This is part one 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 awareness of the media environment.
First, what is the media environment? In its most abstract form, your media environment consists of all of the different ways that you access new information. Your media environment can include friends and family, podcasts that you listen to, social media posts online, or traditional media, such as television channels or radio stations. Each of these channels of media has an effect on your decision-making capabilities, as new information helps you decide nearly everything in your life, from who you’re voting for to what you’re going to wear that day. As such, an awareness of what forms of media you consume and how those forms of media can be manipulated is key to being media literate.
There are many components of media awareness that are important to understanding the media environment. We will break down some major components of media literacy that everyone should understand. Feel free to determine if you know these statements in your own life.
1. Media ownership is fundamental to understanding the biases of the media.
Do you know who owns the media that you consume? If you’re reading an article, it is always important to consider who paid for the media to be published. Media owners have the ability to influence the content that their outlets produce, meaning that sometimes articles are produced with ulterior motives. For example, if the CEO of an oil company also owns shares of a newspaper, we may see reporting that undermines or questions certain aspects of climate science. This was very common in the mid- to late-20th century, when fossil fuel companies purchased stakes in media companies to promote their products and undermine environmentalists.
Similarly, the political lean of media owners matters as well. Leveraging television stations to give biased news towards one political party over another is a long-standing tradition in the United States. However, being aware of the affiliation of the media owner can lend insight into which party the outlet is biased towards, allowing you to avoid overly politicized news sources.
2. Foreign influence is alive and well in America.
Since the 2016 election, Americans have become more aware of the presence of foreign disinformation campaigns in the United States. However, most Americans still cannot recognize foreign-funded media outlets or disinformation on social media. A great example is the popular online outlet Redfish, which is wholly owned by Russian state-owned media company Ruptly. Redfish produces content intended to undermine the United States, often focusing on US foreign policy failures in the Middle East, and criticizing US involvement in other countries. While encouraging isolationism is not bad in itself, the content gets darker when you consider that the Russian government financed its creation in an attempt to convince Americans to stay out of countries they want to influence. As such, understanding why foreign governments are involved in our media space is important to being media literate.
3. People online are not always people.
The anonymity of the internet permits for people to pretend they’re something they are not, and for robots to assume the role of humans online. Trolls, bots, and burner accounts often hide their identities and their true intentions for posting and creating content. They are often difficult to identify, but by being aware of their existence, you can begin to understand how these accounts work.
4. Algorithms feed you specific content online.
The more you read about a topic online, the more that you’ll receive information about that topic. Knowing that social media algorithms intentionally make you biased is an important component of media awareness. For example, if you’re reading articles about COVID-19 mask mandates on Twitter, the Twitter algorithm will show you more COVID-19 content.
Additionally, algorithms tend to show you the most viewed or most consumed content online, which is often content that is highly controversial or incendiary. Posts that insight strong emotions receive higher clicks and interactions online, so controversial posts often get promoted by social media algorithms. This phenomenon drives radical opinions to float to the surface, furthering the biases of the media that you consume. As a result, being aware that the social media that you read is intentionally biased and intentionally controversial based on outlet algorithms is key to being media literate.
5. All outlets are biased, but some outlets have an agenda.
This is an important distinction to make for those that seek to be media literate. Everyone, including journalists, has a bias in the way that they write articles. Based on past experiences, the way that a journalist conveys information is often different than how we might interpret the same event. This bias is not wrong, but it is something to be aware of when reading.
Journalistic bias is different from propaganda or media with an agenda. A biased reporter is providing you with information that they have tried to interpret for you. Media with an agenda is written in a way that is intended to make you believe something specific or take a specific action. For example, a billionaire may buy a stake in a newspaper to write articles about decreasing taxes on the wealthy. This is not biased reporting, these are opinionated articles intended to sway your political beliefs about billionaires.
6. Journalists are different from television personalities and influencers.
It is important to remember that a journalist is different from an influencer. A journalist is paid to report on information as objectively as possible by a media outlet. An influencer is an individual that receives funding from specific brands to promote their product. As such, influencers that provide information have an external agenda to promote products or sell merchandise. For example, if you’re looking to purchase the best shampoo, you’re better off reading an article from a journalist that objectively compares shampoos, rather than watching an influencer online talk about what shampoos they like to use, as they are likely paid by those companies to promote their products.
Additionally, many news commentators are simply personalities reacting to the news and offering personal opinions. Famous news hosts, such as Sean Hannity, are not journalists and often are not reporting news objectively. These personalities are paid to make news entertaining and to offer their personal analysis and opinions, not to report entirely accurate and objective facts. As a result, being able to identify a journalist from a commentator or an influencer is important to being media literate.
In conclusion, media awareness has a number of different characteristics, including knowledge about the background of who produces the media you consume, why you see the media that you read, and which outlets you should trust. Understanding your media environment is only the first step in becoming media literate, but it is arguably the most important. Following these guidelines, you’ll be able to decipher our complicated American media landscape.