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Media Literacy Is a Valuable Tool in a Time of COVID-19 Information Overload

by on September 08, 2020 5:00 AM


The COVID-19 pandemic is everywhere.

As I type this the main page of the website you’re reading featured 17 articles and columns. 13 are directly related to the pandemic. Of the four that aren’t, one mentions it, and another – about an increase in drug overdoses in Centre County – could be associated with the pandemic. 

This is a common sight among the media we consume these days – television, radio, newsprint, magazines, social media. As a so-called “Boomer” I usually default to Facebook when I use social media and right now seven of the first 10 non-sponsored blurbs on my feed have to do with COVID-19.

Even when we’re not consuming media of some sort, the new laws regarding mask usage means we are bombarded with reminders of COVID-19 each time we leave our homes or apartments. On my bike ride through downtown State College yesterday everyone was wearing a mask.

We simply can’t escape COVID-19.

And since a defining characteristic of a pandemic is that it be a new disease, we also don’t know much about it. 

So every day we learn more about COVID-19 and are inundated with figures, speculations, proclamations and prohibitions. How are we supposed to make sense of all this? How are we to determine what is fact and what is fiction? What will keep us healthy and what could make us sick? Who should we listen to? There are so many voices – how do we separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff?

Especially because, as the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote back in the 1700’s: 

“People who know little are usually great talkers, while men who know much say little. It is plain that an ignorant person thinks everything he does know important, and he tells it to everybody. But a well-educated man is not so ready to display his learning; he would have too much to say, and he sees that there is much more to be said, so he holds his peace.” 

My suggestion is we start in a place that is currently undergoing a wide-ranging transformation: the public education system in our country where we instill in our kids the tools they’ll need to survive and prosper. One tool they will need to answer the questions above is media literacy. Of all the wonderful subjects we require in our schools in this country – math, science, social studies, languages, etc. – media literacy may be as important if not more so than the rest. Yet there are only 14 states with some media literacy-related language in their curriculum, and only two states – Florida and Ohio – with strong statutory language on media literacy requiring standards across all grade levels.

The generally accepted definition of media literacy is, “the ability or skills to critically analyze for accuracy, credibility, or evidence of bias the content created and consumed in various media, including radio and television, the internet, and social media.” As communication methods and creators expand and proliferate, the ability to make sense of it all is a valuable personal skill to have. Especially in sensory-overload pandemic times such as these, media literacy is great not only from a critical-thinking standpoint, but from both a psychological and physiological personal health standpoint. It’s one thing to know you should follow the tenets of the “Serenity Prayer,” it’s another thing to actually do so. 

In layman’s terms, the most visible form of media literacy is analyzing for accuracy. Fact-checking, a skill most news organizations have tried to maintain since the dawn of their existence, is now the province of many separate groups with access to the media. Debates about whether something is true or not is a constant presence in all forms of media. The concept behind the cartoon stick-figure meme of “Someone is wrong on the internet” drives thousands of social media posts every day.

The less visible forms of media literacy are the ability to analyze for credibility and evidence of bias.

Analyzing for credibility is normally the easier of these two less-visible forms. What is the source of the information you are consuming and does that source have the ability and knowledge to impart that information? Is it a scholarly journal or a satirical magazine? Is it an ad-free testing organization or an industry-supported lobbying group? Is it an individual with training, education and experience unique to the topic-at-hand or an anonymous internet poster?

The most difficult part of the media literacy equation to learn is analyzing for evidence of bias. Because we are humans, and as humans we all have our biases. Try as we might, it’s very difficult to present information in a way that completely whitewashes it of any bias. Even what would seem to be very straightforward data-driven information can easily be biased. 

This column is a perfect example of bias in information. I have first-hand experience with many forms of media, organizations and people that use the media, and messages that are crafted and distributed via the media. And I believe if we’re going to have a public education system in this country that requires certain benchmarks that the least we can do is give our children insight into the information they’re getting. So I’ve crafted this opinion piece to make that point. That I’ve done my homework, as it were, and sourced information from places I consider credible makes the information accurate, but doesn’t remove the bias. And to an unknowing reader that bias may not be evident. But it’s there. Again, this is an opinion piece, so the expectation is different, but analyzing for bias is the most difficult part of media literacy because confirming it is usually impossible without admission.

All of which gets brought to a head every day here in Happy Valley and all around the country as COVID-19 is not only the top discussion issue of the day, but the middle, bottom, and almost everything in-between discussion issue. As you go through your day think about media literacy and consider the information you consume for accuracy, credibility and bias. And then do what “Hill Street Blues” Sgt. Phil Esterhaus admonishes at the end of every roll call, “Let's be careful out there.”

John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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