Making educated decisions is very important in today’s environment. People need to be able to separate fact from fiction, like what they read on social media. How does one do that?
Media literacy is someone’s ability to decode media messages, including the media systems that deliver them. The messages also have an influence on our thoughts and behaviors in society. Media access, media creation and media analysis combine to make up the dimensions of media literacy.
It’s a concept that’s always been important, though it has changed the past few years with so much more information coming at audiences constantly.
“Through language and media, our understanding of the world is shaped,” said Renee Hobbs, founder and director of Media Education Lab and a professor of communication studies at the University of Rhode Island. “And sometimes shaped in ways that create these unreal realities, and that can really harm people’s ability to make good decisions about a lot of things.”
One big piece of media literacy that’s changed is that the gatekeepers surrounding media information are gone. Anyone can inform, entertain or persuade someone else, Hobbs said, which puts pressure on people when they open their laptops to the good, the bad and the ugly.
“People need better skills at making choices that are in their own best interests,” Hobbs said.
There used to be legitimacy to various news organizations like newspapers and network TV news because the barrier for entry as a media source was so high, said Hans Schmidt, associate professor of communications at Penn State University. Now, the barrier is non-existent, he added. With easy-to-create websites and social media, credible information lives alongside non-credible information, making it “really difficult to distinguish between what is what” for any age group, Schmidt said.
With this in mind, individuals have to increase their own ability to navigate the media world, according to Erin McNeill, president and founder of Media Literacy Now.
“So understanding where the biases are, what’s real, how things are affecting us, how these messages are affecting us and our attitudes of other people. How these messages got us here,” McNeill said. “We really need to be more aware.”
Looking at the idea of facts versus fiction is a very basic level of media literacy and hard to determine sometimes, McNeill said. Recognize the shaping effect of media in our lives, even with bias and misinformation out there.
When Schmidt thinks about media analysis, here are a few questions he encourages people to keep in mind:
“And, of course then, also looking for questions like are facts supported in content that you see?” Schmidt said. “When claims are made, are they supported? Are experts cited? How do you know that that person’s an actual expert?”
Sites like Common Sense Media and Media Education Lab are great resources to explore these types of questions for people to educate themselves when consuming media.
Hobbs used the example of Dorothy’s dog Toto in the Wizard of Oz to help explain media literacy and the motives behind the content. Toto pulled back the curtain to find that the big, powerful Oz was just a regular man with a megaphone.
“Once you have a deeper understanding of the constructiveness of all media messages, you’re able to make better choices,” Hobbs said. “Choices that are in your own self-interest.”
One other thing she wants students to know is we don’t always know what is true. Meaning, what can be true at one time might later turn out to be false, and vice versa.
Besides news media and information, everyone also has their own ability to put messages into the world, often via social media platforms. Individuals who learn how to create their own media marks an important piece of media literacy as well, according to Schmidt, “because my feeling is that when you learn how to create media content yourself, you develop an intuitive understanding of the constructive nature of media.”
McNeill cited two positive examples of teens demonstrating this in a positive way: Greta Thunberg, a Swedish environmental activist, and Darnella Frazier, who streamed the death of George Floyd on Facebook Live.
“Some young people are changing the world in a positive way by using these tools that are so powerful,” McNeill said. “But on the other hand, some are using them in a way that hurts themselves and others.”
Individuals also need to understand the systems that deliver these messages. Algorithms within social media or YouTube affect what content users see. The ways messages are delivered can change what we do and how we think, McNeill said.
While it may not be practical to do your own research for every single topic or news story one consumes, it’s important to make sure the things you see are reliable and credible. Seeking out more than one source for news information is always a good practice, according to McNeill.
Use your critical thinking skills with media messages to think about who created a message and why. Information falls into different categories: