Did you know that November 6 – 10 is National Media Literacy Week in the United States? In just a few days, I’m going to be sharing with you an eBook I’ve been working on to celebrate, which is the translation of a lecture my grandmother gave in the 1960’s when she worked as a foreign news correspondent for the Associated Press. In the lecture, she talks about her time traveling behind the Iron Curtain in Russia, which was closed off to information from outside of the country at the time. The eBook is ultimately a personal story illustrating what it means to be media literate, and why it matters in 2017. From the eBook, she states:
Back then I had an embassy news reporting job in the Middle West for the Milwaukee general stations. I went to New York and spoke with the foreign news editor. He said they were thinking of sending three women to Russia. It was an experiment in foreign news broadcasting in that part of the world. However, he felt that a pilot’s license would be necessary because of the expanses of country that would have to be traversed. Also, that I would have to learn the language …
According to Michelle Ciulla Lipkin, the director for the non-partisan National Association of Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), media literacy is defined as:
The ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create and act using all forms of communication. In its simplest terms, media literacy builds upon the foundation of traditional literacy and offers new forms of reading and writing. Media literacy empowers people to be critical thinkers and makers, effective communicators and active citizens.
Developing media literacy is an important skill that’s often not being taught in many of America’s schools today. You can hear what Ciulla Lipkin has to say on the topic in her own words below (click image to watch):
According to Ciulla Lipkin, media literacy is not a political issue, but rather a broad-based issue affecting all sectors of society. Media literate youth and adults, for example, are better able to understand the complex messages we receive from a variety of media including television, radio, Internet, newspapers, magazines, books, billboards, video games, music, etc. It’s about being an independent thinker: the opposite of being manipulated.
On the Topic of Media Manipulation
TED Radio Hour recently dedicated an episode to the topic of “Manipulation,” where various TED speakers shared their thoughts on the concept of manipulation from a variety of angles. In the episode, journalist Ali Velshi talked about the importance of being media literate in a digital economy. He said:
We assume that with the degree of digital penetration we have in the U.S., people had the wherewithal to say “oh that’s a lie,” or “this is a kooky conspiracy.” One thing that I have learned is that a lot of people don’t triangulate. They don’t have three independent reference points in which to say: “Ah that’s interesting, I listen to NPR, I read the Wall Street Journal and I listen to this radio show and only the radio show is saying that Hillary Clinton is running a sex slave ring out the basement of a pizza parlor in suburban D.C. It’s strange that other ones wouldn’t cover that because you’d think that was a good story.”
If you don’t know that there are other sources who are reporting on something differently or not reporting on it at all, you don’t necessarily know that your news source might not be telling you the truth. Not only that, speaking of manipulation, you are now so beholden to that news source, so into it, that you will be convinced that the others are lying to you.
Do you know someone who fits this mold? You can watch Velshi’s full talk here:
A Key Challenge Facing Media Literacy: Post-Truth (Or Post-Fact)
Aside from the fact that it’s not yet mandated for media literacy to be taught in public schools, one of the primary reasons why people say they aren’t willing to learn or take in new information is because they’re too busy to focus on it (per research from my most recent post, The 5 Types of Information Consumers in the Digital Age). But I believe there’s more to it than that. Understanding the concept of “post truth” may help explain why.
While I’ve written about the “post-truth” era before (after all, it was Webster Dictionary’s Word of Year not too long ago), I’ll turn to Kurt Anderson, author of The Atlantic article “How America Lost its Mind,” to better explain our post-truth moment in the context of how it affects our society’s collective thinking. He writes:
What’s happening is just the ultimate extrapolation and expression of mind-sets that have made America exceptional for its entire history. America was created by true believers and passionate dreamers, and by hucksters and their suckers, which made America successful—but also by a people uniquely susceptible to fantasy … in other words: Mix epic individualism with extreme religion; mix show business with everything else; let all that ferment for a few centuries; then run it through the anything-goes ’60s and the internet age. The result is the America we inhabit today, with reality and fantasy weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled.
In other words, we’ve reached a critical inflection point in American history that’s affecting our ability to actually decode reality. The problem is that reality (all truth) has become relative.
If you’re willing to take this understanding a step further, then I encourage you to read this this excerpt from the philosopher Ken Wilber in his recent book “Trump and a Post-Truth World.” It will give you a better sense for comprehending the magnitude of the problem we face underlying everything. He writes:
When it becomes not just that all individuals have the right to choose their own values (as long as they don’t harm others), but that hence there is nothing universal in (or held-in-common by) any values at all, this leads straight to axiological nihilism: there are no believable, real values anywhere. And when all truth is a cultural fiction, then there simply is no truth at all—epistemic and ontic nihilism. And when there are no binding moral norms anywhere, there’s only normative nihilism. Nihilism upon nihilism upon nihilism—‘there was no depth anywhere, only surface, surface, surface.’ And finally, when there are no binding guidelines for individual behavior, the individual has only his or her own self-promoting wants and desires to answer to—in short, narcissism. And that is why the most influential postmodern elites ended up embracing, explicitly or implicitly, that tag team from postmodern hell: nihilism and narcissism—in short, aperspectival madness. The culture of post-truth.
So, how do we turn this madness around? In short, I believe it begins with a willingness to become more information or media literate, which, as stated previously, is much more complex than just “understanding” new information but learning how to evaluate, utilize and act upon it.
In the coming days I’ll be sharing a fun story to help illustrate some of the concrete skills and approaches we can work on to take our understanding and comprehension of the world to a new level. In the meantime, would love to hear your thoughts!
(Want more on this topic? Click to read my previous posts “Ruminations on the Post-Truth Era and its Implications for Marketing” and “The Post-Truth vs. No Truth Problem: Digital Marketing’s Role in the Echo Chamber.”)