7 Ways Media Literacy Can Help You Survive Political News

JulieSmithpicBy Julie Smith

My name is Julie and I am here to help you survive the rest of the campaign season. If you’re like me, you’re fairly desperate for the election to be OVER. (Heck, I’ve been ready since January. But that’s a topic for another post.)

BUT, although there might be imperfect candidates this year, this is the PERFECT CHANCE to practice some awesome media literacy skills.

By encouraging our students to ask questions about the messages they’re receiving, we’re exposing them to the fantastic, critical-thought-filled world of media literacy. Ready?

QUESTION #1: Who’s the communicator of the message? This is a HUGE issue. Check out these covers:


js_hillary-covers

When I pick up a National Review, I know it’s a conservative magazine. And the New Republic? A liberal magazine. Knowing the source of your message is a HUGE part of being media literate – because the sender makes all the difference! Do our students know where messages come from?

Question #2: What, if anything, is left out? Here’s a post from Thursday’s USA Today about Ted Cruz working a phone bank on behalf of Donald Trump. Why is this news? Does the article explain the context of the history between Cruz and Trump? Does it explain how they competed against each other in the primaries? Or, is the article simply to show tweets from people using awkward photos of the event? What could the paper have added to actually give this story depth?

Question #3: How could someone else interpret this message? So the big news is Hurricane Matthew attacking Florida. In this story, CNN tells us that Florida’s voter registration deadline will NOT be extended because of the hurricane. How could people interpret this message differently? People in Florida would certainly consume news about Hurricane Matthew differently than people in Arizona. What about those in Florida who want to register to vote but now cannot due to the hurricane? Do our students have friends or family in Florida? Or LIVE in Florida? Then THEY are certainly going to consume news about the hurricane differently than anyone else. Seeing the news from someone else’e point of view can be a step toward empathy.

Question #4: What biases do we have that affects how we choose and consume our news? It’s probably no big shock that my conservative friends prefer FOX News and my liberal friends prefer MSNBC. We love having our opinions affirmed, or perhaps more importantly, we don’t like having our beliefs and assumptions challenged. Ask yourself – which newspaper would YOU have picked up the day after the June shooting in Orlando?

js_isis-covers

There’s even recent research from the University of Michigan that proves we are more likely to believe polls that show “our” candidate ahead. Echo chamber, indeed. But awareness of our own biases is the first step!

Question #5: Can you verify what the news is claiming? The fun part about being online is that we have the same fact-checking abilities as anyone in the news. We still need to be careful, of course, but how fun would it be to set our students on treasure hunts for truth? FactCheck.org is a great site, and so is Politifact.com . And here’s another gem: OpenSecrets.org In many cases, (especially during breaking news), the stories that come out initially might not be true. Keep these reminders from the “On the Media” podcast handy!

Question #6: How can word choice or photo choice affect the message? Take a look at the photos Twitter used a few weeks ago in their election coverage. There were choices made about which photos to use.

js_trump

Word choice makes a difference, too. Although these next examples aren’t related to the election, you can see how the words make a difference. Would our students spot the differences?js_tweets
js_word-choice

Question #7: Who makes money from this message? This is a super important question to ask students. After all, the news is not in public service. They are primarily operated by privately-held, profit-based corporations whose primary purpose is making money. When a big story happens, the “news” will benefit – either from increased ratings, subscriptions or clicks.

And they don’t really bother hiding this fact. Les Moonves, the head of CBS News, had THIS to say about Donald Trump earlier this year:

Donald Trump may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” Ah yes, Mr Moonves has given us a glimpse behind the curtain…

Final Thoughts: I leave you with a couple of closing thoughts. When I do media literacy talks, I’m frequently asked “Where should I get my news?” And I respond – it doesn’t MATTER – as long as you KNOW your source, you’re aware of your OWN biases and you’re willing to do the work to verify what you find. We need to teach these skills to our students.

The next generation of critical thinkers (and voters) are in our classrooms. And they are counting on us.

(Thanks to www.namle.net and www.projectlooksharp.org for the question suggestions!)

 

Julie Smith teaches Media Literacy in Communications & Journalism Department department at Webster University. You can see more of thoughts on her blog: heyjuliesmith.com/