THE IMPACT OF MEDIA LITERACY INSTRUCTION

ON STUDENT VIEWING MOTIVATIONS:

AN EMPIRICAL INVESTIGATION

By

Renee Hobbs

Associate Professor of Communication

Babson College

And

Richard Frost

Associate Professor of Sociology

Babson College

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Summit 2000, Toronto Canada

May 13 –17, 2000

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Address inquires to the first author at:

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THE IMPACT OF MEDIA LITERACY INSTRUCTION

ON STUDENTVIEWING MOTIVATIONS:

AN EMPIRICAL INVESTIGATION

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Abstract

This research examined the impact of the English 11 curriculum during the first year of implementation at Concord High School in Concord, New Hampshire. This curriculum was designed by faculty to provide a year-long intensive experience in media analysis through exploration of issues including analyzing the news media, political campaigns, narrative structure in non-fiction programming, media history, propaganda and persuasion, analysis of advertising.

This research reports quantitative data on changes in student attitudes, reporting the results of 233 17-year-olds who took part in the study.  Students were asked to complete questionnaires during the first week of school in September, then again in late May, near the end of the school year. 

This paper is the first report of a larger examination of year-long changes in students' reading, writing, viewing and listening skills, their knowledge about the media, attitudes towards teachers, and their media use habits and behaviors.  By measuring students in the school before and after their year-long exposure to media analysis activities integrated in the context of a Grade 11 English curriculum, this report examined changes in attitudes that may have resulted from this learning experience.

Results show significant differences in students’ viewing motivations from the pre-test to the post-test. Three major findings were evident.  First, students experience a decline in their self-reported uses of television as a break from life’s pressures, to pass time, or when there’s nothing better to do. Secondly, over the course of the school year, students experience a decline in the level of parasocial attachment with media celebrities, TV personalities and other characters they encounter via television.  Finally, the results show that students report that they feel significantly less dependent on television as a source of information and entertainment.

Rationale

Many wondrous claims are made by media literacy educators about the benefits and results of instruction in the skills of critically analyzing media messages. Some of the claims are based on experience observing students as they first encounter a critical discourse about the mass media, and then as they strengthen their own skills of critical analysis.  Other claims are based on rhetorical or ideological goals or outcomes that educators deem desirable or valued.  Some teachers have claimed that media literacy changes the way students watch television; alters their attitudes about the benefits of technology; increases students’ cynicism about the economics of the media; improves their political self-efficacy; changes their viewing motivations; or makes them feel more guilty about their media use habits and choices. This research explores how one particular media literacy intervention at the high school level affected the attitudes and self-reported behaviors of students.

Media literacy educational interventions have been rising in prominence during the 1990s, and a number of school-based programs have begun to emerge in New Mexico, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Texas, and other states.  Recently, the Speech Communication Association developed a set of standards which included media literacy skills alongside of speaking and listening skills (Berko, 1996). Defined generally as "the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and communicate messages in a wide variety of forms" (Firestone, 1993), media literacy emphasizes the skills of analyzing, evaluating and creating media and technology messages which make use of language, moving images, music, sound effects and other techniques (Hobbs, 1994). Recently, the State of Texas included media literacy skills within the framework of language arts instruction, and as a result, there has been increased momentum in exploring how to include media analysis and media production in K-12 classrooms. 

Media literacy in K-12 environments generally feature activities which, minimally, invite students to reflect on and analyze their own media consumption habits (Kubey, 1998); to identify author, purpose and point of view in films, commercials, television and radio programs, magazine and newspaper editorials and advertising (McCannon, 1995);  to identify the range of production techniques that are used to communicate point of view and shape audience response (Desmond, 1997; Ploghoft and Anderson, 1982); to identify and evaluate the quality of media's representation of the world by examining patterns of representation, stereotyping, emphasis and omission in print and television news and other media (Singer and Singer, 1981; Brown, 1991; Hart, 1992).

