Quiet on the Set: Why high school broadcast programs should abandon the TV news format

Posted on June 13, 2012

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This past school year, Kansas released new “pathways” for Career and Technical Education. Among other changes, the state replaced “broadcast journalism” with “video production” or “media production,” and in response many of my colleagues spent the year assessing how this change will affect their classes, most of which produce school news shows.

My position on this is pretty straightforward: it doesn’t have to be student news to promote student learning. News and learning aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, and lots of student learning happens during the production of a news show, so please don’t think I’m hating on news shows, because I’m not. I’m instead advocating a subtle shift in how we think about high school video programs–a shift that’s already underway in many programs, to be sure–away from a product-focused classroom, toward a process-focused classroom that likely includes a variety of different products–and potentially products that look very much unlike TV news. And that’s okay. I’d go one further: it’s an improvement.

Here’s my thinking on this: Video is a medium. TV news is a format. If our goal is to help students understand media generally, and video in particular, it follows that we would avoid limiting our students’ investigation to one particular iteration of that medium. To do so would completely circumscribe their experience and their learning. It would be as silly as conducting an English class that read nothing but the newspaper and wrote nothing but imitations of what they read. Now, I love the newspaper, but if an English class purports to teach writing, reading, and thinking, using only the newspaper, it would downplay the possibility of language completely: it would ignore the many other ways that people use written language to communicate. Newspapers are wonderful, but to they do not represent some sort of crowning achievement in the history of language or communication. Similarly, by focusing solely on news in a video class–or even elevating news to a position of primary importance–we do much the same thing. By instead embracing video as a communication medium, we can help our students understand video from a rhetorical perspective–a perspective that can include TV news, but also include much more than that.

I hear someone protesting (I actually hear this voice in my head, and it is the voice of one of my colleagues): I do all that in my class within the news format. Good for you. But you’ve missed my point, which is Why are we trying to do that? On what evidence do we believe that a TV news format is somehow the best or most valid way for students to learn about visual communication? Let it go.

I also hear protests that I’m talking about “film” not about “broadcast.” Which is precisely the sort of distinction that should be at the center of our classes. What is Frontline? What is Independent Lens? What is Al Jazeera Frames? What is E:60? Are these news? Are they films? Does it matter? Read the comments attached to Dan Chung’s “Aftermath–The Japanese Tsunami”  and tell me that’s not a conversation about the very medium itself. (If you haven’t seen that Dan Chung piece, by the way, it’s really interesting, and it–and the comment section–raises really important questions about subjective and objective perspectives, about the difference between documenting and manipulating, about the interplay between technique and truth.) And that’s not even touching upon video used to persuade and promote. The KONY 2012 video, for example, raises all sorts of exciting questions about video–in particular about the ways stories must always simplify. If these aren’t the sorts of questions we’re pursuing with our students, what sorts of questions are we pursuing?

Here’s the thing: If we want our students to develop the capacity to evaluate and produce actual cultural communication–and if we accept (as we must) that TV news packages constitute a very small portion of the world’s actual cultural communication (video communication, I mean)–then some of the other sorts of video communications need to be included in the curriculum.  We’ve got to place the medium itself under the microscope, so that students can begin to understand the strengths and biases inherent in the medium, so that they can begin to get a sense for video’s limits as well as its possibilities. Not everything is visual, of course, and not every thought is best communicated through video. This is the perspective our classes offer. This is the reason we teach students about science not as a body of knowledge, but as a way of knowing–as an approach to the world and its mysteries. And just as science is equipped to answer only some of our questions about the world, so too any “way of knowing” (any field of inquiry) has built-in limits and bounds.

If you’re a video teacher, I hope you see that my interest here is first of all in student learning–not in industry expectations, tradition, or any external body’s ideas about what constitutes “proper” media instruction. In that regard, I would describe my perspective as a student-centered approach (which, to be clear, I use in a manner consistent with James Moffett’s use of the phrase “student-centered”). Our classes are truly rich with opportunities, but we need to consider how our decisions about what’s in or out of a course’s content teaches students what sorts of experiences are worthy of attention and study.

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