You’re probably already media literate – trust your instincts

This week is Media Literacy Week in the U.S., and that means lots of people will talk about how important it is to be able to tell the difference between facts and fake news, especially online.

It’s true. It’s really important. But it’s always been difficult, and it’s becoming harder and harder as we get more and more of our information via social media. This problem is becoming increasingly apparent as we inch closer to the 2020 presidential election. If you aren’t obsessively reading about this (in which case, I envy you) you might have missed that Mark Zuckerberg, head of Facebook, recently said his platform will not be taking action against political ads that contain lies.

In statements last week, he said he’s really concerned about the “erosion of truth,” but he just can’t let Facebook be the arbiter of right and wrong by taking down political ads that contain false statements. One of his primary arguments is that the FCC requires radio and television stations to give candidates equal time, but Zuckerberg also likes to claim Facebook is not a media company… But it’s this “we’re not the arbiter of truth” piece that feels most troubling to me.

It’s a very familiar argument, similar to what I’ve heard from individuals who’ve decided they don’t trust any mainstream media source: “We can’t trust one arbiter of truth, so we really can’t trust any, and we’ll never now what’s ‘true,’ so why bother worrying about it?” Usually I would get a message like this after gently suggesting to an acquaintance or distant family member that a link to InfoWars or NaturalNews or Prager U might be misleading.

Sometimes journalists get a little resentful about this stuff, which, as a journalist, I get. But I also get not wanting to be condescended to about what’s “true,” and I get that there are so many information sources out there, it can be truly impossible to sift through it all without spending a lot of time and energy. I also get that some people might have that time and energy, but choose to spend it finding things that confirm what they already believe – it’s a free country, so I won’t try to talk you out of it.

But… I think that deep down most people really do care about facts, and really don’t like being lied to. Yes, politics is dirty, and media can be too. But throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater in these two areas is dangerous. Media is meant to hold the powerful accountable. Facebook can’t decide if it’s a member of the media, or one of the powerful, or both. It might feel like we, lowly civilians, can’t figure that out for them or do anything about it, but what I want you to think about on this media literacy day is that we can.

Media literacy doesn’t have to imply you’re illiterate about the media, or that you need to take some kind of formal class or workshop to understand what’s going on. For most people – people who want to know what’s true but are just a little overwhelmed – it’s about trusting your instincts.

Does a headline seem too good or bad or crazy to be true? It probably is. You can check by looking at the URL, reading the story, and clicking on links within it.

Are you skeptical of the way something is being framed? That’s great insight. You can read articles by other publications about the same topic to round out your exposure to the story and see what makes sense to you.

You’re still going to suffer from confirmation bias – we all want to believe what we want to believe. But I think being intentional about this, recognizing when we’re maybe understanding something based more on our wishes than the facts in front of us, will make all the difference.

It’s true – existentially, it’s hard to know what’s objectively, 100%, no-doubt true. But that’s not what media literacy is about. It’s about knowing what happened, who did it, and maybe why. Sometimes answering those questions takes more than one tweet or article or even one year of reporting and reading. That’s okay – that’s how it’s always been. Getting comfortable with not knowing some things for sure, but being pretty confident you’re following along, is half the battle.

Resources:

  • Subscribe to The Flip Side, a newsletter that shows you how the right, left, and center are covering various big news items (especially political stuff). It doesn’t always make me feel like I know what’s true for certain, but it helps me understand better the way things are being framed and why.
  • Take this News Literacy Quiz. Fun fact – I didn’t pass the first time I took it myself!
  • Read these 8 ways to tell if a website is reliable.
  • Subscribe to the news sources you use most, and/or sign up for their newsletters so you get the information right in your inbox, rather than through the filter of your social media feed.

 

What we can say, and whether we should

I love the First Amendment. I really do. It’s why I have my job. It’s why you get to watch bro movies and cooking shows on Netflix. It’s a big part of the reason that this country even exists. Obviously, with the good comes the bad. The First Amendment – the inability for the U.S. government to make laws that abridge freedom of speech, religion and assembly – is also the reason we have things like Donald Trump and naturalnews.com. It’s give and take, but ultimately it’s worth it.