Other media literacy activities often include an appreciation of the basic economic underpinnings of mass media industries, as well as gaining familiarity and experience in using mass media tools for personal expression and communication and for purposes of social and political advocacy (Kubey, 1998; Hobbs, 1998).  These skills and activities may have an impact on students' motivation to develop more sophisticated reading, writing and analysis skills, according to most researchers (Kubey, 1998; Hobbs, 1998; Singer and Singer, 1981; Desmond, 1997).

In the United States, despite all the rhetoric, most school-based media literacy initiatives have been based on the efforts of a single teacher in a school or district, working alone. Media literacy tends to be taught as an elective offering to one or two classes of students by a highly motivated teacher. It has generally been difficult to sustain district-level or even school-wide initiatives in media literacy over time.  A history of the first phase of implementing "critical viewing skills" instruction in the 1980s revealed that only a few school districts in the United States had attempted to develop media literacy skills education (Brown, 1991), and most evaluation models examined the program outcomes on very small numbers of students, usually a single classroom (Anderson, 1980).  As a result, while the case study literature has expanded which documents classroom practice in individual classrooms (see Hart, 1997 for review), research on media literacy continues to be constrained by the lack of large-scale implementations available for observation and evaluation. 

Because of limited opportunity to observe and collect data from large-scale, multi-classroom implementations of media literacy curriculum, little school-based research has been conducted to demonstrate the impact of such curricular innovations on students' attitudes, behavior, knowledge and academic performance. Quin and McMahon (1994) conducted research on the academic skills of a sample of 1500 students in Western Australia, and Hobbs and Frost (1999) conducted school-based quantitative research which measured students' media analysis skills in four different instructional contexts.  In understanding more about how media literacy can enhance instruction in the area of language arts education at the secondary level, such research provides preliminary evidence that demonstrates that media literacy instruction can affect students’ learning and skill development.

Little research has been done on the impact of media literacy instruction on students’ attitudes, but the literature contains a number of suggestions that media literacy instruction may affect behaviors and attitudes towards media and technology. Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi (1990: 209) pointed out that a “basic sharpening of consciousness” around the vast array of media images in our lives was an essential life skill.  Such skills could contribute to the deepening of pleasure and the selection of quality programming. 

Explorations in the field of adolescent development and the mass media has pointed to the significant role that celebrities and media personalities play in the identity formation process, including self-esteem, self-concept, and beliefs about the world (Brown and Schulze, 1990).  Identity consciousness is the result of a continual process of personal reflection and observation, a process that involves much self-evaluation.  A person continually compares self with others—including media personalities, including athletes, actors, musicians, politicians and other celebrities.  Little is known about how media literacy may affect the complex role of television and the mass media on the development of students’ self-esteem and identity formation.

Background and Context to the Research

During the Spring of 1998, in Concord, New Hampshire, the school board approved a plan to re-organize the high school English Language Arts curriculum to include a full year-long curriculum in Communications/Media for all Grade 11 students.  This is one of the first school districts in the United States to include media literacy so extensively in the secondary curriculum.  During the summer of 1998, school leaders from this school district invited the author to conduct research on the changes in students' writing, reading, and analysis skills which may be directly impacted by the new curriculum.  This research plan was approved by the school administration and school district.  During the first week of September 1998, pre-test data was gathered (in two day-long testing sessions lasting ninety minutes per testing battery) and the first phase of the research project was begun.  

The instructional innovation, a year-long English course in Communications/Media for students in Grade 11, is among the most comprehensive approaches used in public education. Seven teachers collaborated on the curriculum, which involves students analyzing the language and images not only of traditional literary forms, but also television shows, print and television journalism, films, advertising, political speeches, and business and interpersonal communications (York and Aubry, 1999).

Three Concord High School teachers attended a conference at Clark University, entitled “Teaching the Humanities in a Media Age,” organized by the first author as a national teacher education institute for educators from four school districts: Atlanta, Georgia, Los Angeles, California, St. Paul/Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Worcester, Massachusetts.  From this conference, Concord teachers adopted the framing questions that would help to unify the English 11 curriculum:

  • Who is sending this message and what is the purpose?
  • What techniques are used to attract and hold attention?
  • What lifestyles, values, and points of view are represented in this message?
  • How might different people interpret this message differently?
  • What is omitted from this message?
  • Seven teachers shared materials and resources for this course and each teacher designed the various units of instruction accounting to their individual perspectives, but these questions are used to guide students’ inqury and analysis skills (York and Aubry, 1999).

