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.


  • 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.


Frenemy of the People

Are you a real millennial if you don’t have your own podcast? Well…I’m about to find out. Last week I launched Frenemy of the People, a podcast about journalism and trust. It includes conversations with reporters and editors about the work they do, plus broader discussions about “the media,” how readers/viewers/listeners relate to it, and vice versa.


You can hear the teaser here now, and the first episode should be dropping tomorrow, October 1!

This was one of those projects that just kept tugging at me, even when I tried to convince myself that it wouldn’t be worth the time/potential blowback. But eventually I felt like I couldn’t not do it, so I did.

I’m still figuring out the whole audio production thing. Believe it or not a big part of my graduate program was focused on audio production, but back then I had access to much better software… which reminds me, if you like the podcast – or even just the idea of it – and want it to be even better, please consider contributing via Patreon.


The Facebook Supreme Court

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Photo by Pixabay on

Yesterday Facebook officially launched its Oversight Board, an independent body that will make decisions about what can and cannot be posted on Facebook and hear appeals from people whose posts have been taken down. It’s been compared to the Supreme Court, the top appeals court in the United States justice labyrinth.

Like the Supreme Court, Facebook says the Oversight Board will create precedent, meaning earlier decisions will be used to shape later ones, so they aren’t reinventing the wheel every time. Also like the Supreme Court, the Board will try to come to consensus, but when everyone can’t agree, the majority will make the decision and those who dissent can include their reasons in the final decision.

Unlike the Supreme Court though, the Oversight Board’s members won’t be nominated by the president…I mean CEO, Mark Zuckerberg. He’s only appointing the two co-chairs, and it will be up to them to choose the rest of the 11-person board (it will get bigger as time goes on, according to the charter).

According to Facebook:

The purpose of the board is to protect free expression by making principled, independent decisions about important pieces of content and by issuing policy advisory opinions on Facebook’s content policies.

How will they choose what pieces of content are “important” enough to get an official ruling? The process is laid out in a post in Facebook’s newsroom. Cases referred to the Board will be those that involve “real-world impact, in terms of severity, scale and relevance to public discourse,” and that are “disputed, the decision is uncertain and/or the values involved are competing.”

I’m spitballing here, but my guess is that means it woouldn’t include your aunt posting confederate flag memes to her 12 followers, but it might include a politician who posts the same to their thousands of followers. My guess is that other cases will include things like body positivity posts that have been reported and taken down, like this one on Instagram (which is owned by Facebook).

In a blog post introducing the Board, Zuckerberg said it will start with “a small number of cases,” and admitted there’s still a lot of work to be done before it’s operational. I couldn’t find a method of actually submitting a case, for example.

The big question I ask myself when I see things like this: Do I think it is an empathetic use of technology? Do I think it shows an understanding of – and compassion for – users’ experiences and concerns? And do I think it will encourage users to be more empathetic themselves?

In some ways yes; almost; and maybe.

I do not think Zuckerberg ever expected to be tasked with arbitrating free speech on the internet. But he’s here now, and he’s getting a lot of pressure from politicians of all stripes to do something about harassment, privacy violations, and alleged censorship. Not to mention the fact that some lawmakers (and constituents, and former Facebook employees) want to break up the company’s ostensible monopoly on social media discourse. It’s all eyes on Zuck. His response to the free speech stuff has long been that it’s not his job to make those decisions. He has said he wants governments to make it clearer what’s okay to post online and what’s not. But by virtue of global politics and Facebook’s size and influence, the company is already making these decisions every day whether he likes it or not.

So I think a Supreme Court-style Oversight Board that can make binding decisions he cannot veto is smart. I think it could assuage some of his critics and make certain people feel more comfortable using the platform. I think it’s more self-preservation than empathy, but I think the effect could be an empathetic one if all goes well. But I also think it’s a HUGE undertaking that could go sideways pretty easily.

An internet appeals court is a real, tangible thing Facebook can give us, and it can have real, tangible results – controversial though they will be. Assurance that we won’t be manipulated by Macedonian trolls or bullied by classmates, or that we can post about our lives and ideas without unwittingly entering the thunderdome, is a lot harder to give.

Did Heineken really do what Pepsi couldn’t?

