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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Dangers of Media Illiteracy

The media and I have never been friends. That relationship soured a long, LOOONG time ago. Ask around. Read old social media posts I’ve written. I have not been quiet about this topic. I have said countless times that I don’t miss Jon Stewart because of how he went after politicians; I miss him because of how he went after awful media.

However, the truth of the matter is I had been looking at it all wrong. The term “media” is too broad. It covers too much. Yes, there are negative components to the media as a whole, but there are also a lot of positive components. I’d go so far to say that the positives far outweigh the negatives, if you know what you’re doing.

The problem is that far too many people don’t know what they’re doing, and that’s what I want to look at here.

My main gripe with the media has always been what’s called “spin.” Every media outlet seems to have their political platform. Conservative, liberal, etc. Because of that, a conservative network will “spin” a story one way while a liberal network will spin the exact same story differently. This makes it very difficult to trust what I’m reading.

Clearly, I’m not alone. This year’s Gallup Poll showed that only 32 percent of Americans say they have a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of trust in media outlets to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly, and all-time low in the history of the poll. Why is there such a lack of trust? Primarily because 74 percent of Americans believe that news organizations are biased in some way. Basically, nearly three-fourths of America is tired of the story-spinning as well.

But those numbers can be a little deceiving. The reality is that in an age of information at the click of a button, we have little trust in almost everything. Gallup Polls show that trust in the government has been trending down for years. Trust in the Supreme Court is trending down. Trust in organized religion is down. Trust in banks is down. In fact, of these items, trust in the media is higher than all of them except religion.

The problem is—which media outlets should we trust? Many spin their opinion pieces to the left or right. Many provide “news” that they’re paid to do (basically, their “news” is one long advertisement). Many are radical left or right groups giving little more than unsubstantiated conspiracy theories.

Who can we trust to give us the news in a “full, accurate, and fair” way? Unfortunately, there’s no simple way to answer that. If you read one thing, it will tell you that CNN is the most trusted. If you read something else, it will tell you that Fox News it the most trusted. Naturally, one thing to keep in mind is who is answering these questions. Liberals will say that they trust CNN and distrust Fox News. Conservatives trust Fox News and distrust CNN. Through my research, The Wall Street Journal seemed to have the most balanced audience on the liberal-conservative scale.

Something else to keep in mind is that people are more likely to trust names they recognize. For example: Almost everyone knows the name CNN. Fewer know The Economist. So to get a more complete picture, we need to look at the percentage of trust/distrust within the percentages of people who recognize each source. When you look at THAT ratio, The Economist leads the way, with a 5.7-to-1 trust/distrust ratio, followed by the BBC, NPR, PBS, and The Wall Street Journal.

Here’s a graph with the breakdown of media groups and their trust levels along the left-right political view spectrum.

To break it down further, here’s a graph of how each generation trusts/distrusts those major media outlets.

Who cares? Why is any of this important?

It’s important because while we have information at the click of a button, a lot of the information out there is wrong. More and more people are being fed false news and it’s shaping the way they think, vote, and believe.

That’s dangerous.

A Stanford study was just released regarding how today’s students see and understand news. Their results were frightening:

  • 82% of middle-schoolers cannot distinguish between real and fake news online.
  • Most high schoolers accept photos as presented without verifying them.

  • Many high school students couldn’t tell a real and fake news source apart on Facebook. More than 30% said the fake one was more trustworthy.

  • Most college students didn’t suspect potential bias in a Twitter post from an activist group.

  • Many judge the credibility of a source based on how much info is provided or if a large picture was included, rather than checking the reliability of the source itself.

  • Students couldn’t tell fake accounts from real ones, activist groups from neutral sources, and ads from articles.

  • You can get the full PDF of the study through the article in the link above.

While the study focuses on students, adults are just as guilty. Many of us just read a headline and deduct the content of the article based on that headline, and then repeat that headline to others as “fact.”

We tend to believe what we read or hear, regardless of the source. Regardless if it’s true or false. Consequently, we’re full of theories and opinions masquerading as facts. I’ve had people tell me that they share the message without paying attention to the messenger.

This. Must. End.

When you do this, you spread false information. When you spread false information, people form wrong opinions on important matters. It’s no wonder people don’t trust the media when we are the ones spreading biased and unsubstantiated information.

So what do we do? How can we share viable information? How can we decide what is valuable and trustworthy news?

First, stop reading and stop sharing worthless material. A meme is not factual news. Anyone sharing memes to make their point is not worth your time.

Next, actually read. Not just the title. Not just the first few paragraphs. Read the entire article. Read it honestly (if you disagree with it) and critically (if you agree with it). Read from multiple sources on the same topic. How do you know if you can trust the information you’re reading? You can find it in multiple places. You can find it nationally (CNN, Fox News, etc). Learn to sift through the spinning they do in order to obtain the thesis of the story.

At the same time, be sure to read news from all sides of the political spectrum. If you’re conservative, don’t just read news slanted to the conservative side. If you’re liberal, don’t just read liberal news. How else can you learn to sort through the biases that exist if you don’t widen your view of the material.

Here’s a pretty good graph of the liberal-conservative scale and where many media outlets fall.

Articles should have multiple, reliable sources for their information. Documented facts. Again, you can trust those facts if you can find them in multiple sources throughout the left-right political spectrum.

Reporting is not the same as commentary or the op-ed sections. Opinions do not equal reporting. Opinions are fine. They often have research included. But reporting is the straight, unbiased story. Just the facts.

Actually pay attention to the things Jon Stewart railed on—it was almost never the reporting. It was almost never the facts. He railed on the opinion pieces of the media. He railed on how the talking heads misused those facts.

Adults: When we growing up, the news was just the news. But there is so much information and misinformation out there that today’s youth need to actually learn how to read the news. We are raising a nation of young adults that cannot tell the difference between real and fake news. This is not the media’s fault. It’s ours. We share one-sided op-ed pieces instead of investigative reporting and call it fact. When we do this, we become the biased media; which, in turn, makes us the ones they don’t trust. Keep in mind that these young adults will be voting soon (or already), helping shape the policies that will govern our lives. We should want them properly educated on reading the news—news, not unsubstantiated theories.

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