Wanted: A new media literacy

Author’s note: This is the 100th blog post on Sturg Says, so I hope you’ll indulge my turning to a somewhat more philosophical matter with this post. 

When I was in the 8th grade, social studies included a media literacy unit that was primarily focused on decoding advertising messages. We watched videos about inaccurate comparison (antacid in your stomach is not exactly paint in a hardhat), bandwagon effect (wouldn’t YOU like to be a pepper, too?) and more. When you consider the 3 major purposes of the media, to inform, influence and entertain, the influence purpose was the most likely to create the manipulation from which we, the youth of America, needed protection. 

Fast forward to today, and the ability of the media to be an engine for an informed citizenry is in jeopardy. There are three major reasons.

The media funding model has changed. The notion of paying a subscription fee and then taking what you get is becoming increasingly unpopular with audiences. Some outlets that have a unique value, such as obviously superior or highly specialized content, are succeeding still, but for most content, the appeal factor to draw in eyeballs is only growing in importance.  

Audience behavior has changed. Now that everyone is a publisher (even me!), there is whole lotta content going on. This means that audiences are using new tools to find information like search and social recommendation. I wrote about this at length here. Also, reading on line is hard. So most people don’t do it. Check out this April Fool’s prank from NPR. If you are still reading in this article, you are a rare bird, indeed. 

The platforms have changed. As social recommendation has moved audiences to push media, in many cases, the only message they get is through a status update or a tweet. You might think this isn’t so different from the days when readers would only skim the headlines. You’d be wrong. The biggest ramification is that information is read with a different and much more limited context. At one time, that headline was in a particular type size, might have had a subhead underneath it, appeared on a particular page or section, had a story length and even sometimes a picture that went along with it. That was important information to help the audience rate the relevance and context of just that headline’s content. And much of that is what has been lost.

So what?

My 8th grade media literacy, wherein we learned the rhetorical tricks used in persuasion, is not enough any more. 

It’s been believed for a while now that people gravitate to information that reinforces what they already believe. This isn’t new, but the way technology makes it seem like reinforcing information is the ONLY information is new.  

This is a problem. Critical thinkers consider multiple points of view before making up their minds. And generally, society benefits when critical thinkers use the best information to decide how to vote, whether to include a certain person in history or whether to get their children vaccinated. But the targeted advertising model that I wrote about here makes it pay off to give the people more of what they want. So media literacy needs to go further. I suggest a 10-question test for information. 

An inquiry-based model of media literacy

  • What does the message say? 
  • Is it a quality message? (There’s a quick set of questions here to help you tell this)
  • Who communicated it? 
  • Why did they communicate it?
  • How did they communicate it?
  • Who else has something to say? 
  • Why am I not getting that message?
  • What is missing from the message because of the communicator?
  • What is missing from the message because of  the form?
  • Where could I find out more?


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