Finally, the big bad post I’ve been wanting to tackle for a while — media literacy. I am going to be very blunt here: Media literacy is crucial regardless of your life stage, age bracket, or what job you hold.
To start, let’s define media literacy. Media literacy is essentially having the ability to access, understand, and critically evaluate media. The term can be applied in a number of ways, but it is most critical where the audience is most vulnerable — generally the realms of marketing/advertising/PR, publications, and politics*. In an information age, we have to be able to sort the wheat from the chaff, or the crap from the truth.
A lack of media literacy leads to:
- the proliferation and internalization of false information
- further polarization in an already incredibly polarized era
- the prolonging of ignorance and, in many cases, increased difficulty in recognizing it
Okay, so it’s important. But what to do? Part of the problem is outside of an individual’s control — I can’t force governments to be honest, media outlets to be objective, or advertisements to stop playing on viewers’ insecurities. (Even if I could, I alone probably could not be trusted.) But we can each do something.
When it comes to ads… Think it through. Not all advertising is bad, and of course companies need to push their products to stay in business. But if you note yourself having an emotional response to and advertising or PR campaign, ask yourself what you’re feeling, and what about the campaign is making you feel that way. The typical example is various retailers only hiring the thinnest, tallest, fittest models and then airbrushing and editing their images even further. It drives a lot of people nuts, but more quietly it also makes a lot of people feel that they aren’t living up to a standard that isn’t even real.
What to do? Don’t underestimate the power of your pocket — if you don’t like the way a company advertises, try to choose from another company. For me, this doesn’t mean loud boycotts or starting a fight on the internet. It simply means I choose to purchase from companies I can support, and there are fast food chains, retailers, etc. that I avoid. If you feel strongly enough to say something, find someone to write at the company and (calmly and politely, please — have someone proof it first) explain why you disagree with their choice and ask them to make a change. It might not work, but you will have done your part without making a larger mess.
When it comes to publications and media outlets… Again, think it through. Does what they’re saying make logical sense? Have you come across conflicting information elsewhere? Is the organization usually reputable? Do they offer sources for their information? Is the author/publisher making subjective claims, or inserting their own opinion?
What to do? FACT CHECK. Google is your friend. If you can find the same report from multiple sources, it’s got a way higher chance of being legit. You can also check out places like Snopes and Politifact, where a lot of popular mistruths and false stories are debunked. Tune in to/read from reputable organizations. Local broadcast news stations are usually super reliable, and have fewer embroiled issues than larger cable news networks. I favor The Washington Post and The Hill for news, and The New York Times has an excellent world news section. Check out whether a story is legit before you share it, particularly using the questions and tools above. If you figure out that it isn’t, call in or write a letter to the editor (again, calmly and politely please) explaining the error. There are a lot of dedicated and ethical journalists; supporting them and respectfully distancing yourself from those who aren’t can make a really big difference.
When it comes to politics… I am not claiming that all politicians are incorrigible liars or horrible people. But I do believe that power is a corrupting influence, and that everyone has an agenda. It might be a good agenda and sketchy means, or simply repeating false/misleading information, or a goal and means you wholly disagree with. It also might be legit, so it isn’t safe to assume either way.
What to do? Your research. First things first, you can look to reputable news organizations for information on a candidate. This can be great if you don’t have loads of time but do make sure the organization is reputable. Next, I hate to be such a pessimist, but follow the money. When I’m deciding how to vote on a measure or proposition, I always look at who’s funding it. I do the same when considering a candidate. Funding information can usually be found on voter’s guides, sometimes on ballots, and always with enough research, and will give you some insight into what persons or organizations are behind a political push. I also really highly recommend Politifact. The whole organization is devoted to objective fact-checking, and is one of the best places to research the whole story behind an issue or claim (you can also suggest a fact check if you can’t find it on their site).
The big message here is don’t believe everything you’re told. There is a lot of good in the world, but there is also a lot of untruth. Think about it and look into it before deciding what to believe or how to act. I also fully acknowledge that doing the things I suggested is a not insignificant thing in terms of time and effort, but I hope that at least some of these resources prove as helpful to you as they have to me.
If emerging adults in particular develop this skill for ourselves and begin to hold larger organizations more accountable, a lot of the problems we face today will begin to wane. No big question today, but I would love to hear feedback in a comment below, on Twitter @ohgrowup, or Instagram @oh.grow.up. Also a huge thank you to one of my old bosses and mentors, Elizabeth Smith, for weighing in on this post with her considerable expertise and consistent patience. Thanks for reading, and good luck adulting!
*As a disclaimer, I’m not here to push my political views, and I critique the opportunity for information abuse in those three areas as a journalist who is working at a marketing agency. This post aims to be as objective as possible, so that anyone reading can improve how they assess and interpret information, no matter your background or beliefs.