     Some classroom activities explored the familiar terrain of literary analysis, while others explored topics that focus on popular culture and mass media. Students analyzed point of view in Ken Kesey’s book, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, examining how the book and the film use different strategies to tell the story through manipulating point of view.  Students analyze Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, examining the different depictions of the birth of the monster in the many different film versions, from the 1931 Frankenstein, the 1974 Young Frankenstein parody, and the more recent adaptation, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.   

    Students applied their ability to analyze messages by looking at television, advertising and journalism.  They traced the evolution of families on TV, looked at changes in talk television, and examined the history of children’s television. In analyzing advertising, students analyzed the techniques and approached used in print and TV advertising.  They determined target audiences and noted whether ads used emotional appeals.  Some students visited an advertising agency, taught a mini-unit on advertising to younger children, created ad parodies, or constructed consumer awareness campaigns (York and Aubry, 1999).

     In the journalism unit, students analyzed newscasts, newspapers, and web sites. They examined media in terms of word choice, images, sequence of information, content, and race representation.  Students recognized the powerful way in which narrative is used to attract and hold attention, and they discussed the economic structure of the mass media which emphasizes ratings and money as the only meaningful markers of quality.

    In characterizing the first year’s curriculum, it is clear that teachers used different strategies, including a mix of more familiar and less familiar topics based on their experience and background. Overall, one common characteristic to the program is evident overall: there was little emphasis on media production in this curriculum. While some students did create their own ads, take photos, create graphic displays, most of the production activities took the form of written essays. Teachers noted that, in the first year of implementing a new curriculum, they emphasized analysis skills and did not include much exploration of media production.  Teachers felt limited both by their own experience with visual media as well as the challenges of designing and implementing a new set of materials from scratch.

    Research Design and Methodology

    During the course of the school year, three different research methodologies were used to collect data on the Grade 11 curriculum implementation during the 1998-99 school year: quantitative data gathering using paper-and-pencil measures of media analysis skills, media use behaviors, and attitudes; observations and interviews with students at three points during the school year; and staff interviews, conducted at the beginning and end of the school year. 

    Through teacher interviews at the beginning, middle and end of the semester, we explored teacher attitudes concerning the impact of the new curriculum on teacher-student relationships and specific issues regarding the contribution of media literacy to classroom practice.  Previous research has revealed that teachers' motivations and particular areas of expertise have an impact on the kinds of skill development that get emphasized in the classroom, and this phenomenon needs to be explored more fully (Hobbs, 1999).   Teacher attitude data is currently under review and a report is forthcoming. 

    This report provides preliminary data analysis of a small portion of the data collected with a focus on students’ attitudes about media use. Other data will be reported in future research.

    Data was gathered on the entire population of 293 students in Grade 11.  This research reports on data available for students who participated in both the pre-test and post test measures.  A total of 233 students completed both pre- and post-test attitude measures. Because data was collected from the entire population of Grade 11 students at Concord High School, the study population included all students enrolled in the regular and special education programs. Courses of study at this school were heterogeneously grouped, and the sample included students with learning disabilities, physical disabilities and hearing impaired students.  

     This report examined data collected via paper-and-pencil measurement of attitudes to examine students’ attitudes about the role of media in their lives.  

    To examine student attitudes, a set of statements was developed, adapted from Hobbs and Frost (1998), The questionnaire used a five-point Likert interval scale and incorporates questions about viewing motivations (adapted from Perse and Rubin, 1989; Rubin, 1981). Variables included students’ self report of their viewing motivations, including escape, learning, and habit/pass time; their control over TV use, perception of media influence, cynicism about the media, political efficacy, and attitudes about the superiority of computing technologies.   Appendix A displays this questionnaire. 

