Real life or broken mirror? Examining media representations of teenagers
A lesson plan to go with:
“The media reflects complicated teen realities” by Michelle Goodman; “The media distorts teens,” by Gohar Galyan; “Adults commit more crimes than teens,” by Sarah Gustafson published September-October 1999
Subjects: Language Arts, Social Studies
Suggested Time Allowance: 45 minutes-1 hour
Overview of Lesson Plan: In this lesson, students will discuss the representation of teenagers by the media, how media representations affect adults’ perceptions about teens, and how to counteract negative images.
• Analyze the representation of teenagers in the news and other media.
• Discuss the importance of media literacy in interpreting media portrayals of reality.
• Discuss and write about the accuracy, or lack thereof, of media images of young people and ways to educate against inaccurate portrayals.
• copies of “The media reflects complicated teen realities,” “The media distorts teens,” and “Adults commit more crimes than teens” (one per student)
• old magazines and newspapers (collected by the teacher; you may also want to ask students to bring in their old magazines they don’t want anymore)
• newsprint or posterboard
• classroom chalkboard
1. Warm-up: The day before the lesson, students are instructed to watch that evening’s local or national television news, or, if unable to watch television, to read that day’s newspaper. Write down and describe every mention of a youth, teenager, or young adult. If you only had those images to go on, what picture of young people would you have? Is it accurate?
2. In class, discuss the previous night’s observations, writing up students’ examples on the board. Where are these images coming from? Who is putting them on television or in the newspaper? Who is the audience for these images? What messages do these images deliver about young people? Do they, as young people, find these to be accurate or representative of them or their peers? Are there any other images of teens in the media that either balance those images on the board or at least offer a different perspective? Where do these other images come from? Who is their audience?
3. As a class, read the package of three articles. Then discuss them, addressing these questions:
a. What is Michelle’s argument in “The media reflects complicated teen realities”?
b. What is Gohar’s argument in “The media distorts teens”?
c. What is Sarah’s argument in “Adults commit more crime than teens”?
d. With what points in each article do you agree? With what do you disagree? Why?
e. How do you think Michelle would answer Gohar and Sarah’s claims of anti-teen bias in the media? How do you think Gohar and Sarah would answer Michelle’s view of the issue?
f. In light of these three articles’ arguments, look back at your observations from the previous exercise. Do these images support the arguments of any of the articles? If so, how?
g. Where do you get your images of teens, besides personal experience? What television shows, movies, magazines, and other media outlets supply images of teens? What are some of these? Are they “true-to-life” or do them seem false? Does a representation’s truthfulness or falseness matter when you choose to watch it?
h. What does it mean to be “media literate”? How can you read and interpret media images like a text? Why might it be necessary to read commerical media images critically? (Why are these media images “commercial”?)
4. Divide the class into groups of about 4 students. In one area of the room is collected all the materials the groups need for this activity: newsprint or posterboard, glue, markers, scissors, and old magazines and newspapers. (You may have asked students to bring in old magazines they no longer want; this would increase the diversity of teen-related and teen-targeted imagery available for the activity.) The assignment: each group will create a collage from cut-out images and/or text to express a specific message, opinion, or commentary on the issue of teens and media representation. Each group must brainstorm to determine what they want the collage to say, but groups may wish to browse the magazines for ideas. The brainstorming should be recorded on newsprint. Be creative: besides the magazine images and text, students should feel free to write their own text with the markers, or alter the shape of their materials with scissors. To conclude the class session, each group will display their collage for the class. Students should try to figure out each group’s message and ask questions of the group members: Why did they choose those particular images? Why did they arrange them in the manner they chose? What are they trying to say with the collage? Do others think that they are successful? Why or why not?
5. Wrap-up/homework: In an essay, explain your group’s collage. What was your group’s message? Why did you choose this message? How did you attempt to convey this message through your choice of images and how you assembled them? Reflecting on the three articles and the ensuing discussion, write about your own feelings about media images and teens. Do you think media literacy is important, or is television “just television”? Think about your own viewing and reading habits: what kinds of images and messages are embedded in the media you consume? Do you agree with those messages? Why or why not?
Further Questions for Discussion:
• What would you consider a balanced portrayal of teens? What would constitute a positive image of teens? Are these images available in the non-fiction or fiction media? Why or why not?
• How can we extend this discussion to images of other groups, like racial minorities or women?
• What are actions we can take, as consumers of media, to combat negative portrayals and the absence of positive portrayals of youth? How would we go about these actions?
• How can we continue to educate ourselves and others to be literate and critical consumers of media?
Students will be evaluated on their participation in discussion and group work and on their individual written work.
• Carry out an extended research project on media images of teens. Choose a particular program (e.g., Dawson’s Creek) or a specific genre of program (e.g., local news) and monitor it for a set period of time (a week, a month). Document the images of teens that you see over that period of time. Analyze and summarize your observations, and comment on their significance. What do the images that you saw, and/or their frequency, say about how teens are viewed by adults, by the media or Hollywood, by other teen viewers?
• Write a paper comparing contemporary teen movies to teen movies from the 1960s and the 1980s. What are the differences between the teens portrayed in each era? What do the differences say about how teens have really changed over time? What do they say about how teens are perceived to have changed?
• Develop a list of positive true stories about teens that have been ignored in the local news media. Write a cover letter and submit these ideas to local media outlets. Write commentaries from a teen’s point-of-view on issues important to you and submit them to the opinion section of your local paper.