any pre-viewing questions prior to showing the video?
– introduce or define any vocabulary or concepts that might be presented in the video?
– ask for understanding at the conclusion of the video?
– utilize any teacher/viewer/student guide that accompanied the video?
– ask students if the selection of images used by the producers was biased or stereotypical?

If you’re answering “no” to any of the above questions, you’ve missed a media literacy “teachable moment.” But teaching media literacy is more than “critical viewing” skills.

In the new NCSS position statement, we said: “Through the decoding of content-rich media texts in the social studies classroom, students learn and practice the habits of asking key questions, applying historical analysis, identifying perspective, assessing credibility, providing text-based evidence, drawing conclusions, and reflecting on their own process of reasoning.”

What does it mean to decode media? Do you know? Do your students ever spend class time analyzing images, magazines or the news? Read on.


Examining Images in Social Studies Class

A simple visual literacy exercise can be accomplished using photographs from a variety of sources: from a textbook or from the morning’s news or an historical image from a reliable database. (I prefer to use images devoid of their captions. With nothing to read [no context] students are then forced to rely only on what they see. “Close reading” of imagery is then put into action.)

The National Archives, as you may already know, has an excellent, slow to load Photo Analysis Worksheet that is especially helpful if students are not accustomed to conducting close reads of images.

I also like a brief video tutorial, from the Critical Thinking Consortium, which introduces how to read a photograph.

The video introduces another downloadable worksheet which is perfect for helping students analyze images.

Campaign 2016 Is Full of Teachable Moments

The current presidential election season is prime time for engaging your students. I’ve previously written here about both campaign stagecraft and analyzing campaign ads. As we move closer to November, images and commercials will continue to play a large role in the campaigns.

I recently participated in an NCTE twitter chat (archived here) in which teachers from across the US chimed in on how they are already engaging students in thoughtful analysis, research and discussion at a time when name-calling and attack advertising seem to occupy the airwaves.

fb 3 trump coversSource

This spring, I created a web site featuring magazine covers that portrayed the candidates running for President of the United States. Many students don’t have experience conducting a “close read” of a cover, but my web site offers you plenty of explanations and recommendations.

With a head-to-head matchup between the Republican and Democratic nominees coming up in the fall debates, look for a future column on analyzing the rhetoric and the stagecraft of these unique encounters.

The News Meets Social Media (and Fake News)

Many of our students now receive their news from social media. But what happens if that “news” is not real? Some of them are guilty of forwarding on that news to their friends.

In the article Five Things To Do To Avoid Posting Fake News on Social Media, author Luvvie Ajayi offers this timely advice, which includes some important “media literacy” type questions:

• does this (posting) seem believable on a basic level?
• is the website (which has posted it) reputable?
• is this news reported elsewhere?

fake-news-snopesAnd the advice offered is:

1. Click (the link) and read beyond the headline.
2. Look at the date.
3. Google it.
4. Look it up on Snopes (a website that debunks fake news).
5. Know your satirical websites.

A new survey indicates that many people don’t put much trust in the news they read via social media. In April, a poll by The Media Insight Project found that just 12 percent of respondents said they trusted news they found on Facebook while 18 percent said they trusted news on Twitter. Do your students follow the news? If so, what sources do they rely on?

How might you engage students about the news they consume, whether it’s in the classroom or at home? Media literacy offers a promising approach. Again, one of its goals is to get them to question what they read, hear or watch.

Questions you might consider using include:
– who or what is the source for this news story?
news-sources– if social media is the source, where did they get the story?
– are reliable or biased sources quoted within the story?
– is the story balanced? How would you know?
– is there information omitted and if so what and why?
– where can a student go to get more, perhaps more trustworthy, news?

By getting students to consider these questions, and to consider who is spoon-feeding them their news, we hope to create a new generation of better, more responsible news consumers.

Finally, I can highly recommend the resources and activities at both The News Literacy Project as well as The Center for News Literacy.

Feature image credit: Snopes.com – “6 Quick Ways to Spot Fake News”
Media-Literacy-100Frank W. Baker’s most recent book is “Media Literacy In The K12 Classroom” (ISTE, 2012). He also authored Political Campaigns & Political Advertisements: A Media Literacy Guide, and has conducted hundreds of workshops for teachers and students around the United States. He helped write teaching standards for both English Language Arts and Visual/Performing Arts in his home state of South Carolina. He serves as a consultant to the Writing Improvement Network and to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. He maintains The Media Literacy Clearinghouse and tweets about media and media issues @fbaker.

Campaign Advertising: The Image Is Everything

FrankBaker-new-Nov13-130By Frank Baker

If there is one thing that will influence voters more than anything else during Campaign 2016, it is the image. That’s why huge sums of money are being spent to present the presidential candidates in the best possible light – with the best possible setting.

More than ever, what the voters see, not what they hear, has become paramount in getting elected.

At MiddleWeb I have previously written about the “stagecraft” preparations—what is done in the months and weeks prior to a candidate’s appearance at a location. Advance people will have worked on everything from what the stage looks like to the composition of the audience standing behind the candidate, to where the photojournalists will be positioned.

The campaign consultants who do this work want to ensure that everything is in their control. (In the business it’s called poli-optics.)


