Burning Questions: What is media literacy?
Sometimes, when I think about the continuous swirling tornado of media headlines and social media posts with which we’re all surrounded these days, an image surfaces in my mind’s eye.
I picture a woman, maybe in her 30s or 40s, maybe her 50s, pleasant-faced, maybe a little overweight, her nose freckled from going out in the sun too much. Her name might be Carrie or Lisa. She’s sitting in her sunny kitchen in Iowa or Nebraska, looking at her phone. These headlines and posts are swirling around her head like buzzards, swooping and swiping at her and each other, confusing her, scaring her, occasionally making her laugh or frown… But more than anything, overwhelming her. It’s too much information, and thanks to algorithms and bad actors, she can’t really know which of them to believe.
She’s chosen what to believe, of course. Like most of us, Carrie-or-Lisa has aligned herself with a tribe, and the tribe advises her (unofficially) how to think and feel about the things happening around her. But deep down, she knows –just as we all do—that some of the information she’s getting is manipulating her, on purpose, and not with her best interests in mind.
But how can she know which information is to be trusted? How can any of us know?
Enter media literacy. A January 2022 article in VeryWell Mind stated that “Media literacy is the ability to apply critical thinking skills to the messages, signs, and symbols transmitted through mass media.” These critical thinking skills can be broken down into four dimensions of analysis: cognitive, emotional, aesthetic, and moral. Studies have shown that “media literacy education can help people better discern the truth of media claims, enabling them to detect ‘fake news’ and make more informed decisions.” What Is Media Literacy? (verywellmind.com)
Media literacy can also help prevent the plummeting self-esteem that plagues so many adolescent girls when bombarded with images of unrealistically-thin, gorgeous women in media, and was shown to prevent the spread of misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic among those who were shown how to think critically about the information they were consuming.
In addition to analyzing media content through the four critical thinking dimensions, a recent article by the Poynter Institute mentions an interesting technique called lateral reading. “When you stumble upon a website or social media account that you are uncertain or suspicious about… open up other tabs in your browser to learn more about that source… [or] to discover what other sources have to say about a particular subject.” (Lateral reading: The best media literacy tip to vet credible sources – Poynter)
The ability to use these skills in consuming information has never been more important, especially for children. A March 2022 article in The Hill cited research showing that “children aged 8 to 18 spend an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes per day with media outside of school. At the same time, most schools don’t teach children how to use media thoughtfully and apply critical thinking skills to the onslaught of content available on a slew of different devices.” (Media literacy is desperately needed in classrooms around the country, advocates say – The Hill)
Many of us –including my imaginary friend Carrie or Lisa in Iowa or Nebraska—will read or see a news item, and either choose to believe it because our tribe finds the source trustworthy…. or choose not to believe it because our tribe finds it untrustworthy.
But our tribes are not us. And in the United States, a country where one of the most powerful messages is that of “rugged individualism”, isn’t it better to do our own thinking about the information we consume? So I, for one, will continue to look at multiple sources on a topic before making a decision about how I think about it. I hope Carrie-or-Lisa does too.
Jaena Bloomquist is a Truckee resident and mother of two. She is a writer, editor, and climate advocate. To learn more visit http://www.jaenabloomquist.com
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