by Bill Yousman, Ph.D.
Fake news! The accusations are flying from both left and right. Liberals decry social media stories that led people to believe the most absurd lies about Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign season. Meanwhile, President Trump and his staff and supporters use the term like a weapon against any news outlet that dares to question Trumpian statements and policies.
The news-consuming public is left in a bind: What to believe? Who to trust? Is Breitbart a real news organization? What does it mean that even CNN and the venerable New York Times are being called out as fake news?
In response to these accusations, CNN recently devoted a segment to the need for media literacy. It seems like we are suddenly realizing that both media and media education are vital to democratic societies.
The fact is, both misleading media and calls for media literacy have been around for a long time. While digital technologies have made it easier than ever to produce and distribute invented stories, fake news predates social media by a long time. In 1897 the newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst reportedly told one of his artists who had said there was no imminent war happening in Cuba: “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.” Long before Photoshop, totalitarian nations routinely doctored photos to alter history in a manner suited to the whims of the ruling party. In 1964 the Johnson administration made up stories about North Vietnamese attacks in the Gulf of Tonkin that never actually happened— and the news media reported them as if they were factual. In 2003 the aforementioned New York Times reported false information about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that helped the Bush administration make their case for war. In recent years, some mainstream media outlets have reported on widespread voter fraud in elections—which is not a real thing. And they have framed protest movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter as groups of violent rioters when in fact they are peaceful in their goals and strategies. Commercial news media also devote a tremendous amount of time and space to celebrity gossip, scandals, and other fluff stories that distract us from what is really important. From a media literacy perspective, the latest exploits of the Kardashians should also be considered fake news.
Educators, scholars, artists, and activists have employed the term media literacy since the mid-twentieth century to reference the need for comprehensive media education. Education is an antidote to confusion and fear. The public shouldn’t let their confusion or their fear of fake news lead to an overreliance on corporate media like USA Today, Fox News, and CBS. These institutions themselves have been some of the most powerful purveyors of misleading media stories. At the same time, hundreds of alternative media outlets provide comprehensive, insightful, and real coverage of important news stories that commercial media avoid.
So how do we know the difference? How do we get out of the maze of not knowing what sources to trust? Our best options do not involve censorship measures like those recently proposed by Facebook. Once you begin censoring certain types of media, you open the door to all sorts of abuses.
Instead what we need is more education about media. This is where media literacy comes into the picture. We need to know how to access a wide variety of media that offer diverse perspectives, instead of just relying on one or two sources or whatever just happens to pop up in our news feeds. We need to be able to critically analyze the media we use—asking crucial questions about who created it, how it was funded, what the agenda behind it is, how it attempts to entertain, inform, manipulate, or persuade us. We need to learn how to evaluate the media we encounter: What is to be trusted? What is not to be trusted? What media cultivates knowledge and what media fills our heads with distractions and nonsense? We need to develop the ability to ethically create our own media, so that we can be full participants in the media environment not just passive consumers. We need to challenge media institutions and demand honest stories and images that help make the world better, media that places people and communities over profit, media that brings out the best in us rather than the worst.
Children are introduced to the media environment as infants and continue using it every single day throughout their lives, so media literacy education needs to be an integrated part of our world from the moment we enter preschool and on into adulthood. Media education that encourages independent thinking, critical autonomy, and engaged citizenship is our best hope for what the scholar Noam Chomsky identifies as intellectual self-defense from media manipulation.
Bill Yousman, Ph.D., is the director of the graduate program in Media Literacy and Digital Culture in the School of Communication and Media Arts at Sacred Heart University, where he is also an assistant professor.