By: MARK FITZGERALD
AS CORPORATIONS MAKE ever more aggressive marketing inroads into the classroom, could Newspaper In Education programs fall victim to a backlash by educators and parents?
Some experts warn that despite NIE’s squeaky-clean reputation, classroom newspaper programs could get caught up in the growing disquiet about marketing that targets children in the classroom. A recent Consumer Reports monograph that was quite critical of corporate sponsorships in schools referred to targeted children as “Captive Kids.”
Signs of aggressive classroom targeting abound: Lifetime Learning Systems boasts in marketing trade magazines ads that it can “put custom-made materials” into the hands of teachers and students. The American Potato Board tries to push a mathematics lesson plan that uses potato chips in classroom exercises. A maker of liquid-filled candy has designed a “physics” lesson plan that involves eating the candy and describing the experience “scientifically.”
“These are the things that I think are pushing the ethical envelope,” said Ed DeRoche, an education professor at the University of San Diego, and a staunch NIE proponent.
“What I’m very fearful of is [that] someone is going to crack the whip ? and newspapers will be one of the things that get cracked. I worry about overreaction,” DeRoche told a Newspaper Association of America Foundation NIE conference in Chicago earlier this year.
No NIE program was among the dozens of bad examples cited by DeRoche or Consumer Reports. Yet NIE directors are facing this issue at a time when the bottom-line pressure to line up corporate sponsorships has never been heavier.
“In this day and age, the decision to start or expand an NIE program has got to be a good business decision,” said Paul Glaeser, circulation manager of the San Francisco Newspaper Agency.
Just last year, the agency created from scratch an NIE program for the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner. One of the first and most worrisome questions, Glaeser said, was how big a role corporate sponsors would play.
“Sponsorship? Is it necessary? Probably, in this day and age. Is it addictive? Yes, absolutely. Is it difficult to replicate every year? Yeah. But if it’s handled correctly, everybody wins,” Glaeser said.
For NIE directors, the worst nightmare is that even without corporate sponsors, the newspaper will get caught up in campaigns against programs that market to children in school.
Everything can go along fine, DeRoche said, “until a local group sees the newspaper going into a classroom and says, first of all, ‘I don’t want to have my kids reading all that negative news about rape and violence,’ and then they start saying [children] are being exposed to all that advertising.”
“I think we have to pay attention to the little ripples because little ripples can turn into big waves,” DeRoche said.
NIE directors should not themselves overreact to these worries, said Betty L. Sullivan, the consultant who developed educational programs and youth marketing strategies for the new San Francisco NIE program. “We enjoy sort of a hallowed position as newspapers,” said Sullivan, head of Dr. Betty L. Sullivan & Associates, the consulting group based in San Francisco and Washington.
Indeed, NIE directors say the advertising in newspapers is a plus with teachers, because NIE lesson plans typically incorporate advertising in classroom exercises.
“Studies suggest teachers would not want a newspaper that did not have advertising, because it would be unrealistic, and because teaching advertising fits with media literacy,” said Linda Kleeman, head of the Houston Chronicle’s NIE program.
Advertising “really isn’t an issue,” Kleeman added. “Once in awhile we get teachers upset because there’s a penile implant ad in the sports page. Or the boys are giggling over the lingerie ads in the front section.”
Sullivan and other experts urge NIE directors to distinguish newspaper programs from classroom-targeted marketing by emphasizing the paper as a lifelong literacy tool and an indispensable part of freedom of the press.
As much as possible, too, NIE materials should emphasize the journalistic tradition of objectivity and balance, said Barbara Pierce Drew, NIE coordinator for the Peoria, Ill., Journal-Star.
“Even if you think there’s nothing wrong in going advertorial [in materials for] the school ? it could backlash,” Drew said. “A school administrator could say, ‘Sorry, we’re not going to use your NIE program.'”
NIE people worry about backlash from people who fear programs that sell to classrooms