Visual literacy, already a part of the Common Core ELA standards as well as the arts standards of most states, comes into play here. Can you and your students look at a photographic image and read what is happening? In these highly visual times, as we stare constantly at the screens of our digital devices, critical viewing skills are an important aspect of media literacy instruction.

From now until election day, news sources (newspapers, TV, blogs, social media) will be filled daily with images from both Republican and Democratic campaigns. As educators who want to help students better understand the reliance on visuals in politics, you have plenty of opportunities to pull these images in your classroom for healthy discussions.

Here Come the Commercials

Pundits are already predicting that the commercials from both sides of the political race (and their Super PACs) will be some of the most negative ever in the history of US politics.

Instead of concentrating on the commercial’s content, charges, allegations and mudslinging, I recommend that you instead have students consider the images.

Opposition research and past campaign history provide a rule book of sorts for how to manipulate video to influence unsuspecting, and media illiterate, voters. (Editor’s note: the following video has images that may not be appropriate for all students. The video is intended primarily for teacher PD.)

In a new video series, Now You See It, producer and film-making instructor Jack Nugent hopes to educate the uneducated. He says voters should be aware of the video tricks used in campaign commercials. He’s devoted one of his video episodes (above) to what he calls “the cinematic techniques,” some of which go back to the beginning of filmmaking.  (I have also written extensively here about those cinematic techniques.)

Techniques That Work

Montage (editing many images together) can be used to manipulate the viewer. For example, by juxtaposing a positive image (say a smiling face) alongside a negative image (say pollution) you might be communicating that the smiling face caused the pollution, which may not be the case. But because those two images are edited side-by-side, the unsuspecting viewer makes an association when there may not be one.

A Hillary Clinton ad has already utilized another technique where the video footage “shrinks images of her opponents down…subtly negating them.” (Source)

A recent story in Gizmodo says all campaigns use the same manipulative techniques: lighting, special effects, image quality and sound can also be adjusted to create an impression, usually a negative one.

What One Creator of Political Ads Has to Say

In a 2008 CNN special “The Campaign Killers” correspondent Campbell Brown said ads that distort the facts use visuals to match. And to bolster that statement, she interviewed an expert, Bill Hillsman.

Hillsman a political ad producer, revealed many of the video production tricks editors will often employ, includiong:

drain the color from a video (leaving the picture in black-and-white) and you’ll make your opponent look bad;
turn the action into slow-motion—which gives a sinister feel.

Camera angles also come into play: photographing a candidate from below will often make them look heroic (that’s Hillary Clinton from the CNN documentary, and more recently, Donald Trump speaking at a podium) while the opposite (looking down on the candidate) makes them look weak. Here’s the “up” effect.

fb hil don

And this image of former Speaker of the House John Boehner demonstrates the “shooting down” effect:

920x920Senator John McCain (below) was captured for the cover of The Atlantic magazine in 2008 by a photographer who admitted she used harsh lighting to make him look bad. (Source) The magazine eventually used an image that did not reflect what the photographer had captured.

2 mccains

In still photographs, cropping someone’s face (and going in very close-up) can make someone appear unattractive.

Helping Students Deconstruct Political Ads

Here is a model for helping students analyze campaign ads. It was developed by University of Maryland professor John Splaine and referenced in the cable TV curriculum, View Smart To Vote Smart.

Target — who is the target audience for the spot?
Affect — how do viewers/voters respond to the ad emotionally?
Proof — was any proof offered for the claims in the ads? If so, where?
Pictures — what did the pictures convey? Images? Symbols? Do these elements work together to support the central theme of the ad?
Errors — are there omissions of fact or errors? How can you find out?
Remain — how many different images did you see, and how long did those images remain on the screen? Was the ad fast-paced or slow?

I have also developed a Political Ad Analysis Worksheet, with lots of helpful tips for students, and I invite you to download and use it in your classroom.

A Presidential Campaign for the History Books

Campaign 2016 will be one for the history books: not only will more money be spent making and broadcasting commercials for candidates, but more images and video will make their way in front of our eyeballs via mobile phones, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media.

(Video made by an instructor for a media literacy class during the 2004 presidential campaign)

As educators who wish to engage our students in critical thinking, and media and visual literacy, it is imperative we consider bringing Campaign 2016 images and video into the classroom to help students better understand poli-optics, stagecraft, and cinematic techniques.

For more ideas on the role of media in politics, be sure to see The Media Literacy Clearinghouse’s website.

Frank W. Baker’s most recent book is “Media Literacy In The K12 Classroom” (ISTE, 2012). He also authored Political Campaigns & Political Advertisements: A Media Literacy Guide, and has conducted hundreds of workshops for teachers and students around the United States. He helped write teaching standards for both English Language Arts and Visual/Performing Arts in his home state of South Carolina. He serves as a consultant to the Writing Improvement Network and to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. He maintains The Media Literacy Clearinghouse and tweets about media and media issues @fbaker.

Media Literacy: Learning about Product Placement

FrankBaker-new-Nov13-130By Frank W Baker

To advertise or not to advertise? That is often the question when organizations are concerned about reputation and companies ask about branding opportunities.

Some might reluctantly say no, but that’s less true among sports organizations where athletes are increasingly becoming personal billboards for multiple brands.

Case in point: the National Basketball Association. The NBA recently announced that players will sport ads on their jerseys starting with the 2017-2018 season.

