Increased media literacy will require transparent journalists and engaged citizens, experts say

Sarah Shadburne

Editor-in-chief

sshadbur@unca.edu 

Employed full-time by the Asheville Citizen-Times for eight years and a self-proclaimed lifelong voracious consumer of news, Casey Blake, community engagement editor and daughter of two journalists, said she got sucked into the news industry and never left.

A big conversation going on in her newsroom right now she said, centers on the labeling of content. Specifically, distinguishing between news and opinion.

“Helping people distinguish between columns and straight news articles feels like more of a challenge every day,” Blake said. “Another challenge is from less credible or less rigorous media sources catching fire on social media. We have to handle the way we report on other reporting, which traditionally is a no-no, but more and more that’s becoming the news.”

Blake got into the newsroom before cell phones really took off, a time which she refers to as another era. What’s different now for her, is the task of deciphering the levels of hostility communicated across social media and other evolving mediums.

“It’s a really different world having any guy in a basement being able to tweet you dozens and dozens of times and make those threats more directly because we are more accessible,” Blake said. “A lot of the pleasantries that used to exist don’t anymore.”

Blake said in the past when she covered Mitt Romney rallies, people would shy away from talking to her saying they did not want to talk to city journalists. But when she covered a Trump rally, Blake said people threw drinks and garbage at the media risers.

“Of course, that’s a microcosm of the populous, but the phone calls I take are much more heated,” Blake said. “I get a lot of direct community feedback. Definitely, in the last couple years, I’ve just seen a lot more name calling and vitriol.”

The Pew Research Center reports a low percentage of people who say they have a lot of confidence in national and local outlets, with local news organizations earning 4 percent more than national outlets when it comes to trust. That means 22 percent of people have a lot of faith in their local networks, whereas only 18 percent have that same level of confidence toward national outlets.

Blake said she does not much concern herself with the national statistics.

“The world’s most useless term, ‘the media,’ means something very different for different people,” Blake said. “I don’t consider every blogger in Western North Carolina to be ‘the media,’ but certainly, we still pay for their sins.”

The media cannot be lumped into one category because different outlets operate under different publishing and fact-checking standards, with their own respective, different burdens to bear, she said.

“We got a really nasty letter to the editor this morning about how we had covered the hurricane too thoroughly, that we overblew it,” Blake said. “They referenced this video they had seen of this reporter fighting the wind as people walk behind him and it was clear that they blamed us for that and equated it with us.”  

Ashley Moraguez, assistant professor of political science at UNC Asheville, said across the board, the country has a media literacy problem.

“I don’t think this is one party’s problem versus the other, I think it’s kind of an American electorate problem,” Moraguez said. “With the advent of so many different types of media out there, it’s more easy than ever to select news that’s consistent with your ideological predisposition.”  

Moraguez defined a media literate person as someone who does their best to be informed, while also keeping in mind the corporate motivations and biases behind reporting.

“We need to remember that most media outlets are owned by the same six companies and one of their overarching concerns is making a profit,” Moraguez said.

She adds that being media literate is not just about being a consumer, but also being a creator and savvy navigator of different media.

“Even posting on social media and engaging in a political conversation—of course I’m talking about political news, but it could be applicable more widely—is a form of creating media or at least creating conversation on media,” Moraguez said.

In some ways, Moraguez said she sees the press still serving as a fourth branch of government, but as parties become more polarized attacks on the press tend to follow.

The Pew Research Center reports a growing ideological consistency on both ends of the spectrum, as the percentage of people who consistently express their liberal or conservative views has doubled to 21 percent, creating a much wider turf for middle ground.

Though the politically consistent represent a minority, they tend to have a disproportionate impact over politics as they are more likely to vote regularly and donate to campaigns.

“There’s all these calls about fake news today and there’s been a lot of academic studies that said basically what people consider fake news is things they don’t agree with,” Moraguez said. “I think it’s a dangerous trajectory we’re on potentially, but with more education about how to consume the news we could hopefully fight that trend.”

On the collegiate level, Moraguez said the responsibility falls on educators to inform students on media literacy, as part of the liberal arts mission of UNCA seeks to create global, engaged citizens who care about the community and know how to become informed.

“Something I do to try to get students thinking about the news is for the first 10 or 15 minutes every class period—it doesn’t matter what the class is—we talk about the news, particularly in American politics because that’s what I teach, but also global news,” Moraguez said.

She encourages her students to read stories from multiple outlets with different biases, as well as international coverage of events in order to get a clearer, more developed idea of what the story they read really means.

“I would hope that people approach the media wanting to be educated and craving content and context,” Moraguez said.

Katerina Spasovska, department head and associate professor of communication at Western Carolina University, grew up in socialist Macedonia and said consuming state-controlled media taught her how to read between the lines.

“You don’t trust whatever they serve you,” Spasovska said. “It should be the same skepticism for everybody else here.”

Spasovska said greater media transparency would be a good place to start with media literacy education.

“Part of my transparency is to acknowledge that I’m very liberal,” Spasovska said. “I acknowledge why I’m a liberal. Growing up in a totalitarian system, you realize what freedom is and how hard it is to get it, but also how easy it is to lose it.”

Transparency could come in many forms depending on the platform. Just by showing readers the process of gathering sources, putting together a story and making full length interviews available to the public upon publication could help people understand how the news operates, Spasovska said.

“In certain cases, you can’t necessarily have a full transparency, but you can explain to your audience why,” Spasovska said.

Another component Spasovska added to enhancing media literacy would be through journalists debunking things that go viral online and meeting audiences where they are with their understanding of the media.

Blake echoed this sentiment.

“We have to let go of the idea that people are somehow going to join some sort of boot camp to become literate about media in a way that serves us is really unrealistic,” Blake said.

More and more, Blake said she sees people respond to humanity.

“People have a higher bar for connecting with authors,” Blake said. “It’s just incredible the change in tone and tenor people take on when they actually know one of us, shake our hands and can ask us questions about the newsroom.”

Blake still receives DVDs proclaiming “the truth” about 9/11 and still receives letters to the editor questioning former President Barack Obama’s birthplace, but she also receives calls from readers in tears with gratitude.

After writing a column about the shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Maryland, Blake said she received more than 300 emails thanking her for the piece and asking how else they could help.

“I just really believe in what we’re doing now more than ever,” Blake said. “As the social media landscape builds challenges, we just have to rise to them.”

 

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