There used to be a Saturday morning news break for kids hosted by Walter Cronkite called In the News, and it gave a summary of the weeks events with extra background material for kids – it was probably more in-depth than anything we see on Headline News today. But there was Uncle Walter up on the screen so there was no mistaking that whatever he told you about what was really happening.
Fast forward to 2010, when W. comes in and tells me he’s “worried about 2100.” “You mean that stupid movie about 2012?”, I ask. “No, 2100, – look, it’s on YouTube.” He pulls out the iPod and does a search, his fingers moving like lighting across the tiny keyboard. He hands it to me and I watch, mouth agape, a commercial for a “documentary” about all the disasters that await the world in 2100 – New York City under water, forests aflame, an apocalypse via CGI. And in the corner of the screen there is an icon: ABC News. The news division is now in the prophecy business, reporting science fiction as hard news. Never mind that 2100 is farther away than W. thinks it is, his iPod is telling him he should be concerned about it and has stunning visuals to reinforce this myth of fiction presented as fact.
My memories of the nightly news from toddlerhood identify me as a media hound from way back, and I learned early to question the source of any story, but it’s becoming so clear to me that the sheer number of sources and the advances in visual technology make it so much harder for kids to decide whether what they are hearing and seeing is worthy of their attention. When A. did a research paper recently on health care, it was astounding how difficult it was to find hard information that was not subject to spin or propaganda – and the crazier the rhetoric, the sexier the site was. Those graphically austere government sites with all the real documents on them are not nearly as fun to peruse as the Daily Kos and the Drudge Report. And even some of the sites with more sober graphics were selling an angle. It was hard for both of us to determine whether a source was reputable.
But even though I am complaining I am grateful that there are so many sources of information, from caller ID to Facebook, because if we take the time to identify good sources, we can access them at any time and we can teach our children about critical thinking in a concrete, hands-on way. The hardest part is knowing when to turn it off. When my cousin D. was dying of cancer, she quit her lucrative job, got rid of her TV, cancelled her newspapers, and devoted her time to painting, sewing, and helping local seniors with their finances and taxes. I did not know her well earlier in her life, but those last few years I did know her to be one of the most joyful, peaceful people I have ever met. I don’t have the fortitude – or the desire – to unplug completely like she did, but I use her example as a constant reminder that we need to work hard keep our eyes and minds firmly on this side of the looking glass.