Media Literacy Part Two: Creating an Information Filter

This is part two of our four-part series on media literacy. The skills necessary for media literacy consist of four major components: an awareness of your media environment, an ability to filter out harmful messages, a solid coping mechanism for disinformation and unverified news, and a responsibility to others in your community. These four skillsets of media literacy make us better consumers and producers of media, which allows us to better understand and combat disinformation campaigns and more effectively communicate with others. This section describes creating an effective filter.

Harmful and misleading information is everywhere in our media environment. A rise in disinformation and propaganda has led to a highly politicized political environment, leaving many of us to question what is true. Creating a system to filter out bad information is a necessary and important part of media literacy, which can help us receive better and more trustworthy information. There are three components to constructing a filter: consuming a diversity of information, consuming quality information, and maintaining healthy skepticism towards new information.

Consuming a diversity of sources is one of the easiest ways to build a strong resistance to disinformation and misinformation. A diversity of information does not mean consuming sources from different mediums, as a liberal newspaper and a liberal television channel likely have very similar content. A diversity of information means that you are attempting to understand the complete story from journalists with a variety of biases and backgrounds. In part one, we outlined that every outlet has a bias because every news story has been interpreted differently by each journalist. Some biases are larger than others, so it is important to read different takes on the same event to gain a full understanding. Additionally, as we discussed before, social media uses algorithms to bias your newsfeed towards the extremes, meaning that if you’re on social media, you should also read other articles to diversify your media consumption.

By consuming different media articles, certain narratives and propaganda start to fade away, and you’re left with the facts. Also, remember your media awareness from part one; reading a diversity of media sources does not mean going to the political extremes, but rather avoiding content from influencers and television personalities to consume a variety of true journalistic opinions. For example, listening to both international news and domestic news can be helpful in diversifying your opinions, as can reading both right-leaning and left-leaning opinions.

However, diversity of sources alone is not enough to construct a strong filter. Choosing quality sources of information is essential to protecting yourself from falsehoods. Quality information relies on cited experts, corroborated sources, and journalistic practices. You can tell a lot of the quality of information by the tone of the content as well. For example, if an article says “according to some experts…” it’s likely a lower quality article, rather than if it cites the expert, saying “according to Lincoln Zaleski, Disinformation Specialist at Renew America Together.” In the first example, the article is relying on hearsay, and failing to provide true evidence to support their claims. Failing to cite information properly is a good indication that the information may be of lower quality.

Similarly, if the content seems intended to evoke an emotion, the outlet is likely of lower quality. One tactic for creators of disinformation is “shock and awe,” where if you associate a negative emotion with a headline, you’re more likely to remember the headline. As such, if you see a particularly sensational headline, including ones with question marks, sarcasm, or clear nationalistic wording, the quality of the media is likely low. Selecting media with high quality reporting will allow you to better consume content without disinformation.

Finally, healthy skepticism is important for filtering out false information. Stopping and thinking critically about each new piece of information is an important part of building your filter. Believing new information after only one article is not effectively consuming media, as new information requires processing and learning before you should fully trust the article as fact. This is unfortunately common, as many read just the article headline before sharing on social media or sending to friends and family. As such, be mindful of new information and don’t believe everything you read at first blush.

Skepticism can be a slippery slope, as being overly skeptical can lead to cynicism, which is not productive to consuming information. Being cynical about information can lead to ideas that “mainstream media” is not to be trusted or other conspiracy theories, as you start questioning all facts regarding reality rather than simply being mindful of new information. As such, while it is important to be skeptical, after a few high quality articles from multiple sources confirm facts about an event, it is highly likely that the information is true,

In sum, creating a filter against false or harmful information is an important step to becoming more media literate. By consuming diverse, quality information mindfully, we can better understand our media environment and our environment, allowing us to realize fact from fiction in our everyday lives.

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