Apparently, at this point at least, the ads won’t be big and splashy. According to this blog post: they “will take the form of a patch on the front left of the jersey, measuring 2.5 inches by 2.5 inches. The (new) Nike logo (replacing Adidas) will occupy the same position on the other side of the jersey.”


(what an ad might look like on the front of an NBA player’s jersey)

The NBA’s commissioner predicted the ads will be worth about $100 million dollars a year. It’s not an insignificant amount, but the NBA makes most of its money from its broadcasting contracts. The league’s total revenue for 2017-2018 is predicted to be a whopping $7 billion.

Why should we care?

Do you or your students even care about news like this? You might not see value in having your students take the time to consider whether product placement is a good idea or why teams would do it. But in case you do, I’d like to offer you some ideas for consideration.

In an earlier post – “Making Sure Your (Brand) Name Gets Out There” – I noted the proliferation of advertising in our world and how educators can use this topic as one of the hooks to engage students in ways that encourage critical thinking and media literacy.

Analyzing ads also helps meet the Common Core ELA standards for argument.

“Ads are, after all, arguments,” says rhetoric professor Renee Shea. “As such, they engage students in critical thinking about claims, assumptions, counterargument, types of appeals, logical fallacies, and audience—basic elements of rhetoric.” (Source)

But these NBA product placement ads aren’t just any advertising. They’re not in a magazine or on TV, and they can’t be clicked away by the viewer: they’re ads on clothes. Many middle school students are already walking advertisements themselves – mostly for clothes and shoe brands. (Do they realize that?)

“Branded” entertainment

The NBA jersey ads are a variation on what has become known as “branded entertainment” or “product placement,” and they exist just about everywhere, but are most prevalent today in movies and television.

The idea is simple: put the ad inside the content the viewer wants to see (as opposed to a commercial which resides outside the content) and the audience won’t be likely to skip (fast-forward) past it.

When an actor (or player) actually holds or appears to be using the product, it becomes a “celebrity testimonial” and can influence consumer purchasing decisions.


Oreos (box and plate) digitally inserted into repeat of “Friends” (Source)


Audi used in an episode of “Modern Family” (Source)

In the case of “Friends” (pictured above) the product is virtual – it’s been electronically placed into the scene after filming. This digital insertion technology is used in baseball games where ads are superimposed on top of a green screen behind home plate. And Modern Family’s willingness not only to place products in scenes but also to place messages inside the show’s script was revealed in a recent Associated Press story.

In a movie or TV show, the actual product might be seen on-camera for anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes, depending on the contractual agreement between the advertiser and the producer of the program. In an NBA game, with the camera focused on the players, the “ad” (while smaller) most likely will be on the screen for a much longer period of time, including in many close-ups.

Thinking about student engagement

So, a media literacy approach to this issue might start with an educator posing questions for students to consider. For example:

Questions: Answers:
What is product placement and how does it work? Students could research this.
Who makes up the audiences for NBA games? Students could research this.
Who made the NBA decision regarding jersey ads ? NBA’s Board of Governors
Who benefits (and who does not) from the ads on jerseys? 50 percent of the money from uniform ad deals would be kept by teams, while the other 50 percent goes into a revenue-sharing pot. (Source)

Ask students on which TV programs they might expect to find product placement. (e.g. might “The Amazing Race” lend itself to travel products or services?)

When we consider just sports programming, for example, it’s easy to spot ads during any NASCAR broadcast. The cars and the driver’s uniforms are full of product logos.

NASCAR carBut is advertising in other sports so prevalent? Assign students another sport: tennis, hockey, baseball, football, soccer, golf, etc. You might ask students to watch a typical broadcast and document ad or logo placement in say 15 minutes of a given sport – noting each ad/logo and how much time (seconds or minutes) the advertised product was on screen.

NASCAR-driverHave them conduct an “image search” of other sports and present their findings. Which sport or sports appear to have more product placement ads (inside the main content) than the others?

What about those advertisements inside and outside your own city or school sports arenas and stadiums? Have students noticed those? Did they ever consider the placement or appropriateness of these ads and who benefits? (If they look closely enough, they might even find product placements inside the school itself.)

Suppose you divide the class in two: one group researches the “pros” of product placement in TV and film while the other investigates the downsides. This writer for Forbes dives into some of the pros and cons, but I am willing to bet your students might go much further with this topic.

I’d be interested in hearing from you about this topic. Did you use it in your classroom? If so, how did students react? Use the comment section below to post your observations.

Additional Resources on Product Placement:

Huffington Post’s Product Placement Thread

Product Placement News

Everything You Should Know About Hidden Product Placement (Infographic)

The Sneakiest Product Placements in Entertainment (Infographic)

Brand Hype

Commercial Alert

Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood

Frank W. Baker maintains the nationally recognized Media Literacy Clearinghouse website. He is a media literacy education consultant and the author of three books, including Media Literacy In the K-12 Classroom (ISTE, 2012). He contributed two chapters to Mastering Media Literacy (Solution Tree, December 2013). In November 2013, Frank was a recipient of the National Telemedia Council‘s annual Jessie McCanse Award given for individual contributions to the field of media literacy over at least 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @fbaker.

Media Literacy: Middle School Kids Love Parody

FrankBaker-new-Nov13-130by Frank W. Baker

Adolescents seem to have a special attraction to parody. Perhaps it’s a response to “coming of age” and realizing that there’s a lot of hypocrisy in the world (parody’s favorite target).

