Sunday, July 11, 2010

Common Sense Transparency

Over at School Library Journal, Brian Kenney's latest editorial is Fear Factor: Kids' Lit Style, about Common Sense Media.

As you may recall, back in February I wrote about Common Sense Media in the context of their reviews being used at Barnes & Noble, called No We Don't All Agree. Many other bloggers and writers also wrote about it. Publishers Weekly did a story, called Common Sense raises issues at B&N.

At the time, I wrote: "If a parent wants the type of detailed "how many f*cks?" "is there kissing with tongue" "is it blasphemous" type of review, fine. Great! I even think CommonSenseMedia is a great resource for us readers who don't count the number of times a kid talks back to an adult, but have patrons who want to know. . . . Yes, it is biased; read some book reviews of books you have read, and you'll see this is not objective or factual. Which is fine, because some people want this. For example, in writing about The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, drinking and parental obedience is highlighted . . . . So, for those parents whose concern is drinking regularly? And being a dutiful child? This website is for them."

Kenney says, "Well, when it comes to book reviews, it turns out there's plenty not to love. In fact, its book reviews are frightfully inept and tremendously dangerous." and then continues, "For Common Sense's reviewers, children's literature is just one big minefield of scary topics, and their job is to comb through books for any offending passages. The message is clear: based on narrow criteria, some material is problematic, children need to be protected from it, and it's the job of teachers and parents to help kids avoid questionable content. The offending incidents are presented without context, while the overall message, intent, and literary quality of a book are rarely addressed. Book after book, Common Sense reviewers harp on the negative while the positive aspects of reading broadly--including tackling books that are challenging--are never addressed."

Alas, I cannot comment at SLJ and I really, really, want to.

I decided to revisit Common Sense Media and Barnes and Noble.

My new thoughts; and please, if I've made a mistake, give me a link and I'll edit and revise.

Common Sense Media reviews are no longer available at Barnes & Noble's website. The original press releases, the original pages that highlighted the partnership, exist, but I couldn't find a children's or teen book that provided the Common Sense Media review. I don't order books from Barnes & Noble; anyone have any idea when this happened?

Judy Blume's books are no longer reviewed at Common Sense Media. How Blume's books were reviewed was one of the issues raised by Salon and Meg Cabot. Now? Nothing at Common Sense Media. It's as if the books were never reviewed there at all. I did manage to find a "kids review" section about ARE YOU THERE GOD, but when I tried to get to the original review I was told it's protected and I had to join to see it.

Common Sense Media has no transparency about the rules and procedures its reviewers are to follow, or how to use its rating system. The best I could find was a very broad "how to understand our ratings."

And the last one is why I'm changing my mind about Common Sense Media and leaning more towards Kenney's concerns. Because it's impossible to find, flat out, their bias for a parent to make an informed decision about what slant Common Sense Media uses. A scattered number of reviews leads me to conclude that unless a book fits a particular, narrow profile (obedient children, traditional gender roles, proper religious values) it will get more criticism. Yet I cannot find anywhere on Common Sense Media to reveal that to parents.

Example one: Octavian Nothing Vol. II and Bloodline. Common Sense Media says Octavian is a "brilliant, brutally violent novel for mature readers only" yet totally omits from the review the "the good stuff" part of the review. Message: nothing good here! Also watch out for the bad messages, which are (emphasis added): "Plenty of racism and despicable acts and attitudes toward African Americans. Speculation about the inherently evil nature of man, as well as wit about the nature of God that some might consider blasphemous." So a book whose entire meaning is "racism is wrong" is a bad message in that it shows the racism that is wrong. Plus, uh oh, blasphemy!

Now, Bloodline. Common Sense Media includes "the good stuff" for this tale of "Dark ages adventure a draw even for history-phobic teens". Unlike Octavian Nothing, this book is educational because (again, my emphasis added): "Although much written about the early dark ages must be conjecture, Moran has done extensive research that reveals much about day to day life in the seventh century and readers will learn much about the time and the spread of Christianity." What do parents need to know? "This is historic fiction at a very high level that gives a marvelous introduction to the rise of Christianity, the pagans' reaction to the notion of one God, and daily life in the dark ages." And what types of things should families discuss? "Families can talk about the rise of Christianity and how it spread throughout the world. What were the other world religions in the 7th century, and how many of them are still practiced?" Now, readers of this blog know that I love a book that portrays religion positively; I love historical fiction; I want to read this book. But why such a heavy emphasis on Christianity on a secular website? Especially when the professional reviews, as shown at Barnes and Noble, do not emphasize that aspect, leaving me to wonder just how important that aspect of the story is to the average reader?

