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Children and the media

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Decoding the messages

Mass communication has given birth to an industrial sector that has become all-encompassing. Vast media empires are significant players in the global economy, shaping the political, cultural and economic development of nation states.

Appreciating how and why mass media constructs and distributes information, requires skills that are not readily available to adults, let alone children and young people. Such knowledge - acquired through disciplines like media literacy, media education, media studies or vocational training - has now become an important life skill.

Very young children may find it difficult to differentiate between what is 'real' and what is fictional, but even adults can have difficulty truly understanding the coverage of events by media which may be pursuing a variety of goals. Media companies have business interests in a variety of industrial and service sectors, and links that may not be immediately obvious to their consumers. And since such corporations may have a very different economic and political agenda to the individuals who purchase or rely upon their products, issues of equity and editorial integrity can be at stake.

Product placement, programme and product sponsorships and cross-media marketing have blurred conventional lines between journalism and advertising. Our attitude towards a book review, for example, changes if we are made aware that the item has been produced by the same media company that is publishing the review, and that it may be obtained at a special rate if it is purchased through the company's website.

There may be a debate about where and how the ability to interpret communication techniques should be learned, but there can be little doubt about why it has become so important. Unless everyone recognizes the influence of the media, and learns how to engage with it, their ability to participate in society is curtailed.

Developing media education within schools curricula, media awareness projects and practical opportunities for media production are invaluable methods of ensuring that young people are well equipped to tackle the complexities of adult life and to contribute to public debate about the type of society in which they want to live.

Media professionals have a role to play in developing media literacy programmes within schools, as well as a vested interest in ensuring that future generations trust the mass media as a source of reliable information.

This is part of the rationale behind the Newspapers in Education scheme, operated by the World Association of Newspapers, which encourages children to produce their own or contribute to existing newspapers. In the process they learn about the role of the media, and how it constructs meaning from events rather than just recording them.

Opportunities for children to become involved in media production - and learn about how the media operates in the process - can be seen in projects such as Children's Express and UNICEF's Voices of Youth initiative. These collaborative projects increase mutual appreciation between children and journalists.

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