Over the past few days, I’ve seen this new Heineken commercial pop up on my Facebook and Twitter feeds dozens of times. I follow a large group of people with relatively diverse viewpoints, especially on Twitter, so normally when something like this goes viral I expect to see some debate. But with this, at least at first, all responses seemed to be positive. People were especially relieved that Heineken hadn’t appeared to make a mockery of recent protests movements, a la Pepsi a few weeks earlier.

If you haven’t seen the Heineken ad, you can watch it here. It starts with videos of several individuals describing their personal views about things like feminism and climate change. It’s clear from the start that there’s a lot of disagreement, and Heineken decides to see what will happen if they put the people with the most divergent views in a warehouse together, two at a time, before they know anything about each other, to build a bar. Spoiler alert: it goes really well. Everyone is patient and kind and, when given the choice after learning each other’s personal views, they each decide to hang around with their would-be adversary for a beer. Ahh, empathy and a cold beer save the day again!

Except… the ad left me with an uneasy feeling. There is, of course, the fact that this is clearly a marketing stunt. That tends to suck much of the earnestness out of most commercials like this. But I also tried to imagine myself in the position of one of the people in this commercial – the black feminist or the transgender woman, especially – and considered whether I would have stayed for that beer. And if I did make that choice, whether it would have really felt like a choice at all.

I’m reminded of a situation I had at work a few years ago. A coworker and I had an argument in which he made me feel belittled and mocked, and then posted about the exchange on his own Facebook wall. Though he didn’t name me, he used some really… unfriendly language. A couple of days later, he asked me to have coffee with him to talk things over. I felt a bit trapped. He was older than me, had been at the company longer, and – yes, this mattered for various reasons – a man. I felt pressured to say yes, but I couldn’t imagine feeling comfortable sitting across from someone who had just acted so unkindly and, frankly, immaturely toward me. I have a bit of social anxiety as it is, but with all of the other context, I decided I didn’t want or need to accept the invitation. I told him how he’d made me feel, and that we could consider things settled, but no, I would not like to get coffee with him. He was disappointed, but handled it relatively well, and eventually it blew over.

This week, I wondered how my choice would have been received by the masses if it had been part of a campaign like Heineken’s. And I wondered whether the black woman or transgender woman, who had every reason to feel both uncomfortable and unsafe with their counterparts in Heineken’s experiment once they learned their views, really felt they had a choice. I wasn’t face to face with my coworker when we had our altercation, and I had time to think about what made the most sense for me when it came to seeing him one on one. And admittedly, not much was at stake for me, aside from a panic attack. But watching this commercial, I thought about the fear that other women, especially the most marginalized women, feel on a regular basis, let alone by themselves in a warehouse with someone who, they’ve just learned, doesn’t approve of their existence.

Because that, I think, is what Heineken misses in this commercial. There are many levels of disagreement. There are many kinds of confusion, misunderstanding, and debate. It makes a lot of sense to rely on empathy to help us get through these things. But when the point of disagreement is another person’s being – their humanity, what makes them who they are – is it really fair to ask them to debate it over a beer? Is it really the same to ask a “new right” anti-feminist to empathize with a black feminist as it is to ask the reverse? Is asking a climate change believer and non-believer to sit down and hash it out the same as asking a transgender woman to hang out with a guy who thinks she is wrong for being who she is, all things considered?

I think it’s good that the power of empathy is getting so much attention, even from marketers. But I think it’s worth thinking critically about what this really means at the personal level. It’s great to get people talking, but it doesn’t always make sense to pretend like we’re all starting from the same place. (I’ve written about this a little bit before, in December.) So, in the interest of understanding varying points of view, in addition to reading the above-linked story (in the first paragraph) about how Heineken achieved what Pepsi couldn’t, I recommend reading this piece, which argues the opposite.

A conversation with Sue Schardt

“My belief is that we must begin with our hearts.”

By a great many accounts, journalists failed their readers during the most recent U.S. election season. Some argue we’d been failing long before that, generalizing or simply ignoring large swaths of the electorate. Others say we have ourselves been unfairly maligned, too little attention paid to the challenges and (in some cases) dangers of our jobs. The truth, as usual, is probably somewhere in between. But in an effort to make things better, many practitioners and observers have called for the same thing: empathy. The trouble with that, particularly in the era of politicized “fake news,” is that empathy can seem at odds with the other things people expect from journalists: neutrality and objectivity.