Example Two: Calpurnia Tate, not a good role model. Calpurnia gets a ranking of only 2 out of 5 for "role model." Why? "Calpurnia is tomboyish, dislikes sewing and cooking, but mostly dislikes being indoors. She recognizes the injustice and points it out." Can someone explain this rating system, as to why that is not a 5 out of 5 in any way, shape, or form, other than she is operating outside of typical gender roles so gets a lesser ranking?

Example Three: Charles and Emma don't inspire. On messages in this book: "This biography probably won't inspire any young readers to become scientists, although it does glorify the life of the mind; nor is it particularly inspirational to those of religious faith. It may inspire some readers to be kind and attentive parents". Yes, let's point out that it won't inspire faith and ignore the message of how two people with opposing views of religion led a happy, loving life. And I still don't understand the role models ranking, as Charles and Emma, like Calpurnia , received only 2 out of 5 for being this type of role model: "The relationship between Charles and Emma, both with competing belief systems, reveals a partnership based on love rather than a union based on similar beliefs and conformity to expectations. They are both devoted parents". Since 2 out of 5 usually isn't a good ranking, I can assume this description means "not good role models." Except I don't read it that way. I think that is a 5 out of 5 role model!

My conclusion?

Admittedly, this is only a handful of reviews. And yes, some parents do want a Common Sense Media type of "tell us the bad stuff." My question now is Common Sense Media's lack of transparency about how reviews are done and the standards and training its reviewers follow. There are parents whose questions are about blasphemy, how a religion is portrayed, and traditional gender role models. If those parents are Common Sense Media's primary audience, shouldn't that be clearer to the average person?

As Kenney at SLJ points out, are these full reviews or ones that are quick to point out the "bad" without pointing out the "good"?

What standards are being used?

EDITED TO ADD: Kenney links to this letter sent by NCAC to Common Sense Media about its issues with how CSM treats books. The current review of Chains is significantly different from the one described in the letter and is marked as edited at a date later than that letter. Are You There, God, It's Me Margaret and Beloved, both mentioned in the letter, no longer appear at the CSM site. Does anyone have a link to CSM's official response to this letter?

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. I wish there were a less judgmental version of what CSM does. Something that really does just lay out the "bad bits" so you know they're there and can prepare young kids for them, or steer them away for a couple of years. But what CSM wants to do is very different from that. They want readers and parents to believe they're "just the facts" when they're editorializing.

Anonymous said...

From what I gathered, the rating-various-factors ratings don't mean, like, 2 out of 5 stars-- not a GOOD or BAD judgement, but it's more like the amount of that particular factor present in the book or movie or whatever. I recently used CSM to figure out if Toy Story 3 had thrown any surprise inappropriate-for-three-year-olds moments into their franchise before I took my Toy Story loving three year old to see it, and as I recall there was at least one factor-- one of the "bad" factors, probably drug use or what-- that had a zero out of five, meaning "This factor is not present at all." There was a one-out-of-five in bad language, indicating that some Mean Words are used, but nothing commonly thought of as a swear word-- probably "damn" would earn it a 2 out of 5, and progressively more the more swearing is present. Likewise, then, if there were NOT good role models in a work, then it would get ZERO out of 5 in that factor. 1 out of 5 might mean somebody does something nice for someone once or twice, and the explanation given would point this out. 5 out of 5 would mean someone is a real obvious flawless HERO I guess. Does this clear things up?

GreenBeanTeenQueen said...

You know, I really don't like Common Sense Media, but I work in a very very very conservative area (our town is headquarters to the evangelical Assemblies of God and we even have Christian Fiction pulled out in fiction!) so I have an interesting relationship with this site. For the parents that I have that come in and are afraid of teen books and want to over-parent and watch everything their child reads, this site is going to "warn" them about what's in the book. And I'd rather have them not read the book themselves and choose something else instead of reading it and then demanding it be pulled from our library. Sure people can look at the site and then demand we pull books, but I haven't come across that yet. No I don't think it should be on Barnes and Noble's site and I'm glad it's off now. But if I'm going to ask these conservative parents to research a book first if they are concerned, they need something to go to. Yes, it's biased, but so are these parents and I can't change that. Yes it annoys me and just purpetuates the annoying Christian stereotype. But it gives me a site to suggest as a place to research if they are nervous about entering the world of YA and allows them to do the parenting, which is their job, not the librarians.

Liz B said...

Farrar, that's the thing -- saying "we're not editorializing" when they are.

Rockinlibrarian, it doesn't clear it up that much. Its a rating, and usually the higher the better. Absent anything on the site that easily explains it otherwise, it appears that it's saying being a tomboy is only a 2 out of 5 role model.