And I think we can agree that it’s not just middle school students who love parody—many of us do. Whether it’s MAD Magazine, The Simpsons, The Onion, Saturday Night Live, or some recently altered image on the web, parody seems to be not only popular but also everywhere (both MadTV and Cracked have recently been resurrected.)

JebMADParody is defined as imitation, sometimes exaggerated for comic effect. Parody is poking fun at something in hopes the audience will find it amusing. But first, the audience must make the connection between the parody and the subject/topic being parodied.

In the new Common Core ELA standards, parody is listed as one of the genres educators should use with students (see Standard 10: Range, Quality & Complexity for grades 6-12). Think of it as a license to have some fun!

My Own Roots in Parody

One of my earliest media literacy experiences with parody came when I was developing an activity centered around analyzing cigarette ads in magazines.

As in most media literacy activities, students should be engaged in both analyzing and creating some form of media. While I had plenty of ads from magazines for students to deconstruct, I had not yet developed an activity that involved creation, until I saw my first tobacco ad parody. (Since then, there have been hundreds of parody ads created.)

Here is an example: on the left, an original ad for KOOL cigarettes and on the right, the parody, where altering one letter in the brand name completely changes the meaning.

Kool-cig-parodySource: http://www.frankwbaker.com/koolfool.htm

After showing students plenty of other counter-advertising parodies, I challenged them to create their own tobacco ads based on ones they were assigned to study. They were advised to consider altering the words, the images, and even the Surgeon General’s warning in the box.

Here’s another example. The student-created ad (on the right) was recognized in Washington State and made part of a state-wide anti-tobacco movement aimed at young people.

Camel-cig-parodySource: http://www.frankwbaker.com/camelcounterad.htm

Not only can the ads be humorous, they can also be effective at challenging the tobacco industry’s huge promotional and advertising campaigns, which continue despite decades of attempts at restriction.


In this parody movie trailer, Secrets of a Tobacco Executive, viewers might be fooled into believing that this is a real movie, because it begins with the MPAA ratings slide followed by the logo of an official looking studio sponsor and dramatic male voice-over. (Ask your students if this is a movie they’d like to see.)

Parody in the Race for The White House

MAD Magazine has been a leader in parody since it was first published in the early 1950s. No subject is off limits to MAD writers and illustrators. In 2016 MAD has already taken aim at Republican candidate Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. (Would your students understand what Oscar-winning film the Clinton cover references?)



While print is a popular medium for parody, non-print is not immune.

Two organizations have produced parody presidential campaign commercials. The first, for “candidate” Gil Fulbright, is noteworthy because it pulls back the curtain on many of the production techniques used by real candidates. “A dramatic camera angle,” says the candidate in a voice-over, “can make me look like a president.”

In the parody video below, Honest Gil (as he calls himself) says he has the “courage to point” – poking fun at what other politicians seem to do in their ads. He also calls attention to the fact that most candidates spend most of their time raising huge sums of money, which is true. Take a look at his ad here:


Another parody ad promotes itself as using “stock images.” Stock images are not photos that are created for the purpose of the ad, but rather those that are previously captured, often featuring models, and purchased from a company. Example:

Buzzfeed found several instances of stock images being used in the 2012 race for the White House.


The parody of stock-image use is the result of stock footage company DISSOLVE poking fun (at its customers?) by creating The Generic Presidential Campaign Ad, featuring the smiling candidate standing in front of an American flag, and featuring the slogan: “Candidate for an American America” (whatever that means).


The candidate with no name says, among other things, “My record shows that I can construct a narrative by keeping the details pretty vague,” again satirizing what actual candidates say, or don’t say, in their advertising. At the end of the video clip we learn that it was made entirely from stock footage available from DISSOLVE. Self-parody?

Teaching With And About Parody

Why not engage your students in parody and the various mediums in which it can be found?

1. Assign your students a medium. This can be radio, TV, magazines, newspapers, motion pictures, etc.

2. Have them first research how parody has been used in their medium.

3. Have your students study the techniques that make parody particularly effective to that medium.

4. Next, assign them a fictional story, a news article, a movie, a magazine cover, or a song. Working in groups they work to create a parody from their original media. Their creation can be either print or non-print.


Some Resources for Teaching Parody

Frank Baker’s Parody Website

ReadWriteThink.org (parody lesson plans and ideas)

Web English Teacher parodies

The Simpsons Parodies Presidential Debates

10 Best ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic song parodies (plus Word Crimes!)

Have Fun — Build Skills

Parody can be fun and engaging. Most important, the study of parody is effective at helping students recognize techniques used in making messages that manipulate us – and others that amuse us.

If you have your students create their own parodies, you’re also helping meet Common Core and other 21st century media literacy skills that include analyzing and creating media messages.

Frank W. Baker is a media literacy education consultant and the author of three books, including Media Literacy In the K-12 Classroom (ISTE, 2012). He contributed two chapters to Mastering Media Literacy (Solution Tree, December 2013). In November 2013, Frank was a recipient of the National Telemedia Council‘s annual Jessie McCanse Award given for individual contributions to the field of media literacy over at least 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @fbaker.

Use Political Covers to Teach Media Literacy

FrankBaker-new-Nov13-130By Frank W. Baker

Spring 2016: the election for President of the United State is 7 months away.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have already been spent by candidates who have purchased ad time on television programs in order to reach their “target audiences.” (If you live in any of the primary states, then it’s highly likely that you’ve seen their messages and those produced by the various SuperPACs.)

