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An Rx for BS: A Look at Media Literacy in Crisis Mode

Scott Morgan
South Carolina Public Radio

The gutting of newsroom staffs, the rise of social media, the absence of solid answers during a pandemic ... All things that have made for an information environment that can be questionable at best, dangerous at worst.

So how does a media consumer become a savvy media consumer; one who can spot real information and solid journalism on news sites and equally spot bogus news, personal opinions, and general quackery on social media sites or even actual news outlets?

Emotions: Andrea Hickerson, Director, School of Journalism and Mass Communications, University of South Carolina

  • ‘A good question to ask before engaging with media is, ‘How do I feel,’ before you read it. It’s going to prime certain questions, make us more skeptical. And it might depend on the time of day. You might be more open in the morning and more closed in the evening after your day’s gone by and it’s been a bad one and you’re still at your house.’

Hickerson says that the uniqueness of an issue like the coronavirus pandemic is that it affects every person on the planet, and yet we’re all coping with it in individual ways. She says the overwhelming nature of the story and all the information shared about it taps into a fundamental human need to feel heard and valued for our contributions, which, in turn, drives a lot of the reasons we all want to share information.
But Hickerson also encourages readers, viewers, and listeners to consider the emotions and motivations of the people they are hearing from. Beyond possible political bias, she says, a story could be coming from a personal experience that could color how information is presented. Consider what it might sound like, for example, for someone in New York to talk about how bad the outbreak is, compared to someone in Oconee County. Their experiences with the scope of the outbreak would be vastly different.

Hickerson says that it’s best to beware of reacting to anything emotionally, whether because it agrees a little too much with what we already think, or because it enrages us. Both extremes of that reaction are probably good indicators that a story (or its headline or caption) might be slanted.

Invest in Real News: David Bulla, Professor of Journalism, Augusta University

  • Fake news sites will do almost illegal, certainly unethical things. For example, you have CNN.com, but it you see CNN.co.com, it’s a fake news site. [And] an article needs to have a reporter’s name with it. If it has a reporter’s name in it, I would say, unless you know the reporter, check them out. Go to Google and see if the news operation itself has a page for the reporter.

Bulla says that the morass of bad information we find ourselves surrounded by coincides with the slow death of the American newspaper, and with the severe downsizing happening in newsrooms of all stripes. This, he says, puts a burden on media consumers to police the things they read, hear, and see.

It also puts an emphasis on investing in real journalism. Bulla says the best way to support real news is to subscribe to local papers and to larger publications. Subscribing to an array of publications is the best approach, too, he says. Don’t just subscribe to a magazine you agree with, subscribe to publications of various perspectives; read work that can be vetted and backed up; and beware of writers and reports with little or no professional background. In other words, Bulla says, do some legwork and, if you can, open your wallet.

“If you want good information,” he says, “you’ve got to pay for it.”

Access is Key (and not always simple): Bruce Clark, Inclusion Project Manager, Digital Charlotte

  • Communities that we work with, where their only device is a smart phone, would likely consume information in shorter bits and clips. [But] how many hours could you spend reading something on your smartphone? You can only zoom so far.

Clark has the option to find something interesting on his phone, bookmark that item, then open it later on a laptop or iPad, where it’s a lot easier to read the whole thing and take in the context of what’s written.

The problem, he says, is that not everyone can do that. Rural communities and many areas of inner cities are full of people with a smartphone, but limited broadband access and/or limited money to invest in additional computers with larger screens.

This, Clark says, aggravates a quirk common among smartphone users – the tendency to just read a headline or caption and then share an item based on little information, with no context. Where there is a food desert, he says, there’s likely a media access (and media literacy) problem.

Clark advocates reading multiple sources of information and the expansion of access to multiple pieces of hardware to experience media on. He says the COVID-19 outbreak has highlighted the need for investment in those areas lacking connection and media savvy.

Further Tips: The News Literacy Project

The News Literacy Project is a nonprofit agency that aims to educate media consumers about what makes for real news and what might be misinformation or propaganda. South Carolina Public Radio has worked with the News Literacy Project towards that end.

Some tips for identifying potential red flags when you’re on a social media site or anywhere else you might be consuming media:

  • Images featuring protest signs, T-shirts, or slogans are often altered in a photo editing program before being posted. Try to find other versions of the image before reacting to an image’s message.
  • Some social media posts feature images or links that are from long ago or have nothing to do with the subject they’re referring. For example, an image of a military lockdown to control COVID-19 could easily be a photo from years ago, take out of context. Try a reverse image search.
  • Beware of ‘experts’ who are not experts. Titles like ‘doctor’ can be misleading. Someone could be a doctor of ancient mythology and not a medical doctor who would be qualified to weigh in on a science or health matter.
  • It bears repeating – pay attention to your reactions to what you’re seeing. Is a posting angering you? Is it divisive? Does it blame an enemy without context? If something is making you feel a strong emotion, don’t immediately share it. Learn the context and know what you’re helping to distribute.

Hear the actual experts weigh in, in two parts, below:

Listen to Part 2: A production of South Carolina Public Radio

Scott Morgan is the Upstate Multimedia Reporter for South Carolina Public Radio. Follow Scott on Twitter @ByScottMorgan.

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.