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Student-created media: Public service announcements

October 12, 2015

Two television tag-lines that became part of American language are Take a bite out of crime (1981) and A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste (1972). Both of them came from public service announcements (PSAs). So does a new phrase circulating through popular culture, “It’s On Us“:

A public service announcement can be a great way to incorporate student media production into a college course. This article contains suggestions and resources for planning such an activity.

A catchphrase helps spread the word, but a PSA is more than that. It’s a noncommercial message printed or aired for the benefit of the audience in order to change attitudes, promote safety, fight disease, recruit volunteers, publicize an event, or raise funds. Nonprofits and governments provide many of the PSAs we see, but media outlets also create campaigns like The More You Know (NBC). The USA once required 30 minutes of weekly PSA time. The regulations have relaxed, but stations typically still do about 200 of them a week. This radio spot promotes a college savings plan:

The 1964 US Surgeon General’s report on smoking eventually led to a requirement that broadcasters air one anti-smoking PSA for every three tobacco commercials. Public health professionals believe the resulting announcements saved millions of lives! The 1980s anti-drug PSA campaign was the largest ever, with more than $365 million spent annually. Remember This is your brain on drugs?

The Project


The format described here is an audio or video production — not printed, like Smokey (at right). The content is up to you; there are surely social issues, nonprofit groups, or public safety concerns related to your discipline. If you get stuck, try describing the PSA concept to a class letting them brainstorm topics with you.

For this activity, students create a short message, perhaps 30 seconds long. A narrator can only say 50-75 words in that time frame, so students need to be concise and choose their words very carefully; you may want them to write a script. The length also makes including a music soundtrack a valuable option for conveying emotional tone.

If your PSA assignment is a video, decide what kinds of titles (text screens) students should include — maybe just credits at the end. Also specify a number of scenes. One unbroken recording can be fine, but consider requiring at least two shots. A fancier project might have 6 scenes, creating a visual change every 5 seconds.

Consider making this an authentic task by planning to submit the final products to local radio or television stations. They may be very happy to receive them!

A PSA is a noncommercial message that aims to change attitudes, promote safety, fight disease, recruit volunteers, publicize an event, or raise funds.

Learning Goals

Begin developing your activity by articulating what students should know and be able to do at the end of the project. You’ll want to learn more about media goal setting, but here is generic language to get you started:

In completing this activity, students will demonstrate that they can

  1. Explain [subject area topic] concisely in everyday language
  2. Present a persuasive and relevant call to action
  3. Produce a competently edited sound or video recording
  4. Use media affordances effectively


You’ll want to create a rubric for evaluating the work. It should be easy to come up with criteria to address the content, but many people have little experience evaluating media. Don’t expect students to be Spielberg, but don’t settle for poor quality media either. Include at least two media criteria. As you formulate your rubric, here are some basic media considerations:

  • Video — adequate lighting, limited camera movement, smooth transitions, varied shots
  • Sound — limited noise, consistent volume level, loud enough but not distorted
  • Music option — legal soundtrack, credits included in the piece or online
  • General — the media reinforce the message (expect more than a “head shot” video or monotone voice recording)

Some PSA rubric examples: sample rubric | another | one more — and a generic multimedia rubric.


Listing deliverables is one way to describe the flow of an activity to your students. You may not require all of the items below, but these suggestions can help you formulate the assignment.

  1. One-sentence topic statement
  2. Script, with optional notes on music (and visuals for video)
  3. Credits for Creative Commons licensed music soundtrack
  4. Unedited first recording or edited first draft of a media file
  5. YouTube or SoundCloud URL for published PSA

After articulating learning objectives, developing a rubric, and planning out your sequence of deliverables you should be ready to test the project. If you’re unsure, then offer it as an extra credit assignment the first time through.

IMPORTANT: before assigning any media project make a simple one yourself and use your rubric to assess it. This will give you a concrete idea of the tools, skills, and time required. Whether the students see your masterpiece(?) or not, they’ll like the idea that you’re not asking them to do something you have no idea how to do.



[Image source: Smokey3, by Forest Service (USDA) in cooperation with the Association of State Foresters and the Advertising Council. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.]

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