    Administration of the pre-test measure occurred in early September, only three days into the start of the academic school year. Administration of the post-test measures occurred in mid-May, within the last month of the school year.  Students in the sample were an average of 17 years old at the start of the testing, with a range of 16 to 18 years.   Administration of the attitude questionnaire was conducted by teachers with individual groups of 30 students in traditional class periods. Teachers asked students to fill out the questionnaire during class time. Students received code numbers on the first day of testing and all data collected in this study kept students’ names confidential. 

    Differences between students’ pre-test and post-test scores on attitude variables were examined used the Minitab statistical program.  Parametric tests (paired t-tests) were used to measure the changes in scores over time.

    Results

    Students experienced three major shifts in attitudes after exposure to the program of media literacy instruction offered at Concord High School.  All three findings concern significant motivations for using television.  First, students experienced a decline in using television to pass time, as a habit, or when there’s nothing to do. There was a statistically significant decline in agreement with statements like “I enjoy watching TV to get a break from some of the pressures in my life” (p < .0001), “I often watch TV to pass the time” (p < .0001) and “When there’s nothing better to do, I watch TV” (p < .0001). Each of these findings can be understood by noting that a p value of .0001 simply means that the probability of a relationship as strong as the observed one being attributable to sampling error is no more than 1 in 10,000.  In addition, a statement about the importance of watching television in order to socialize with friends (“I like watching TV shows that I know my friends will want to talk about.”) also declined in importance from pre-test to post-test (p < .01).  Table 1 displays these results. 

    Secondly, students also experienced a major change in attitude in terms of the role of celebrities and media personalities as significant attachment figures.  All of the statements concerning students’ experience with parasocial relationships showed statistically significant declines from pre-test to post-test. For example, fewer students declined to identify “I think my favorite TV personality is like an old friend” as a meaningful viewing motivation in the post-test condition (p <.003). Other statements about the role of TV personality as friend showed the same pattern  (“My favorite TV personality makes me feel comfortable, as if I am with friends”) was statistically significant (p <.002). Students’ viewing preferences for programs featuring their favorite celebrities (“If my favorite TV personality appeared on another television program, I would watch that program”) also showed significant decreases from pre-test to post-test (p < .004).   Finally, the statement, “I like to compare my ideas with what my favorite TV personality says,” showed a significant decline from pre-test to post-test (p  < .01). All these findings suggest that students’ level of personal identity attachment has altered over the course of the year. Table 2 displays these results.

    Finally, the results of this research show that students experience a decline in their perceived level of dependence on television. Students were statistically less likely to agree with the attitude, “It would be practically impossible for me to go a whole week without watching TV” (p < .001).  Table 3 displays these results.

    No statistically significant differences were found in students’ viewing motivations regarding learning, avoidance, media cynicism, political efficacy, beliefs about the superiority of computers, guilt about media use, or control over TV choices.

    Discussion

    Students who participate in a year-long media literacy curriculum, embedded within a rigorous Grade 11 English curriculum, experience significant shifts in their attitudes about using television.    First, they report that they are less likely to use media to reduce stress, take a break, or pass time.  Secondly, students report that they are less likely to report intense parasocial relationships with media personalities and celebrities. Finally, students believe that they would be more likely to go a week without watching TV. All three of these findings demonstrate that the media literacy curriculum had an impact on students’ attitudes about the role of television in their own lives.

    There are a number of explanations for this finding. First, the experience of talking about media in the high school classroom may raise students’ consciousness about their own media use habits and behaviors, which by the time of middle adolescence have become routine and ritualistic.   Students may also get more exposure to the dangers and risks of viewing media to pass time, or as a habit.  This message would be particularly likely to appear in discussions of TV advertising, with its effects on people’s emotions and attitudes towards products. Explorations of the news media might also contribute to these shifts in attitude,  with the emphasis on how implicit ideological messages about social values embedded in the format and structure of programs may be communicated without students’ awareness. Teachers in this study noted students’ repeated comments that media analysis skills were becoming internalized, as students told teachers that they couldn’t just watch passively anymore—that they kept noticing things about their viewing of television that would never have struck their attention before.   It’s important to note that students experienced a decrease in their use of TV for passive, habitual uses, but that this change was not accompanied by a change in students’ sense of feeling guilty about watching too much TV.  Students seem to be less likely to use media as a passive routine without feeling particularly guilty about their media habits and choices overall.

