We Have a Media Literacy Problem, and Hysteria Over Fake News Isn’t Helping

May 3, 2017 Kristance Harlow

The latest scapegoat in the wild world of news and American politics is “the media.” The media is to blame for everything. The media is dishonest. The media should not be biased. The media is too biased. The media is fake news. It’s an inaccurate way to talk about such a massive collection of industries and companies.

Is the media the local paper? Is the media Fox News? Or is the media CNN? Is the media AlterNet? Is the media Washington Post? Is the media the publication or the writers? The staff journalists or the freelancers? The investors or the advertisers? Is the media also sitcoms? Is the media Hollywood?  Yes, the media is all of those things. Except — that’s not what most politicians and pundits mean when they say “the media.”

We can make assumptions on what is meant by the term. Sure, we can understand more by seeing it in context, but that’s not enough to combat the assault on actual news. Nothing but more precise language will let us talk about the topic of bias in the media. When we are not precise about our definitions, we leave the door open for people to take a generalization and twist it to suit their own logic.

“Fake news” is a buzzword being used by people across the political spectrum — but, most particularly, by President Donald Trump. A lack of specificity is fueling misconceptions about what fake news is and isn’t. Is it the Onion? Is it fake news when people believe it is true? Is it news that is just made up, like a fiction book, imaginary. Is fake news propaganda? Is fake news an inaccurate story? Is fake news an unsubstantiated report? Is fake news an article that reports on a report being unsubstantiated? Well, it could be all of these things, but because we don’t specify, anyone can decide for themselves what fake news is and why it’s bad — without actually knowing why it is fake or bad.

When Trump made his infamous anti-Mexican declarations, his reality show, Celebrity Apprentice, was officially canceled as NBC tried to distance themselves from the controversy. Yet the network did nothing to prevent him from hosting an episode of Saturday Night Live five months after their public condemnation of his politics. Arguably, many layers of bias were at play here: Trump’s racism, NBC’s bias against loud racists, NBC’s bias for money. The reality is, we can never escape bias, but that doesn’t mean every biased piece of information is worthless. Calling anything biased “fake news” is a misnomer.

Draw your own conclusions, but do so based on truth. Look for the original sources. If you want to know whether a public figure made disparaging comments like some report claims, go back and watch the unedited video of that person speaking. To learn where they stand, go back, look at their track record and understand their history.

It’s incredibly important to create a better dialogue about these issues. One of the major dangers of media illiteracy is that “the media” can manipulate emotions and push people into acting on fears that are not even necessary fears. Fearmongering is what makes people believe that someone immigrating from another country is causing their problems. It convinces people that a businessman is going to solve their problems. It pushes people into trusting that an individual is a good and caring human, despite the horrible things he says about others.

What real news should do, at its most basic level, is inform the public about reality and dig for truths that are not obvious. News outlets should be clear about what analysis is — and be upfront about opinions versus facts.

Here is a start:  this article is an opinionated analysis.

Fake news is nothing new. There are examples that go back as far as 1475. Tabloid tales on aliens kicked off one of my favorite flicks from the late ’90s, Men in BlackThe National Enquirer — which launched in 1926 — was my favorite thing to look at as a kid in line at the grocery store. It was enticing because it was a forbidden window into the dark side of the world. It grabbed my attention, but I knew it wasn’t real in the same way the nightly news report on recent flooding was real.

Attacking non-favorable news outlets has been a favorite totalitarian tactic long before Trump dubbed the media “the opposition party.” It isn’t even the first time it’s happened in the United States. What is new is the impact of such declarations. The impact is unprecedented because of the internet and the power of social media. The widespread “fake news” claims are taking advantage of public distrust of traditional news sources — and amplifying that distrust. Combine that with a lack of media literacy, and it’s a recipe for complete confusion and misinformation. It means that already misinformed people are getting worse at vetting their news sources.

That’s why we can’t ignore the garbage pile of confusing references to “the media” and “fake news.” We must do better with our rhetoric on the media, journalism, and fake news. The way in which opinions are being passed off as facts is going to destroy any semblance of a competitive and strong nation. And we can’t effectively make the distinction between facts and opinions if we don’t find more accurate ways to talk about the media and fake news.

This was first published at Wear Your Voice.

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