You may have seen the term “media literacy” a lot over the last few years, likely alongside some alarming statistics, like the fact that 33% of Americans say they have “no trust” in mass media organizations in the U.S. This number has been steadily rising over the last several years, and communications professionals believe media literacy is a key solution to this problem.
What is media literacy exactly? It’s a skill similar to reading comprehension and critical thinking. Media literacy is the ability to identify misinformation and identify facts from opinions in the news. It also means having the ability to determine accurate and reliable news sources.
As PR professionals, we care a lot about this issue because, without a public audience who can identify trustworthy news sources, our jobs become impossible. While PR professionals often get a bad reputation for being “spin doctors” or perpetrators of misinformation, we adhere to similar ethical standards as journalists. Sure, we have a vested interest in our clients, but if a client tells us their product is the “first of its kind,” we still fact-check that information before using it. Our audience is comprised of journalists just as much as it is the general public.
Media literacy helps us become more critical thinkers, but it’s not as straightforward or as widespread as it should be. Luckily, we can do things right now that will sharpen our skills and encourage others to do the same. I’ve outlined three simple acts that will help to accomplish this goal.
Go Beyond the Headline
How many times have you mentioned “an article you read” in conversation, knowing full well you really only read the headline and maybe skimmed the first paragraph? It’s OK, we all do it! The danger of discussing a topic like a new piece of legislation or even the latest Britney Spears documentary is that we often miss a lot of the context when we haven’t read the full article. As media professionals, we know journalists write in a style that ensures the most critical information is at the top of the story — for this exact reason — but that doesn’t mean we’re getting the whole story. Next time you see an intriguing headline, take the time to read the full article before discussing it. If you don’t have time to read it at that moment, bookmark it and come back to it. Reading entire articles makes us informed and ensures we have a well-rounded view on a topic before forming an opinion.
Think About Missing Voices
While good journalists do everything in their power to make sure they’re representing all sides of a story, the reality is that’s not always possible. Whether due to limited words, time or resources, things can get missed. Newsrooms across the country are shrinking, which means a handful of journalists are responsible for covering an entire city. While these journalists continue to do an excellent job, they can’t always produce long-form pieces about local elections or controversial legislation covering every angle or every impacted community. Our job as critical thinkers and media literate individuals is to look for voices that are missing. It’s worth noting that newsrooms like the Denver Post are making an effort to address this issue, and readers can help by providing constructive and informed recommendations when they think a piece of the story is missing. And most journalists welcome this feedback. Just remember to be kind and thoughtful with your responses.
Advocate for Legislation
Has your state introduced legislation related to media literacy? If you live in Colorado, the answer is yes! The Colorado State Legislature is considering a bill that would require the Department of Education to create and maintain a library of resources on media literacy for K-12 students. HB1103 is the latest of a series of bills on media literacy implementation. This bill not only formalizes the process of teaching media literacy skills to students by providing resources to teachers, but the legislation also signifies the importance of media literacy as a whole. You can read more about HB1103 at https://leg.colorado.gov/, and you can call your state representative and ask them to support the bill, which is awaiting approval in the state Senate.
As communications professionals, it can be easy to get discouraged over the lack of media literacy throughout the U.S., especially when it comes to loved ones. Let’s take the time to educate ourselves and approach difficult conversations with compassion and factual evidence. There is hope we can make a difference, one Facebook article at a time.