I have often observed that candidates running for office need the media. (How else will they get name recognition or raise money?) They receive free coverage, for example, when they post something on social media, give a speech, appear on a national TV or radio broadcast, or hold a press conference. Many candidates are also interviewed by the editorial boards of news organizations, which may also generate news.

Recently, The New York Times reported that GOP front runner Donald Trump had received nearly 2 billion dollars in free media. Included in that free media estimate is social media.

Another example of free media occurs when the candidates appear on the covers of national magazines. Perhaps you, or your students, have already seen one or more of these.
fb triple mag covers 726 304

(I’ve created this web site where you can locate a large number of Campaign 2016 magazine covers with questions that can be used in instruction.)

When a presidential candidate appears on a magazine cover, it may be the culmination of months of negotiation between the news magazine and the candidate. Candidates don’t have final control over how they will be portrayed on the cover. In fact, some cover images may not be complimentary to a candidate. But asking students to conduct a “close reading” of any one of the dozens of the current event or pop culture magazine covers is a worthwhile visual and media literacy exercise.

Messages Embedded in the Images

fb esquire trumpConsider the example of candidate Trump to the right. Do you think the image or the words compliment the candidate? Notice the candidate’s expression – what adjective would you use to describe it? Might this cover reveal any bias on the part of the magazine’s owners or publishers? If so, what makes it biased?

Now consider, TIME magazine’s recent cover images of Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders:

fb time both Here’s some brief advice on how to get started and what to notice. Look at the lighting on Senator Sanders: can you tell that it’s warm. Notice also the headline: it does not use his last name. Notice also his expression and his body language.

Now consider how TIME chose to portray former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She is seated, as opposed to Senator Sanders, who is standing. Why might that be? On first read, did you notice the American flag in the upper right hand corner? Instead of a large font headline (like Bernie in white letters) they’ve used a quote and it’s in black. Why do you think TIME used that quote on the cover? What previous time(s) do you think she is referring to in the quote?

What do you notice about Mrs. Clinton’s body language and expression? Would your students describe this image as warming and welcoming? While Bernie is smiling and looking at “us,” she is looking off camera. Who might she be looking at?

The Impact of Illustrations

Not all magazine covers use photographs. Many publications employ illustrators. Here are a couple from recent months. Notice that artists can portray people and create events that a photo might never be able to capture. fb 2 illus covers

Intended for Young Audiences

Consider these examples (below) from two in-school publications. The New York Times/Scholastic’s UPFRONT magazine (below left) is primarily aimed at a high school audience. The headline “The Race for The White House” makes it clear which sport is represented and the illustration supports the headline. (For a long time, much of politics has been compared to sports, with the phrase “horse race” still very popular with broadcasters and journalists.)

Junior Scholastic (below right, published by The Scholastic company) is aimed at a middle school audience. This cover is considered a montage. It combines photos with illustrations and other images to amplify social media’s role in the current election process. Can your students identify the candidates (by name) as well as each of the symbols on this cover?
fb sch covers

Creating Covers in Class

1. Introduce students to the idea of candidate cover story images. You can find many such cover images on my website or by browsing Google Images.

2. Accumulate a variety of magazines in advance – news, business, lifestyle, entertainment. Look for magazines that might feature a presidential candidate on the cover. Working individually or in groups, students will select or be assigned a magazine. Their task will be to create a cover featuring one of the 2016 candidates, as they imagine the magazine might do it (so it’s best not to bring in samples that already have candidates featured).

3. Students should first research the primary demographic of their magazine. Who is the magazine trying to appeal to? I often tell students to flip through and make a list of all of the ads in their assigned publication. A recent issue of TIME magazine, for example, carried full page ads for several prescription drugs, PBS’s Downton Abbey, and auto insurance. Can you guess the demographic TIME is trying to reach?

4. fb economist-magBecause magazine covers are vertical and not horizontal, task students with locating an appropriate vertical image of their candidate which will serve as the centerpiece for their cover.

5. There are many free resources for creating your own magazine cover. Simply searching on Google will reveal many. You may wish to collaborate with your school library media specialist who could download your chosen software on computers in the library or tech lab. This web site offers a few examples, many of which are free. Here’s another resource for magazine cover production.

6. Now that your students have located an appropriate image and have uploaded it to the software, they must consider the words, font size and color, and all of the other information that will make their cover appealing and indicative of the magazine’s target audiences.

NewYorker-Trump-Prezs7. I like to challenge students to think about covers as advertisements. Who and what your students put on their cover will be very important because it must make the reader want to pick it up and buy it. Appeals to emotions, humor, hopes and fears, patriotic sentiment – these are all things that might come into play.

8. Organize a discussion. Show covers and let students talk about why they made the choices that they did.

Learning Opportunities Loom Ahead

Between now and election day in November, we’re going to see and hear from the candidates both in free and paid media. Applying some critical thinking and visual and media literacy skills to these images is increasingly important. Engaging your students in creating a magazine cover also introduces them to production skills that are necessary and valued as 21st century career and college ready skills.

