More than half of my career has been spent on the news side of journalism, so I’m a bit of a zealot when it comes to the difference between facts and opinion.
In college, professors like Dr. Joel Gambill in communications law and ethics, Dr. Mary Jackson-Pitts in broadcast news and Jennifer Rogers (a recently deceased wonderful friend and mentor) in numerous production classes ensured we all knew the difference between news and opinion. Though the Fairness Doctrine was gone by then (and never applied to cable programming), we got to know intimately the reasoning behind it.
I ultimately didn’t stay long with broadcast news (that first job out of college matters, folks) and returned to my first love, print, starting all over with my first job at the paper as a news clerk. In that capacity, one of my tasks was to field calls from readers (bit of a horror for an introvert, really, but you do what you have to) and try to get them to the appropriate person.
That wasn’t easy. Why? Because so many people who called didn’t seem to know the difference between the various things that appeared in the paper, often using terms like “letter,” “ad,” editorial,” “column” and “news story” interchangeably. By the time they got to the clerks’ desk, they’d often been transferred multiple times because they couldn’t make it clear what they wanted, and so they were usually frustrated.
Much of that comes down to growing media illiteracy. While we have a wide range of media available to us, we’re not being taught how to assess those outlets and track down sources. In some instances, we’re being taught what to think, not how to think, and we accept it because it’s easier. That’s not good for anyone.
Lack of media literacy isn’t a new problem, but it seems to me it’s gotten significantly worse in the past several years. Whether that’s because of social media, political opportunism, insufficient training in media literacy in school, or whatever, it means that those of us in the media have a tough row to hoe.
When even college-educated people are using newspaper terms interchangeably, we have a problem. Letters and columns (letters from people unaffiliated with the paper, and longer columns from guest or staff writers; both can include facts and opinion, and the opinion is that of the writer only), editorials (the newspaper’s opinion, found on the editorial page), news stories (written by reporters using factual research and interviews) and ads (paid advertisements) are all different, and conflating them helps no one but those who use misinformation/disinformation to further their goals.
I would hope that most people know that they should double- and triple-check things found on social media and other places before spreading them around, but I know that’s not happening nearly as much as it should.
Friend Sarah Kinsey, a longtime debunker (is it any wonder we’re friends?), told me of some of her adventures in media illiteracy.
“In the mid-1990s, probably around 1997, I received a forwarded email from a friend that warned about dirty needles being left in ball pits. I was immediately skeptical because I hadn’t heard about this seemingly imminent danger from the media, which at that time was the Topeka Capital-Journal and network news programs. The email mentioned the Houston Chronicle, so I checked its website. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one trying to verify the ‘needles in ball pit’ story because the website had a notice that said the email was a hoax.
“I replied to my friend to let her know that the story was a hoax and gave her my source. Verifying chain email became second nature to me. I researched the baby Internet to make sure I didn’t pass along erroneous information, and I also gladly educated my friends and family when they inadvertently forwarded a hoax. … The friend who forwarded me the email was skeptical about the story being a hoax, although I told her about the Houston Chronicle statement. I still can’t understand why someone would trust a random email over a newspaper statement, but distrust of the media has been going on for decades.” Some of that is on media outlets that haven’t made as much of an effort to be careful about their reporting and to be transparent, as well as news consumers who haven’t been as discerning as they could be. It makes it that much easier for unscrupulous outlets to take advantage of the tendency of people to seek out what comforts them and reflects their beliefs regardless of truth.
There are several groups out there, beyond fact-checking sites, dedicated to teaching people how to identify misinformation and disinformation and providing resources for educators, including the News Literacy Project (newslit.org), Media Literacy Now (medialiteracynow.org) and Common Sense Media (commonsense.org).
I encourage readers to familiarize themselves with efforts such as theirs, and to educate themselves on misinformation. The lies may be comforting, but better media literacy will help us sort out the lies from the truth.
Maybe then we could get back to living in the same reality.