In college, I took a media law class that included a moot court experience. It was SCOTUS role play, and I was nicknamed “Ruth.” If you know me, that’s probably not surprising. I don’t remember what case we discussed, but I remember it was about the First Amendment, and I remember grappling with this idea that yes, even horrible things people say are, for the most part, legal, and cannot be censored by the government. At the time, I was still learning what it really meant to be a journalist, and what kind of power a writer can have. I was learning my own voice, and the responsibility that I would have once I published something – anything, journalism or not. I remember sitting in the small auditorium, channeling RBG but fielding so many emotions. Some things are just wrong, I thought, and we should discuss why. But in that class, and in my brief encounter with studying for the LSAT and my 3+ years writing about the law, I learned that there’s a big difference between what’s legal and what’s “right.” There is overlap, sure. But while Little Kait once believed that laws were made only to help people and ensure everyone got along while living the American Dream, Grown Up Kait understands there is nuance. Thankfully, there is also ethics.

Today, an essay on xoJane in which one woman shared her opinions and feelings about another woman’s mental illness and death, went viral. The author of the piece concluded that this person – who she didn’t know very well and hadn’t spoken to for a while, and didn’t particularly like – was better off dead, because she was so mentally ill she must have been miserable, and also quite a burden to her family. I’m paraphrasing, but if you Google “xoJane” today, you will see several response pieces and probably also a cached copy (xoJane took the piece down and replaced it with an apology after the obvious blowback). Apart from the obvious question – why is this an “essay” worth publishing? – this brought out a lot of concern in the online writing community. One reason: it essentially encouraged the idea that if one is extremely mentally ill, one may be better off dead, something that people who are already more likely to consider suicide really don’t need to hear. The second reason: it’s yet another symptom of the clickbait outrage manipulation machine. Media critic Jenn Pozner calls these #clickbaitcrimes. Sites like xoJane and YourTango mine for the juiciest, most scandalous stories and opinions (or stories and opinions that they can make juicy and scandalous with wild headlines) and throw their authors to the wolves. And sometimes those wolves are rightfully hungry.

This piece was obviously horrible, and it started a lot of good conversations about mental health and media ethics, hopefully before it did any damage. But it also brought out the trusty First Amendment argument, and its little sister “censorship!” I was really disappointed to see several writers – including journalists – argue that unpublishing an essay like this is censorship that puts publications on a “slippery slope” toward silencing any “unpopular opinion.”

It is my hope that most people can see this situation for what it really is – not just an unpopular opinion or poorly-written essay, but a missive that could cause real harm to vulnerable people, and not a government-sanctioned silencing of protected speech, but private companies and groups choosing not to associate with such content. Not all writers are journalists, or go to journalism school. And I understand how attached we are to the ability to share our thoughts and opinions through the written word. But I think deep down, most of us understand that doing so is a privilege, not a right. If a publication or group decides that they think we are dangerous, or unfair, or simply not good at writing, they are within their rights to say so, and take action. And the great news is that we are within our rights to spread our views elsewhere. As much as it pains me to say it, there are dozens of other websites that would publish this woman’s words and not think twice, no matter the response. And no law should prevent them from doing so. But, ethics…

Ethics aren’t something that can be forced on anyone. In the writing community, we don’t have any kind of code that we have to sign in order to publish. We do have the Society of Professional Journalists, which does a great job of setting standards and best practices, but not all writers are journalists, and not all journalists agree with what the SPJ has to say. Ethics, in general, are often very personal. They come from experience, education, empathy. They take work to cultivate and truly put into practice.

My worry is that with the current clickbait outrage manipulation machine, in which publications like xoJane and its parent company Time Inc. want you to be upset, want you to comment, want you to share indignantly, people aren’t taking time to develop these ethics, or implement them. And I don’t just mean writers – an editor had to say “OK, sure!” to the piece celebrating an ex-friend’s death. I think the solution to this is better media literacy, which is a huge issue that I am working on getting more involved in. But in the meantime, I hope writers – who I know are tired, and broke, and struggling – will be more careful with the way they treat the First Amendment. Bringing it up as a reason why someone like the author mentioned above should not be criticized, or asked to leave a publication or group, is inaccurate, and it’s frankly a cop out. The First Amendment is vital, it’s important, and yes, it protects even words we do not like. But it’s not a substitute for ethics.