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High school students mulled over how the media can subtly persuade the public during the third Young Scholars Social Science Summit--a daylong program funded by the American Psychological Foundation to educate Washington, D.C., area teens about the social sciences.

Local high school teachers from six schools selected the 50 students who attended the Dec. 10 event.

The summit, held at APA headquarters and organized by the APA Education Directorate's Center for Gifted Education Policy, featured presentations by a psychologist, historian, geographer and journalist:

  • Clinical psychologist and Div. 46 (Media) president-elect Peter Sheras, PhD, discussed how television programs--from sitcoms to documentaries--use subtle methods to influence viewers. Sheras, a professor at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education, used video clips to illustrate how programs use camera angles, emotional appeals, modeling and other techniques to subtly sway viewers.

"There's more than one thing going on here," he explained of one video. "There's a story...but there's also a presentation of how that story is told." For example, he noted how one antiviolence documentary selected somber music when trying to elicit empathy for the victims of a school shooting.

When people are aware that this kind of back story exists, he said, they might be better prepared to question media content that, for example, instead condones violence. Arming the public with that knowledge is one way that society could mitigate television violence's harmful effects, he said.

"The goal we have in dealing with negative effects of the media is not just to say, 'We have to change the media,'" he explained. "But it's also that we have to get people to take individual responsibility for what they're watching and say, 'You know what, that has an impact on me in a lot of ways.'"

  • George Washington University associate professor and geography department chair Marie Price, PhD, explained that maps are useful for much more than just memorizing place-names: "Maps convey information in powerful and sometimes subversive ways," she said. For example, Price explained how maps of the recent presidential election's results could be formulated to slant the election in different ways. She showed how state-by-state, red-versus-blue maps make the country look sharply divided, but a county-by-county "purple" map--one that colors each county on a gradient from very red to evenly divided purple to very blue--makes America look more homogeneous (see above).

  • Smithsonian historian Fath Davis Ruffins explained her research into the history of U.S. advertising's portrayal of ethnicity. Ruffins is the former head of the National Museum of American History's advertising history collection and studies how consumerism--especially advertising's portrayal of ethnic minorities--has affected U.S. society.

"Ethnicity is not just a neutral term," she explained. "There is a history of slavery and segregation, of prejudice and discrimination, and you see those things in ethnic imagery in advertising."

She also explained that such historical ephemera--ads, catalogs and other documents that were made to be thrown away--can tell historians a lot about what people thought, how they lived and how they made their choices, including how Americans stereotyped different ethnic groups in the 20th century.

  • Washington Post writer and 2004-2005 Harvard University Nieman Fellow Amy Goldstein gave students a snapshot of what it's like to cover the White House for a major newspaper. Goldstein was one of a group of reporters who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for their coverage of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

"My job is not to try to directly influence the outcome of anything," she said. "What I'm trying to do instead is help the public widen their understanding of what's happening and to explore its meaning."

But doing so can be difficult: Reporters often have to wade though conflicting perspectives and be on the lookout for sources' hidden agendas, she said. She added that every news story involves a series of judgment calls--including deciding what information will be included, the story's length and its placement in the paper.

Before Goldstein's keynote address, the students met with each of the social scientists in small groups--a structure that gave the attendees the opportunity to pepper the presenters with questions.

"I think it worked especially well to meet in small groups, so the students really had a chance to interact with each speaker," says National Cathedral School geography teacher Jennifer Caito, who brought 10 students to the summit. A few students even wrote her letters after the summit, with positive feedback like "I have never had to listen to people speak for so long, yet stayed so interested," and "I really love learning outside the classroom. It makes what we learn seem applicable to real life experiences."

Further Reading

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