Cover image credit: The American Prospect, Spring 2016 at The Media Literacy Clearinghouse
Frank W. Baker
’s most recent book is “Media Literacy In The K12 Classroom” (ISTE, 2012). He also authored Political Campaigns & Political Advertisements: A Media Literacy Guide, and has conducted hundreds of workshops for teachers and students around the United States. He helped write teaching standards for both English Language Arts and Visual/Performing Arts in his home state of South Carolina. He serves as a consultant to the Writing Improvement Network and to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. He maintains The Media Literacy Clearinghouse and tweets about media and media issues @fbaker.

Teaching Propaganda Using Political Ads

FrankBaker-new-Nov13-130By Frank W. Baker

If you live in Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina you could not have escaped the 2016 presidential campaign ads that have inundated broadcast and cable stations. (If you don’t live there, stand by; the ads are coming.)

Four years ago, in this space, I wrote a backgrounder on political TV ads which are slickly produced and highly persuasive.

Four years later, even with big surge in social media, television continues to be the medium that reaches the largest number of potential voters.

baker hockey as pol ads 570If you teach English language arts or social studies, now is a good time to consider using presidential campaign ads with your students. In a previous MiddleWeb post, I wrote that many of these ads are prescriptions to lie, because they are considered “free speech” and cannot be censored. Most campaign ads, in fact, meet the common definition of propaganda:

“Information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.”

Sad to say, there may be no source of misformation more ripe for investigation by your students as they study persuasion and argument.

A new website, the Political Ad Archive, is one place you can go to find all of the campaign spots. The New York Times has also created an ad web resource.

baker nyt image w ads

Political Ads in ELA and Social Studies Classrooms

Before Common Core, teachers might have used these types of ads to teach persuasion techniques or persuasive writing. The CCSS prefers the term “argument” or argumentative writing. (Here’s an interesting post considering the differences.)

Several Common Core standards are relevant here:

W. 9-10.1.a. Introduce precise claim(s), distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and create an organization that establishes clear relationships among claim(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence.

W. 9-10.1.b. Develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly, supplying evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both in a manner that anticipates the audience’s knowledge level and concerns.

W. 9-10.1.c. Use words, phrases, and clauses to link the major sections of the text, create cohesion, and clarify the relationships between claim(s) and reasons, between reasons and evidence, and between claim(s) and counterclaims.

W. 9-10.1.e. Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from and supports the argument presented.

L. 9-10. 4.a. Use context (e.g., the overall meaning of a sentence, paragraph, or text; a word’s position or function in a sentence) as a clue to the meaning of a word or phrase.

For more than 15 years, I have maintained a media literacy website, The Role of Media In Politics, to provide educators with resources and activities and to help them feel more comfortable teaching with and about the relentless stream of 30-second political spots during campaign season.

Because these political commercials go by so quickly, it will be necessary to play back ads more than once in order to engage your students in “active, critical viewing skills.” One way to do that is to consider using my Political Campaign Ad Questions & Worksheet.

I recently suggested the following questions that teachers could use as starting points:

1. Who creates these ads?
2. What are the most common argument-techniques used in these ads?
3. Do those clichéd techniques actually work?
4. How much does it cost to buy time on television?
5. Why is there a large discrepancy between what a candidate pays for time and what a Super PAC pays?
6. Who benefits when campaigns buy time on TV?
7. How much money in total is expected to be spent on political advertising in the 2016 election cycle?
8. What are some of the TV programs I watch where I am most likely to see these ads?

On my website, I provide answers to most of these questions. After some discussion centered on these questions, students can analyze some real political ads.

baker pol ad wksheet top
Click to access complete worksheet

My advice is to show the ad first with no instruction. Next, distribute the worksheet. Assign students one of the columns. Ask them to pay careful attention. Play the ad again. Have them share their observations.

Most of us, including our students, watch these ads passively. The worksheet activity engages them in active viewing – tasking our students with deconstructing the ads based on many factors: images, sounds, and much more.

Dark_MoneyAdditionally, you might want to make sure your students understand some of the vocabulary used this time of year. Do your students understand what dark money is or what comprises a Super PAC, or the importance of the Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission Supreme Court ruling?

Engaging Students in Commercial Ad Scriptwriting

What would students say if they could represent candidates through media advertising? Find out by trying this activity:

1. Assign your students or groups of students to one of the presidential candidates.
2. Next, have them choose (or assign them) one of the 2016 campaign issues.
3. Ask them to research their candidate’s position on that issue. (This research could include the candidate’s own website, their speeches, or other resources such as OnTheIssues.)
4. Using a simple 30-second script template, have them write a commercial for their candidate. (Students might look at this 2012 Obama TV ad with audio transcript to see how words and visuals are blended.)
5. They should also consider: who is the audience for my ad; what TV program or series will I buy time on in order to broadcast my ad to the target audiences I want to reach?

frank sc spending 2 900

Some of the candidates for the GOP nomination have been airing spots in early primary states since late 2015. According to NBC News, Jeb Bush and the Super PAC supporting him, have spent the most money in the United States so far on ads ($76.7 million), while Donald Trump has spent the least. Democrats fall in the middle.

The 2016 campaign season offers another teachable opportunity moment. When we provide students with critical thinking questions and active viewing skills, we guarantee that they will watch differently. Thomas Jefferson famously said that the health of our democracy depends on an informed electorate. Engaging students in these political messages, and pulling back the curtain on the techniques, is just another step in their becoming informed citizens.


