Be media literate.
I’ve been thinking about this for a long while, and I can’t come up with a better time to talk about this than now, what with coronavirus and the presidential campaign.
First of all, the good journalists sitting behind their screens and reporting on the facts are not out to scare you or to lead you astray. These are good people, and there is no reason to hate on journalists for telling you facts, for telling you how to stay healthy and to keep others healthy. They are not some hive-mind rooting for us to fail as a society. There are ethics, and all the journalists I know are passionate about keeping those ethics. They truly care. But with all things, there are people who are doing it right and people who are doing it wrong.
If you’re prone to getting worked up or worried, here are some ways to protect yourself from falling for bad information.
First, I want to pull back the curtain on click-bait. In the digital age, a lot of outlets want clicks. They want your attention because when they get your attention, they get money. If they can get you to trust them as an outlet, that’s even better for them because that keeps you coming back and that keeps them getting money. Ad-revenue is a powerful motivator, and I think every news organization is guilty of this to some extent.
The media (i.e. media organizations) is desperate for your clicks and your cash. They will say what they need to say to get you to visit their site. This is, after all, a business, and it is competitive.
Don’t buy in to these emotionally-charged titles (ala “It’s Likely People You Know WILL Die”). They are meant to make you emotional, to get you to click, and they are generating cash for the organization. A lot of people skim headlines and get their info that way, and click-bait makes a mess of this. They might have some great content in the actual article, but there is often a strategic placement of emotions before facts so that they can win your click.
At the grossest level of click-bait, this is writing an emotionally manipulative title that misrepresents the article’s content, but not so much so that it’s completely untrue. It happens. I've done it. (And I'm not super pumped to admit it.) Please don't give them the satisfaction of falling for it. Your panic pays them, and it's a terrible practice. (However, sometimes this might be the standard of the organization, rather than the actual journalist writing their title.)
Click-bait is also a great way to spread misinformation during times of panic. For instance, someone claimed colloidal silver was a cure for COVID-19. This is not true. Which brings me to my next point.
Don’t believe everything you read online. Don’t believe sources who aren’t named, and if you read an article that seems too good or bad or scary to be true, google it. Are there multiple people reporting the same thing? Corroborating reports? If not, take the information with a grain of salt. Make sure your websites and their authors and sources are credible.
If you’re wondering whether the author is credible, look at other things they’ve written. Look at their credentials. Are they actually hired by the outlet they’re reporting for? Do they write a lot of inflammatory content?
Check your sources. This is how you keep from spreading false information, make good choices, and keep our society moving in a good direction. You help yourself and others when you make sure what you’re reading is credible.
And in a world as fast-paced as ours, everyone wants to break the story first, which means that oftentimes, outlets don’t have or take the time to check their facts, to get to the heart of what’s actually going on. That’s why it’s important to find those corroborating reports (I’m looking at you, political junkies).
The journalists are doing their best in this hectic media machine where every news outlet and blog is vying to be the one you click on. I highly recommend local news sources because they don’t typically make emotional appeals, and they’re there to help your community. Trust the folks who have longevity on their side, who are getting the facts from GOOD sources.
As far as politics, this goes for both sides of the aisle. Conservative media is just as guilty of all of this as liberal media, and vice versa, especially with an election coming up. There is a lot of emotional writing out there. Is that soundbite a little too perfect for a certain narrative? Look up the full thing. Get some context. Always allow the benefit of the doubt. Don’t trust your feelings after reading one article or watching one video.
Basically, what all this boils down to is to do your research. Be a diligent consumer of media. Get your facts from across the board, because usually the truth is somewhere in the middle. Stay safe, stay alert, and don't let yourself be emotionally manipulated. A lot of people are presenting you with information, and it’s up to you to know how to process it.
A Case for Media Literacy: Some Examples
Media literacy is SO important, especially now.
My favorite right now is the headline I mentioned above about COVID-19. "It's Likely that People You Know Will Die". This is a panic title. It's meant to make you scared, and meant to make you click, and it's probably generated a load of ad-revenue. This is a terrible thing to do. Everyone, stay safe, stay healthy, wash your hands, but don't panic! Just take the precautions the CDC is recommending, and you'll be fine.
One of the examples I love is Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex. So many people have gone from loving her to hating her because of these unnamed sources that have been the subject of so many terrible reports about her. Well, if you look at many of the villainous claims that are made about the Duchess in these reports, there are sometimes follow-up reports that put the record straight. Again, this boils down to sensational media wanting those clicks, and they know people will click on Meghan and Harry. They can write whatever they want, and the know the royals won’t respond, so they go ahead and write whatever they want.
Another favorite is a few years ago when several outlets reported that the Pope said “Hell isn’t real.” People jumped on that like wildfire, especially those who already had beef with the Catholic church. However, one quick Google search would tell you that this whole ordeal was a misinterpretation by an Italian transcription. The Vatican addressed it, saying that transcription was incorrect and shouldn’t be used. What are the chances the Pope would actually say something like that? Nill. But a lot of people wanted to believe it because it fit their personal narrative, and that’s an incredibly dangerous way to interact with the media.
One last good example of a slow news day. There’s an outlet I’ve seen that will actively report on soft news stories that are several years old as if they are current. Make sure your sources are up to date :) News ages quickly in this day and age.
Please be smart as you face the news. There are profits from your outrage, so make sure it's not misdirected. Stay safe, stay healthy, and stay vigilant. I know there’s more to say on media literacy, but I hope that shining a light on it will at least help a little.