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot. How do we strike the right balance, as journalists, between gaining the intellectual and emotional trust of our audiences? How do we project both objectivity and empathy? Should we?

To start getting at the answers to these questions, I spoke with Sue Schardt, president of Schardt Media and CEO of AIR Inc., a network of audio journalists and storytellers. In 2015, AIR launched the third iteration of Localore: Finding America, a collaborative multimedia storytelling effort led by 15 teams of independent radio journalists embedded for nine months in communities around the country with the goal of inventing new ways of storytelling. Sue doesn’t shy away from talking about the importance of things like love and compassion in reporting, so I spoke with her about the role of empathy in journalism and where reporters can ethically go from here. Here’s a bit of our conversation:

Kaitlin Ugolik: Please tell me a bit about your work with AIR. What’s the goal of recent projects like Localore?

Sue Schardt: It begins with the understanding and belief that we need to break away from and remake the way we create stories. AIR is a big network, but the role of any journalist is trying to reflect something of the human experience. More broadly, we are at a point in the 50th anniversary year of public media where it’s evolved into what is really a national treasure, but it’s done that by cultivating a predominantly white, highly-educated, affluent class of citizens. Our work with Localore and Finding America is very much aimed at this question of what is next on the frontier. How do we live up to the original mandate for public broadcasting, which is to serve all of the people? We’re at a really wonderful moment in that history, and it happens to coincide with the realities of this roiling, disruptive time in politics and in the world.

KU: What do you think is the role of empathy in all of that? Is it appropriate for us as journalists to embrace it explicitly, or does that compromise our objectivity in your opinion?

SS: We hire independent producers and embed them at public media stations across the country, and we are sending them out to places where public media is not deeply engaged, so they have to do a baseline first, they have to place themselves there and observe and absorb. That means allowing themselves to feel. That’s not an abstract thing. It starts, I believe, in the heart. The heart informs the brain, the direction, all the rest. I believe the outcome when one allows that sort of approach is different. This whole construct of objectivity and balance and fairness, this idea that there’s mutual exclusivity, that you can’t feel love or can’t feel a place and also be objective…I think it’s something we very much have to question.

KU: Is there any sense that it might be dangerous to risk pushing the pendulum too far in the other direction, though, and getting too involved with subjects especially when they’re already skeptical?

SS: I think now is a time where we have to give our craft people enormous permission to follow their instincts and do what they feel is right. I have a producer who relocated from Maryland to Kansas City to do a project. He said to me, ‘If you had told me that as part of this project I would be spending every Tuesday morning at Bible study, I would have laughed in your face. If you had told me sometimes I’d even be leading Bible study…that would be totally insane.’ That was a revelation to me.

KU: I can see both the benefits and potential concerns with an approach like that. What, in your view, are the benefits to allowing reporters to pay more attention to their emotional connections to people and places they cover?

SS: This idea that you can’t have objective fairness and balance as a journalist is firmly rooted. But perspective is a very essential part of being a good journalist. If you follow that thought line, you can see that that which expands one’s vision and one’s understanding will inform and advance one’s ability to practice their craft to a higher level. That can be achieved by reading more books and articles and essays and having an expanded palette of intellectual comprehension, but we have to be brave enough and have enough courage to say that equally as legitimate is this compassion component. It’s part of who we are as human beings. If our goal is to tell a different story or a more broadly reflective story of America, we have to be able to go into places and approach them in an entirely new way.

See Sue Schardt’s media predictions for 2017 here

Empathy in media & entertainment

I won’t lie.

On Sunday night, I was hiding from the world. I was in bed, nursing a cold, drinking tea and reading The Mothers, trying to practice some of that good self-care we millennials are always talking about. So I didn’t catch the SAG Awards, but on Monday I sort of wished I had. The messages from many of the award-winners had apparently dripped with calls to empathy. (Also some anger and some fear…but even in that, there’s opportunity for empathy.) So I went back and watched:
“I am the daughter of an immigrant. My father fled religious persecution in Nazi-occupied France. And I’m an American patriot. And I love this country. And because I love this country, I am horrified by its blemishes. And this immigrant ban is a blemish, and it’s un-American,” said Julia Louis-Dreyfus, referring to Donald Trump’s executive order banning immigration (and apparently visa and green card holders) from several Middle Eastern and African countries.
“This story is of unity,” said Taraji P. Henson, of Hidden Figures. “This story is about what happens when we put our differences aside and we come together as a human race. We win. Love wins. Every time.”

