“media literacy” means believing some things

I’m back from a conference on the reliability of information on the Internet. The motivation for the meeting was a concern about false information and people’s excessive credulity. There was a lot of talk about the need to educate young people not to believe everything they read online.

I’m beginning to think that credulity may not be our biggest problem. Every belief deserves to be tested. But what can you test a belief or claim against? Answer: other beliefs. In principle, science can proceed like that forever, testing each proposition and each method. But in practice, you can’t make any progress at all unless you treat much of what you know as reliable. If you doubt everything, you can say and do nothing. To borrow Otto Neurath’s metaphor, we are at sea, and we can repair our boat, but only one plank at a time. If we reject the whole thing, we sink.

I mention this because I suspect that some Americans–especially younger ones–suffer from a blanket skepticism. They doubt everything that politicians say, so they tune politics out. They doubt everything that journalists write, so they don’t use the press. And they note the prevalence of disagreement and uncertaintly in medicine, so they allow themselves to ignore all medical advice (especially the painful parts, like “eat your broccoli”). Thus I’m not as concerned about teaching young people to doubt what they read. I’m more interested in helping them to develop some sources on which they can rely.

The graph shows young Americans’ confidence in the press since 1972. (Source: General Social Survey; sample: ages 18-30). The dramatic drop in trust coincides with a steep decline in readership. Alternative news sources such as the Internet and talk radio have not come anywhere close to replacing newspapers as a source of information for young people.

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2 Responses to “media literacy” means believing some things

  1. I suspect credulity and skepticism may be very context specific. As a course instructor, I have noticed that students tend to be somewhat overly credulous when it comes to research material. Why? I’m guessing it has to do partly with the rush to complete papers (little incentive to doubt the source) and insufficient training (for all our demand for “academically rigorous” sources, I’ve seen relatively few instructors who could effectively help students understand what that phrase truly means in practice).

  2. futurstan123 says:

    Since a fear of “bias” in the media has probably played a major roll in the drop off of confidence in the press, and since it’s also pretty much impossible to eliminate all bias in the media, maybe it would be useful for people to start talking about possible positive biases that we’d like to see in our journalists. For instance, I’d really like to see a bias against leaving blatant falsehoods or questionable assertions unchallenged.

    I’d also really like it if more media outlets (TV shows, papers, magazines, etc) had a biases for covering those topics that the editors themselves think are most important, instead of stories that they think I would maximize their readership/viewership. This could certainly create a possibly negative bias coming from the editors’ world-views, but I’d prefer that to the much more negative bias an unchallenged profit-motive imposes on a publication.

    By talking about positive biases (or at least potentially positive biases) that could work as checks against the unavoidable negative biases that exist, maybe the “bias” debate that dominates any mainstream discussion on journalism could expand enough to include which checks and balances (or positive biases) are required to ensure the media itself can effectively play its role at applying checks and balances elsewhere in society. That would be pretty neat 🙂

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