3/8 – News Spin and Selling White Towels

News Spin: Who Gets “Credit” for Bhutan’s King and Queen?

Today we spent the first half of the morning on news analysis, looking in particular at news “spin.”  We discussed the ways in which Bhutan is portrayed in different news sources, both visually

 

and in the headlines and stories in online and print newspapers.  We came back to the discussion that we had started about the news media’s portrayal of the royal wedding, and I showed a collection of four headlines/story excerpts (shown below), asking them to match up the country and the story, based on evidence in the documents. This led to a great discussion and a lot of laughter, especially when I pointed out certain content (e.g., India taking credit for their new queen since she was educated there, and the U.S. taking credit for their king since he was educated in Boston and a great Celtics fan).

 

I then described the agenda-setting function of news – reflecting the concept that news not only influences what we think about things, but also what things we think about – using an adaptation of an activity comparing pairs of headlines, with the question “Which story will get the most coverage?”  (see image below)  Like students in the U.S., the Bhutanese students said (b) would get more than (a), (c) would get more than (d), and (g) – which is based on a very popular and respected Bhutanese singer – would get more than (h).  Unlike the U.S., however, which tends to emphasize negative news much more than positive news, the Bhutanese students overwhelmingly picked (f) over (e).   Are the Bhutanese students just less familiar with the tendency of the news to emphasize negative stories over positive ones?  Or does this reflect a deeper cultural difference between our two countries, and Bhutan’s emphasis on the Gross National Happiness?

We ended the morning with students comparing working in pairs to analyze different news stories reporting on media literacy conferences, identifying evidence in the news story that the conference sounded either really good or really bad (based on one of the lesson plans in my book, The Teacher’s Guide to Media Literacy: Critical Thinking in a Multimedia World (2012, Corwin/Sage).  The students were totally engaged in this activity, able to summarize the evidence and list examples to support their conclusions.

After the morning tea break, I spent more than an hour talking about ways to use media production in the classroom as a means to build both analysis and communication skills.  Since many of these students will eventually be teaching in remote areas of Bhutan that are unlikely to have ready access to the internet and video cameras, I stressed low tech modes of creating “media” messages, including class newsletters and counter-ads.  We ended the morning with one of my favorite activities – “White Towel.”  Students worked in small groups of 4 or 5 to design TV commercials to sell a plain white towel using a storyboard to plan out the visuals, sound, text, plot and characters – but each group had a different target audience (men, women, teenagers, older adults, children, doctors, electricians, sports players, monks, etc.).  Before they began, I showed several different commercials (Real Bugs, Old Spice, Fair and Lovely), identifying the different elements and discussing how they might have been planned out in a storyboard format.  I showed each commercial 3 or 4 times, sometimes without sound so I could comment on the editing and visual elements and sometimes asking them just to listen for the music and sound effects.  The students really threw themselves into this task – and after 15 minutes I went from group to group, checking in on their progress and plans.  Some groups that had monks as the target audience were flummoxed – “Why would monks use a towel, they don’t take showers!” – but other groups designed really creative commercials for monks (e.g., with a monk climbing a tall mountain and getting very hot, then reaching a waterfall and taking a pure white towel out of his pack to wash off the sweat).  They particularly loved including the music and sound effects, and also gave a lot of thought to the gender portrayals, reflecting our prior discussions from the day before.  Several groups volunteered to have me present their storyboards – and one young man was brave enough to describe his group’s commercial himself (featuring a wonderful plot involving two guys vying for the attentions of an attractive girl swimming on the beach – and the scrawny less attractive guy wins the girl because his towel is the softest on her skin).

The success of this activity made me wonder – would this work in any culture?  Or might there be cultural barriers to participating in this kind of creative small group work?

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