How to Be More Media Literate

Photo by Museums Victoria on Unsplash

By contributor: Caylin Harris

You hear a lot about the media these days—but it’s funny it’s always lumped together like that. The media. That generalization makes it sound like one organization. But really the websites, newspapers, magazines, news broadcasts, and more, that you consume are produced by many different media organizations that all have different interests and people in charge. Full disclosure, I’m a journalist. I majored in magazine journalism at Syracuse University. Something I took for granted then, but find myself thinking a lot about now, is how we’re taught to think critically about the articles we read and the sources we look to for reliable information. I spoke with Harriet Brown, one of my favorite journalism professors at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, about some helpful pointers to improve your media literacy.

What is Media Literacy?

It’s more than just being able to read or watch the news. Think of it like an extra step that’s really important. “Media literacy is about understanding that everything you see, hear, or read isn’t necessarily true and that you have to apply some critical thinking to what you see,” says Brown. “So it might mean considering the source, it might mean thinking about whether or not it’s been verified, or even something as simple as asking yourself does this information make sense to me.” If not, you might need to dig a tiny bit. But don’t worry. One of the great things about the internet is that it makes it easier to look beyond the surface to see if something is valid or not.

It Goes Beyond Reading the News

The truth matters. So does science and fact-based decision making. “We’re in the middle of global pandemic and we’re also in the midst of one of the most important elections of our lifetimes, in both cases, we’ve seen the proliferation of false information,” says Brown. “It’s important to be able to distinguish between what you want to hear and what’s true.” Confirmation bias is the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their existing beliefs, unchecked it locks us into a pattern of thinking that not only distorts facts but clouds our decision making abilities. “We all tend to be in our media bubbles, so it’s very important to remind ourselves that just because this confirms what you already think doesn’t necessarily make it true,” says Brown. For example, when the president says that eighty-five percent of people wearing masks catch coronavirus, if that seems a little off to you, it’s smart to take a minute and see if you can find where that information came from. If you can, wonderful, but if you can’t, you need to rethink that fact.

A Little Background on the News

If you look at the evolution of something like cable news, the news used to run for one hour a night. Now, with 24 hour news networks, we’re overloaded, not only with news stories, but the need to fill air time and a competitive fight for attention and ratings. “In news there used to be (and in many places still is) this idea that if you were a reporter that you were doing your best to be objective. That meant drawing a very firm line between news and opinion. For example, you might report on the president having a rally and X amount of people came, these five things were said, this happened, that’s all just reporting,” says Brown. “That’s different from adding your opinion either subtly or overtly. Obviously the big thing that has happened in the last twenty years is the blurring of those lines. For example, whether it’s FOX News or MSNBC, you might be getting some news but it’s mixed with a very strong point of view.”

How to Be a Better Media Consumer

When you read a news story, read how multiple outlets report on it. Go to The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Fox News, and Bloomberg. Sometimes you’ll see subtle differences in how the outlets cover the same story, other times it will be more glaring. “If you’re seeing the same thing in all of those outlets you can feel better. Also, most news links out to primary sources, so you’ll be able to see facts and information attributed to reputable and credible sources or data. Make sure you’re looking for those things as markers,” says Brown. “If something feels red flaggy—I like the Snopes site. You pop over and they’re right on it—if it’s BS they’ll tell you.” Another question to ask is whether the person writing the article, providing the information, or who’s being quoted as an “expert” has something to gain from distributing this information. It’s an obvious conflict when someone has a vested interest in telling you something. 

It’s also helpful to understand a little bit more about what goes on behind the scenes. Newspapers don’t fact check in the same way as magazines, but everything has to be verified by more than one source or it has be framed in a way that makes it clear if it wasn’t. Many magazines will go through a fact checking process. They need to know where every fact and quote comes from; it’s built into the process. “There’s no such thing as objectivity, we all have biases, but there are a lot of measures in places that account for them,” says Brown. “There will still be things that might slip through rarely but there are a lot of safeguards in the process to prevent that. When it does work well, reporting is pretty reliable.”

Things to Keep in Mind

While there are some obvious exceptions, true journalists don’t exist to tell biased, partisan stories. We tend to be into sharing reliable facts and information that comes from people smarter and better versed on a topic than ourselves—it’s kind of our thing. “I wish people had a good grasp that the goal of journalism is to support democracy and to help educate people so they can make up their own minds,” says Brown. “A reporter’s job is to ask questions, one of the things we’ve seen a lot is this idea that asking certain questions is displaying bias or being rude, when it’s really just their job. Without good journalism you don’t have a healthy democracy. What’s at stake isn’t your own personal beliefs, it’s our civic discourse and it determines the choices we’re making. There’s a lot at stake for our communal life and our democracy.”

Research Before You Share

Whether we think it’s true or not, we all have our own little micro platforms—so it’s really important to do your due diligence before you share an article on social media. “A good rule of a thumb is don’t share things that you’ve only read the headline for. It’s tempting and it’s so easy. But take two minutes and actually read the thing and make sure it gives you enough info to make it worthy of a share,” says Brown. “Make sure it’s something you believe and want to share.”

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