    The second major finding discovered that students experienced a significant decline in their self-reported pleasures of having a media “friend.” This evidence suggests that the experience of media analysis may help to alter and re-shape students’ perceptions and interpretations of the people they encounter via the mass media. There may be several reasons for this. First, perhaps, is the tendency for media literacy instruction to disrupt the “willing suspension of disbelief” that occurs when viewers identify with characters and immerse themselves in the narrative drama. Students in Concord High School had significant experiences in critically analyzing fiction as well as non-fiction, examining how point of view is constructed through the selection of language, imagery, content and sequence.  Media literacy instruction may help students to recognize the constructed nature of dramatic experience and, as a result, encourage them to see their favorite TV characters or media personalities in a more complex and nuanced way.

    Finally, students report less dependence on the medium of television, being more likely to disagree with the statement, “It would be practically impossible for me to go a whole week without watching television.” This evidence suggests that students may experience a perception of decreased dependence on television as a source of entertainment and information.  This result is especially interesting since it is not accompanied by an increase in more negative or cynical attitudes about television or the mass media as a whole.

    It may be possible that some of the dramatic differences in attitudes from pre-test to post-test were the result of developmental maturation, and not attributable to the media literacy intervention implemented at Concord High School.  To test this alternative hypothesis, the researchers have began to gather data on a control group of students at Merrimack High School, a school with demographic characteristics very similar to Concord’s, but without any systematic program of instruction in media literacy. These students have received pre-tests and post-tests without any educational intervention.  This data will be reported in a future study. 

    As a result of these research results, the role of media literacy instruction on students’ attitudes about the media and their media use behaviors warrant further study. First, this research showed that media literacy instruction results in students’ increased awareness of their own media habits and choices, leading to decreases in the pleasures associated with passive or habitual viewing—a phenomenon we call the “active beats passive” effect of media literacy instruction. In addition, this research found that media literacy instruction discouraged parasocial relationships with media “friends” and heightens students’ awareness of the constructed nature of celebrity, an effect we label the “not really friends” effect of media literacy instruction.  Further research should explore how this shift in perspective about parasocial relationships may impact on students’ developing identity, including self-concept and self-esteem. Finally, our research indicates that media literacy instruction lowers students’ perception of their own dependence on television, a phenomenon we label the “less dependent” effect of media literacy instruction.   It may be that media literacy instruction, by helping students to become more aware of their habits and choices, and by discouraging media friendships with celebrities, students become more tuned in to the alternatives to television use which are all around them and more able to see themselves as responsible for making thoughtful decisions about what to watch, see and read.

      TABLE 1

    Attitude Statements about Viewing Motivation

STATEMENT

I enjoy watching TV to get a break from some of the pressures in my life.

 

I often watch TV to pass the time.

 

When there’s nothing better to do, I watch TV.

 

I like watching TV shows that I know my friends will want to talk about.

 

N = 233

PRE

3.27

 

 

3.27

 

3.24


2.15

 

 

POST

2.88

 

 

2.93

 

2.80

 

1.96

P VALUE

.0001

 

 

.0001

 

.0001

 

.01

 

TABLE 2

Parasocial Relationship as Viewing Motivation

STATEMENT

 

I think my favorite TV personality is like an old friend.

 

My favorite TV personality makes me feel comfortable, as if I am with friends.

 

If my favorite TV personality appeared on another television program, I would watch that program.

 

I like to compare my ideas with what my favorite TV personality says. 

 

N = 233

 

PRE

 

1.84

 

2.07

 

 

2.78

 

1.88

 

POST

 

1.64

 

1.82

 

 

2.52

 

1.70

 

 

P VALUE

.

003

.

002

 

.