Frank W. Baker, author of Political Campaigns & Political Advertisements: A Media Literacy Guide, has conducted hundreds of workshops for teachers and students around the United States. He helped write teaching standards for both English Language Arts and Visual/Performing Arts in his home state of South Carolina. He serves as a consultant to the Writing Improvement Network and to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. He maintains The Media Literacy Clearinghouse He tweets about media and media issues @fbaker.

What’s Missing from That Media Message?

FrankBaker-new-Nov13-130By Frank W. Baker

I was prompted to write about this topic after I was quoted in a news story about the recent move by some advertisers to include persons with disabilities and same-sex couples in their marketing messages.

It seems, with the holidays upon us, that some larger companies have decided it’s a good idea to acknowledge these underrepresented groups as members of our society. But I wondered: what took them so long?

Advertisers who do include underrepresented groups in their messages are hoping to appear more inclusive, not exclusive. At the same time, the increasing visibility of these groups may help more people come to accept them as “normal.” It’s clearly a business decision by companies: they’re hoping that including these groups will also increase their bottom line.

Years ago, I asked my media literacy workshop audiences if they could name a major character in prime time TV who was confined to a wheelchair. At the time I could only think of one: Raymond Burr who played the detective “Ironside.” More recently, the character Artie from the hit show “Glee” used a wheelchair. But outside of these two examples, we’d be hard-pressed to name others.

ironsides 250

glee character 250


Many minority groups regularly call on the media to be more inclusive. The news/journalism community is constantly being urged to include more minority reporters on their staffs and to address more issues that directly relate to underrepresented groups.

Most recently, the Hollywood production community has come under criticism for its lack of diversity among those individuals both in front of and behind the cameras. Actress Geena Davis now spearheads a campaign to increase the visibility of females in both TV and film. And the Ralph Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA published a revealing 2014 Hollywood Diversity Report (click to enlarge): HDR-Infographic-TV-by-Race-Color-Layout-659x1024

The Importance of  Seeing ‘Me’ in Media

The problem becomes: what if I don’t see me in media? Young people today look for individuals like themselves in their media. Seeing the “me” in media impacts their self-esteem and their self-confidence. If they don’t see themselves reflected in their media, it may send a message that they’re not important.

Since all of my workshops include “media literacy” and close reading of media texts, this topic – who or what is omitted and why – is quintessential. Media literacy involves critical thinking and critical inquiry and most of all, asking questions. Questions to be considered include: who created the message; who is the audience; what techniques do producers use to get my attention; AND what is omitted and why?

That last question is one many of us, and our students, never consider. And that’s unfortunate, because what you don’t see, read, or hear might just be as important as what you do. (Why do you think car advertisers omit the miles per gallon or the price; why do pizza makers not reveal how much sodium in one slice; why do car insurance ads not reveal their annual rates?)

Thinking about such omissions, I recently created a page on my Media Literacy Clearinghouse website entitled What You See and What You Don’t. I divided the web page into sections that include pop culture, the news, politics, advertising and more. Here are a few examples:

In 1945, landscape photographer Ansel Adams snapped a photo of the Mt. Williamson mountain range in California. It’s an impressive image—with the sun shooting down from the clouds. It is a truly beautiful photograph. But, as I like to remind my audiences, every photo has a story behind it. How many of us take the time to ask: what else is going on; what’s outside the frame?

The detail that is revealing here is: Adams was standing inside a Japanese-American Internment Camp when he snapped this picture. The internees were allowed outside the gates once a day to gather small rocks for their gardens. Does knowing that change the way you feel about the image?

ansel adams rocks

A popular celebrity is featured on the cover of a magazine. She appears perfect. But what most of us never consider is: what was done in the hours leading up to the shoot (lighting, makeup, etc.) and the hours after it (e.g. Photoshop), to make her look flawless? Today, there are many websites and blogs (Huffington Post is one) which take pride in showing audiences what that celebrity looked like before and after the use of digital alteration software (to do things like shrink arms and soften skin blemishes).

before and after woman

These are just two examples, but there are hundreds. Everyday media messages pass through our radar screens, and unfortunately many of us don’t take the time to stop and consider: who sent this message and why am I seeing this or what might they not want me to know?

Many of us see only the final media product: a magazine, TV show, movie, videogame, etc. We don’t often learn how it was made. But that’s changing. Every media production involves many behind-the-scenes decisions and techniques that we’re often not privileged to experience. That’s why engaging young people in media production is so advantageous – it demonstrates the importance of process, collaboration, design and technique that go into a final production.

Ask your students if they know how this was made; what do I see and what do I not see and why? The more students begin to appreciate that a production might leave something critical on the cutting room floor – whether it’s underrepresented groups, important information, or physical imperfections – the sooner they’ll start down the road to becoming truly media literate, 21st century producers and learners.

Frank W. Baker is a media literacy education consultant and the author of three books, including Media Literacy in the K-12 Classroom (ISTE, 2012). He contributed two chapters to Mastering Media Literacy (Solution Tree, 2014). He is a recipient of the National Telemedia Council‘s annual Jessie McCanse Award given for individual contributions to the field of media literacy over at least 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @fbaker and visit his resource-rich website Media Literacy Clearinghouse.

