We live in a world saturated by news and media. You´ll find headlines, advertisements, and informational graphics almost everywhere you look, and while it may seem easy to discern fact from opinion, the lines between the two are far less clear. To demonstrate how hard it can be, try taking the News Literacy Project’s quizzes titled How News Literate Are You? and Should I Share It?
Taking these quizzes, you’re likely to find that not every answer was straightforward, and discerning accurate news and media was harder than you first thought.
Research done by the Stanford History Education Group has demonstrated that students surveyed across middle schools, high schools, and undergraduate programs did not have the skills to evaluate claims on social media, photographs on Reddit threads, or find advertisements on home pages. These findings are especially concerning, as misleading information is often spread widely across the internet, particularly during elections. A study by NYU and Stanford found that 40 percent of visits to 65 fake news sites came from social media. Despite the alarming rate of statistics related to fake news, it is critical to note that research from Princeton’s Andrew Guess estimates that only 10 percent of Americans contribute to nearly 60% of the visits to fake news sites.
The bottom line is that misinformation is spread widely and hard to identify on the internet. Headlines are exaggerated to get users to click. Posts from social media may not include pertinent information. It can be hard to distinguish advertisements and sponsored content from factual information. More than ever, it is vital to develop a skill called media literacy.
Media literacy, defined in an article by the National Association for Media Literacy Education, is “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act using all forms of communication.”
This post will cover six simple ways you can begin developing your own media literacy when consuming and sharing media on the web.
Reference Multiple Sources
There are always multiple perspectives that contribute to a story. One source may give an intriguing figure about a topic, while another source may offer more historical context and expert opinions. If you only look at one of the sources, you’ll miss out on the information presented in the other, which could limit your understanding of the topic.
A simple example of this could be a news article detailing a local pizza shop closing. One local news channel might cite the reason for closing as general financial hardship. However, another news source might include an interview with the owners. In the second source, readers learn that the restaurant has been struggling long term due to increased rent and development in a neighborhood. While the first article wasn’t necessarily wrong about the closure, checking the second article gave the reader more insight, which might influence their response to the news.
This example is relatively simple, but its lesson is applicable. Try applying it to a situation about politics, the COVID-19 pandemic, school closures, and healthcare, and you can see how essential it is to look into multiple sources. It could change your entire understanding of a situation and gives you a way to start fact-checking amongst other sources.
For more information about referencing other sources, check out a short guide from NPR about checking the credibility of sources on the internet.
Many forms of informational media include statistics to appeal to consumers’ desire for logic. Many people feel that numbers are rooted in fact, but this isn’t always true. Perhaps a video mentions that 4 in 5 people have found success drinking an energy drink in the mornings. It turns out that the energy drink company sponsored the study, only 50 people were interviewed and they were all existing customers. This crucial information about the study was listed on the energy drink company’s website and required a simple search to find. It also likely changed a viewers perspective on how effective the drink is, and maybe caused them to reconsider sharing about the beverage with friends or purchasing it themselves. When looking at statistics begin fact-checking them by asking these questions, which can clarify major flaws in studies:
- Who was involved in the study?
- How did they become involved?
- How was the study structured?
- Was this research done for an advertisement?
- How could someone benefit from this research?
This same situation can occur without numbers. Individual articles may claim an event happened at a specific time, or that a particular group or action instigated a conflict. These claims may not always be accurate, and there could be multiple articles reporting different “facts” due to where journalists were standing, who was interviewed, etc. Again, it is vital always to check multiple sources and could be valuable in these types of situations to find numerous first-person accounts.
In addition to this, some websites will fact check things that politicians and other public figures have said publicly. A list of a few sites that do this follows:
Think About Author’s and Publication’s Biases
Every author, publication, and source has its own bias. Bias isn’t inherently a bad thing. In our personal lives, bias allows us to make decisions and can help us prioritize without becoming overwhelmed by too many things. However, bias affects how stories are framed and what stories we as consumers choose to look at. There are policies to help limit the impact of the author’s biases in news work, but other forms of media aren’t as regulated. For instance, editorials.
News articles are usually shorter and published soon after an event. They include crucial details, such as who, what, when, and where, and often cite law enforcement, eyewitnesses, experts, and other reputable sources. Editorials, on the other hand, express opinions. Sometimes they’re written like a personal advice column, but others are published with credible sources. Often, their goal is to convince you of something. For example, an opinion piece may claim the guitar industry will be declining ten years from now. This claim isn’t one you can prove beyond a doubt, but the author might reference a variety of credible sources, supporting and refuting their claim.
Whether you’re reading a personal advice column or a credible piece of editorial journalism, it is wise to check facts presented, research the author, who was interviewed, and see what other sources have said. It’s not wrong to consume editorials or think of sharing these sources with others. They can include an inspirational quote or credible and thought-provoking information. You should aim to develop a good understanding of the level of credibility a source has, it’s weakness, and the author’s intentions.
After consuming media, you may be inclined to share it. Social media and instant messaging are outstanding at spreading information, but here are a few additional steps you should take before deciding to share a piece of news or media.
Stop and Pause
The most valuable step you can take before sharing a piece of media is to stop and ask yourself a few questions:
- Is it essential that I share this information immediately?
- Have I checked other sources on this topic?
- Is this piece of media referencing multiple credible sources?
- Is there any piece of this that I could fact check?
- What might this be leaving out?
- What are the strengths and limitations I could address when sharing this?
- Could this be misleading without context?
Asking yourself these questions can help you think about how you want to present the media you are sharing. Maybe an Instagram graphic you find covers one aspect of a topic well, but it leaves out some essential information you found in a local news article. If you stop and pause after finding the Instagram graphic, you may realize you should look for another source, and find the local news article. After, reading the article you concluded that the best way to share the graphic is to include the article too, providing a benefit to your followers, friends, and family who will receive the information. Stopping and pausing is a simple step to implement and could prevent you from sharing a source, only to later find out it was misleading.
Read the Post
If you stopped and paused, you likely have read the entirety of a source. However, sometimes the most intriguing piece of an article is its headline. Headlines can have a significant impact on how we view media. For example, a catchy headline may say: Power Outage Causes Wolves to Escape from Local Zoo. You could share this article without reading it and add a comment that criticizes the zoo for not having better systems in place. However, if you read the article, you would find out that all the wolves escaped, after hours, to another location in the zoo and were returned to their respective habitat due to the zoo’s systems. Reading the article in its entirety would give you a better understanding and might have made you reconsider your comment. Stopping to read an entire article also buys you time to ask the stop and pause questions mentioned under the previous heading.
Recognize a Sources Limitations
In the consuming media section, we discussed multiple ways to identify sources’ limitations and build your knowledge of a topic presented in the news and media. If you took these steps, you likely have identified the strengths and weaknesses of a source and asked yourself the stop and pause questions. After this, you concluded that despite the source’s potential shortcomings, it is okay to share. When you share, mention the limitations you found to be transparent with the people you’re sharing the information with. However, if something is super misleading, it is best not to share that material and may be worth your time to find a more appropriate source.
Sharing the limitations of a source can also present an opportunity to share other sources about the topic, have more discussion with followers, and start engaging in media literacy with your communities!
If you are interested in learning more about media literacy and developing your ability to critically think through media, check out Poynter’s free Hands-on Fact-Checking course. The News Literacy Project also provides a lot of free resources for those looking to increase their news and media literacy.