004

 

.01

It would be practically impossible for me to go a whole week without watching TV.

N = 233

1.98

 

1.70

.001

TABLE 3

Dependence on Television

APPENDIX A

ATTITUDE QUESTIONNAIRE

Concord High School


NAME:____________________________________________  DATE:___________

 

DATE OF BIRTH: _________________(month, day, year) 

Read the sentences below and indicate your level of agreement or disagreement with each.

I enjoy watching TV to get a break from some of the pressures in my life.

strongly agree 5 4 3 2 1 strongly disagree

 

I often use TV watching to avoid doing things I don't want to do.

strongly agree 5 4 3 2 1 strongly disagree

 

I like watching TV shows that I know my friends will want to talk about.

strongly agree 5 4 3 2 1 strongly disagree

 

When I haven't watched a show everybody else has, I sometimes feel left out.

strongly agree 5 4 3 2 1 strongly disagree

 

I like to watch shows where I learn something new about the world around me.

strongly agree 5 4 3 2 1 strongly disagree

 

Some TV shows give me information that I like to share with others.

strongly agree 5 4 3 2 1 strongly disagree

 

I often watch TV just to pass the time.

strongly agree 5 4 3 2 1 strongly disagree

 

When there's nothing better to do, I watch TV.

strongly agree 5 4 3 2 1 strongly disagree

 

I think my favorite TV personality is like an old friend.

strongly agree 5 4 3 2 1 strongly disagree

 

My favorite TV personality makes me feel comfortable, as if I am with friends.

strongly agree 5 4 3 2 1 strongly disagree

 

If my favorite TV personality appeared on another television program, I would watch that program.

strongly agree 5 4 3 2 1 strongly disagree

 

I like to compare my ideas with what my favorite TV personality says. 

strongly agree 5 4 3 2 1 strongly disagree

 

If there were a story about my favorite TV personality in a newspaper or magazine, I would read it.

strongly agree 5 4 3 2 1 strongly disagree

 

My favorite TV personalities (list here)

____________________________________________________________________

____________________________________________________________________

____________________________________________________________________

____________________________________________________________________

You can't believe anything that you see on television-- anything could be faked.

strongly agree 5 4 3 2 1 strongly disagree

 

The only thing that matters to TV producers is money.

strongly agree 5 4 3 2 1 strongly disagree

 

Sometimes politcs and government seem so complicated that a person like me can't really understand what's going on.

strongly agree 5 4 3 2 1 strongly disagree

 

I don't think that public officials care much about what people like me think.

strongly agree 5 4 3 2 1 strongly disagree

 

Over the years, government leaders pay a good deal of attention to what the people think when they decide what to do.

strongly agree 5 4 3 2 1 strongly disagree

 

I am more interested in new technologies than in most of the subjects in school.

strongly 5  4 3  2 1 strongly

agree          disagree

 

You could learn a lot more from using computers than you could from reading books.

strongly 5  4 3  2 1 strongly

agree          disagree

 

Some students pay more attention to celebrities, actors and actresses and musicians than they do to school subjects.

strongly 5  4 3  2 1 strongly

agree          disagree

 

 

I sometimes feel guilty about watching television.

strongly 5  4 3  2 1 strongly

agree          disagree

 

Often, I watch television shows that I hadn't planned to, just because nothing else is on.

 

strongly 5  4 3  2 1 strongly

agree          disagree

 

I often watch programs I don't personally choose (because someone in the room has selectedthem).

 

strongly 5  4 3  2 1 strongly

agree          disagree

 

I sometimes watch certain programs that I wouldn't generally tell my friends that I watch.

 

strongly 5  4 3  2 1 strongly

agree          disagree

 

I'm probably addicted to watching TV.

strongly 5  4 3  2 1 strongly

agree          disagree

 

It would be practically impossible for me to go for a whole week without watching TV.

strongly 5  4 3  2 1 strongly

agree          disagree

 

I wouldn't notice much difference in my life if there was no television.

strongly 5  4 3  2 1 strongly

agree          disagree

 

 

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