“What August [Wilson] did so beautifully is he honored the average man, who happened to be a man of color. And sometimes we don’t have to shake the world and move the world and create anything that is going to be in the history book. The fact that we breathed and lived a life and was a god to our children, just that, means that we have a story and it deserves to be told,” said Viola Davis, about Fences.

Each of these speeches, though they may not explicitly sound like calls to action, were certainly received that way by many. In Louis-Dreyfus’s words, people heard a plea to imagine what her father’s life had been like, and how he – and she – must feel today. In the words of Henson, people heard a call to “come together” and attempt to understand one another. In Davis’s words, people heard an argument that the very depiction of a life, giving viewers the opportunity to experience even a tiny piece of one different from their own, can be radical. I know this is what people heard, because they complained about it.

Every time a celebrity speaks out about something political or related to social justice – whether it’s while accepting an award or just posting on Instagram or Twitter – there are numerous calls to “stick with acting!” In trying a bit of empathy myself, I can understand why people might not want to hear about politics from those to whom they look for entertainment and escape. But what are we doing when we watch a television show or a movie if not imagining, for a few minutes or a few hours, what life is like through the eyes of someone else? And what do we expect actors to do for us if not make those few minutes or hours as convincing and immersive as possible? Isn’t that empathy?

Several studies in recent years have shown that reading fiction books increases empathy and sensitivity to others. This is part of the reason why challenges to read more books by women authors and authors of color have gained so much popularity in recent years. The more time you spend getting into the heads of people who aren’t like you, the thinking goes, the more you might understand their experiences, or understand what you don’t understand about them.

Of course, it’s not always explicit. And maybe that’s what makes some of us uncomfortable about celebs’ calls for love, understanding, equality or empathy. Maybe we don’t want to admit that’s what we’re absorbing, just like we don’t like to think about whether we absorb all the negative ideas and stereotypes we read, see and hear? I’d love to hear what you think. Is celebrity activism essentially an outgrowth of the empathetic nature of what actors, writers and producers already do? Or is a line being crossed?

To Veg or Not to Veg, Pt. 2

It’s been a while since I’ve talked about how the media covers science, but this brouhaha over whether or not a vegetarian diet can kill you seems like too good of an opportunity to miss. (This is titled Part 2 because I wrote about some studies on vegetarianism on this blog exactly two years ago today. Whoa.)

Last week, the New York Post and others reported that a Cornell University study showed that long-term vegetarianism can lead to a genetic mutation that makes people more likely to develop colon cancer and heart disease.

The problem? The study didn’t say that.

On Friday, Vice published this takedown of the coverage of the study, talking to the actual researchers who conducted it. What a novel idea! The researchers did, in fact, find that long-term vegetarians have a gene variant – not a mutation caused by vegetarianism, but a variant that may have evolved in the genes of vegetarian cultures, such as that of India. This variant means these people produce synthetic versions of different fatty acids. An overabundance of fatty acids = inflammation, according to these researchers, so, in fact, people with this genetic variance are better off sticking with a vegetarian diet. If they don’t, they could overload on omega-3s and omega-6s and suffer from inflammation and, potentially, disease. This is complicated, so it’s easy to see why many publications looking for a headline didn’t quite understand it.

What does it actually mean in practice? It seems to be more anthropological than medical. “Our claim is that, to put it simply: you need to have a diet that is matched to your genes,” one of the researchers told Vice.

As I learned when reporting this big feature last year, genetics is a very complex field of study. It is easy to get wrong. I actually made a mistake in the initial version of my story because I was confused about the way a specific gene therapy worked. I fixed the mistake, and I didn’t write a sensational headline about it, but what I’m saying is that I understand. This stuff is tough. It’s so important though, and we have to do better.

The Vice story came to another persuasive conclusion as to why so many publications got this wrong: they don’t like vegetarians. As a person who was a vegetarian for more than three years, I have to say I can believe it!