Greenbeanteenqueen, here's the thing. I see this entering censorship in that it gives tools to possible censors; I can easily see someone printing out the TENDER MORSELS to get that book removed from a school or public library. While I can see using CSM as you do (and have and probably will in the future give CSM to the types of parents you describe), CSM does not self-identify that way. It's not owning its bias, which creates the illusion that it's not biased. Illusion because they say they aren't, yet individual reviews reveal a bias. Is it individual reviewers? What training/guidance etc does CSM give its reviewers? What are the definitions for how the rating is done and what qualifies to be the good stuff/ the stuff to watch out for?

Maria said...

I have used the site to advantage mostly for checking out how appropriate books and movies were for my kids. Editorializing is fine (it is mostly, after all, based on user opinions) and I read between the lines of those concerns addressed to find my own comfort zone. Glad it's there, one tool, and I go here and to Amazon for other reviews. Remember, as a parent you are constantly being thrown into decision making on no notice--just confirmed nixing "Vampires Suck" for my 13 year old with a pretty clear picture from CSM to shore up my expectations, for instance.

Liz B said...

Maria, the editorializing is not disclosed or is hidden. After concerns about hidden biases were raised (Calurnia Tate and a bias against a girl who isn't so-called "traditional") the review was yanked and is still gone. Todd Strasser just posted about a review where if the author doesn't have the kids swear but uses a substitute, it gets "marked down" as if it were swearing. Charles & Emma's review shows a bias more towards organized Christian religions than others. If this is CSM's bias/opinion, as expressed by the reviews it vets, they need to own it rather than pretend it's not there.

And in all honesty, Vampires Suck is PG-13. Any review can tell about the content, but only CSM wraps it in a "we're pretending to be unbiased, but OMG all these books, reviews, movies have BAD BAD things" flag.

Tho -- to be fair -- I think CSM's problem is its reviewers and failure of oversight. They have on their site talk about training/standards, don't disclose it, and when I see troubling reviews it tends to be the same people over and over. They corrected Are You There God It's Me Margaret (but, again, showed edited date but nothing about what led up to the correction). There is no indication they are seeking to correct reviews unless we stand up and point out the over-the-top bias.

Frankly, that's not my job. That's the job of CMS, which says it has no bias.

Maria said...

I did sort of enter this in the middle, my apologies, and I do have a parental more than a marketing or library perspective.

My point is it is pretty obvious they are watchdogs of the traditional or picky type, statement or no, and that's what I would go there for--why not?--finding out before the fact what would have been a negative surprise; for more nuanced impressions I read the good and bad Amazon reviews and communicate with people with similar tastes regarding quality and entertainment. Some PG-13 is fine, some is not, same with YA lit, and there was enough at CSM there for me to thumbs up Harry Potter--but watch it with the kids after the fourth or so--and thumbs down the crass vampire spoofing film.

Being based on user ratings and one-size-fits-all subratings, CSM is going to be capricious and to some extent absurd, and not fair regarding the "good" stuff--but I don't doubt most adults can read between the lines--they are useful for reference. Just their categories speak for their biases. Anway, I gather you stand on the principle that transparency is the best thing--and they must be claiming something they are not, unless by unbiased they mean they aren't filtering who leaves ratings. It seems fairly honest in appearing (without having read any claims) to be the home of traditional minded or picky parents. In the end, I find them sometimes more and sometimes less liberal in their opinions than I am.

Octavian as a benchmark--the first line started with "brilliant" before the rest--which IS the good stuff in such a nutshell as that one line. I'd say Octavian, which I read a few years ago, isn't what I want my kids to take in, as I found it brilliant, in its way, like the adult Anne Rice novels--for adults who have the stomach for one scene with strikingly gruesome, even sadistic detail that makes a voyeur of the reader. The CSM review probably didn't do artistic justice, and may have had ambiguous subcategories (a CSM weak point, actual statements by readers better)but they wouldn't be wrong if they gave it a near adult rating. It's how the author wrote it. I'll have to read Calpurnia to see if it makes a better benchmark.

I hope this hasn't been entirely beside the point!

Liz B said...

Maria, we'll have to disagree that CSM is clearly aiming itself at the "traditional". If they were ("hey, here at CSM we're about xxx") I'd be more comfortable with it.

As for Octavian, they have revised that review. They have removed the "blasphemous" and added some positives (including the obvious, if you're going to show horrors of slavery, it's going to be bad, and that's not a bad thing).

That CSM, rather than acknowledge either their bias or an individual reviewer bias that doesn't reflect CSM's "common sense" approach, removes & edits reviews as issues are pointed out to them isn't reassuring because it's all done without transparency.

Without transparency, parents cannot make an informed decision as to whether CSM is what they are looking for.

Anonymous said...

As an elementary school librian in a conservative area, I need to know "the bad stuff" in a children's book. My first year as a librarian, I got quite the shock with The Canning Season and had to pass this book along to the high school.