Start early

A few years ago a small boy of our acquaintance started eating Total cereal for breakfast because there were these television commercials that told him that one bowl of Total equaled X-number bowls of other cereals. The poor kid choked down a bowl of the stuff each day (“like chewing a vitamin pill rather than cereal,” as one website describes it).

What the boy did not know at the time was that the commercials were of dubious credibility. In one case, a challenge from Quaker Oats and questions by the American Broadcasting Company forced Total to change one of those commercials.

If these kinds of things can be disillusioning for children, they are also occasions for learning. This is a world in which the claims of toy companies and presidential candidates should be policed. At one time, the State of Nevada published a comparison of insurance policies that was so valuable to consumers that insurance lobbyists got it stopped. Today, fact-checking sites scrutinize the claims of politicians and other public figures. Last week, the urban myth site Snopes answered the unbelievable question, “Did A GOP Lawmaker Report a High School Student for Cursing Over Gun Safety?”

There is an additional and essential way. At a gathering of local independent media in Reno on March 15, there was considerable discussion of media literacy classes, which teach students to approach information skeptically and to scrutinize claims of people and entities. Northern Nevada Business Press publisher Kirsten McGregor, among others, emphasized the importance of starting media literacy classes early.

In 2007, we quoted author Douglas Rushkoff, who as a media consultant practiced some of the techniques of manipulation. “The United States is the only developed nation in the world that does not mandate media literacy as part of its public-school curriculum,” he wrote. Those techniques, he wrote, “are rapidly spreading from the sales floor and the television screen to almost every other aspect of our daily experience.”

At that time, the Washoe County School District told us media literacy was not taught until middle and high schools. That has not changed, according to the WCSD. Nor is media literacy taught in a standalone class. Rather, it is slipped in during things like computer instruction, library briefings and languages. That’s fine—in fact, ideal—as demonstrations of the problem, but it is not a substitute for an early standalone class.

In an editorial 11 years ago, we said, “Manipulation is aimed at small children by … comic books, video arcades and a whole host of other influences. By middle school, patterns of thought may already be set.”

We still think that is the case.

Public relations techniques are dangerous, and the public needs a defense from them. They are used to manipulate, cheat, even kill, as the second Bush administration’s WMD campaign for war showed. They become more refined and dangerous all the time, and the schools system needs to stay ahead of them.