Analyzing the Media Through Docudramas

FrankBaker-new-Nov13-130By Frank W. Baker

What makes movies about the media so appealing? For as long as there have been movies, the media and the subjects they cover have been popular Hollywood topics. And why not: many of us pay attention not only to the news but also to the media themselves.

fbaker all pres 200What do these movies, past and present, have in common? They’re all docudramas. They are not documentaries and they are not true dramas. The docudrama borrows from both genres.

Do your students know that when they watch docudramas, they’re not watching history as it actually happened? Do they understand the “artistic license” that movie makers utilize when they contract to take an historical event and condense it into a two-hour film?

These movies are not just for the journalism classroom. Every teacher who is concerned about the past, present and future of the media could use these films as teachable moments.

What follows is not an exhaustive list, but it nonetheless includes some noteworthy movies with media as the central focus:

fbaker networkNetwork (1976) A network anchorman complains about the trivialization of news and starts to lose his hold on reality. (Who can forget the anchorman’s proclamation: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”)

All The President’s Men (1976) followed Washington Post reporters (portrayed by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) as they investigated the Watergate break-in and how their subsequent stories led to the resignation of President Nixon.

Broadcast News (1987): a film that critic Roger Ebert wrote was as “knowledgeable about the TV news-gathering process as any movie ever made.”

Quiz Show (1994) profiled the early TV quiz show scandal that led to a Congressional investigation.

fbaker wag 200The Insider (1999) told a story of former tobacco executive Jeffrey Wigand (played by Russell Crowe) who is courted by CBS’s 60 Minutes to make public Big Tobacco’s secrets. The movie drew on on 1996 article that appeared in Vanity Fair.

Wag The Dog (1997) profiled consultants who whip up fake news in order to cover up a presidential candidate’s sex scandal.

Good Night & Good Luck (2005): George Clooney’s tribute to broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow as the CBS reporter challenged Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch-hunt techniques.

The Social Network (2010) portrayed the birth, struggle and development of Facebook as the new social media platform.

Nightcrawler (2014) follows a news cameraman (Jake Gyllenhal) as he works the night shift to photograph news, often crossing ethical boundaries, to help his employer get higher ratings in the highly competitive Los Angeles TV news market.

our brand is crisis 200The year 2015 was a banner year for movies with media figures and organizations as their central theme.

Our Brand Is Crisis is a 2015 drama featuring Sandra Bullock as a political media consultant who finds it challenging to try to transform the image of a candidate running for president of Bolivia.

Truth (2015) stars Robert Redford as CBS journalist Dan Rather who in 2008 challenged fbaker trumbo 200President George W. Bush’s National Guard service record but whose reputation (and that of his producer) were damaged by the use of questionable sources.

Spotlight (2015) profiles Boston Globe journalists as they pursued allegations of sexual abuse by Catholic church clergy.

Trumbo (2015) is a film starring Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo, the Hollywood screenwriter who was blacklisted as part of the McCarthy-era communist witch hunts and wrote under pseudonyms or without credit from the late 1940s until the early 1960s.

Implications for The Classroom

As I have written in this space previously, Common Core middle grade ELA standards make specific references to the techniques used in making movies, as well as the decisions made by directors and actors.

fbaker truth 200Whether it’s an English teacher using a Shakespeare film or a history teacher using a docudrama, all students need to understand and appreciate the decisions and techniques movie-makers use when they create compelling stories on film. Ask students to consider how a particular film or scene might have been altered to make a subject or person appear better on screen.

Teachers who use films about the media might want to first have their students conduct background research into the facts behind the media or media event. It’s a no-brainer to locate reliable information, for example, about the Washington Post’s role in reporting on the Watergate scandal. Students could investigate if a particular film scene (e.g. Watergate reporters meeting a secret source in a parking garage) is portrayed accurately.

fbaker good nt good luck 200For the release of “Good Night and Good Luck,” FilmEducation.org produced this film study guide designed to help students dig deeper into Murrow, McCarthy and the issues the film addresses. RTNDA, the Radio TV News Director’s Association, also produced a study guide – excerpts can be found here.

For every film that is released “based on true events” there are plenty of legitimate news stories, blog posts, or social media postings that attempt to pull back the curtain on what the filmmakers got right and what they might have altered and why. (Last year, I wrote about this topic.) Challenge your students to find news sources that are pulling back the curtain on the current crop of docudramas.

Teachers don’t have to wait for the film to be released: they can use the film’s trailer to familiarize students with the narrative, characters, conflict and more. I’ve created this web site with advice and resources for teaching trailers as persuasive texts. (Here’s one example of a trailer – for The Insider.)

Each film’s poster also can be considered an “informational text” with specific visual and textual features. Ask students to consider what quintessential information must be included in a film’s poster. Task them with re-creating the poster.

In summary, docudramas can be an effective medium in both ELA and Social Studies classes to explore many areas of curriculum, including creative and persuasive writing, current events, historical perspectives, and filmmaking itself.

In this March 2000 archived interview clip, former tobacco industry executive Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, the central character in The Insider, discusses the film’s accuracy.

Frank W. Baker is a media literacy education consultant and the author of three books, including Media Literacy in the K-12 Classroom (ISTE, 2012). He contributed two chapters to Mastering Media Literacy (Solution Tree, 2014). He is a recipient of the National Telemedia Council‘s annual Jessie McCanse Award given for individual contributions to the field of media literacy over at least 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @fbaker and visit his resource-rich website Media Literacy Clearinghouse.