If you’ve ever found yourself on the road in a dense fog, you know the anxiety of trying to navigate when the cues usually available to you are obscured. It’s easy to get confused. Some days it feels like that’s what has happened with news.
One of the new truths of the digital world: With relative ease, anyone with enough skill or the right software can
› Fake photographs,
› Invent documentation to support conspiracies,
› Manipulate video or audio to literally put words in people’s mouths, and
› Amplify intentional distortions or deceptions by creating hundreds of bots disguised as social media profiles.
At the same time we rely on accurate information for all sorts of things, grand and small – like the continued existence of democracy, determining where we might want to live, work, or go to school, or even what brand of toothpaste we choose. We rightfully feel some urgency to illuminate our way, concerned that the haze of deceptive news seems to be getting thicker.
We know that if the atmosphere gets too murky, we can find ourselves immobilized with frustration, confusion, or the cynical (and mistaken) conclusion that no one tells the truth. It’s tempting to just pull off to the side and wait for things to clear. Of course, unlike a fogged-in road, there is no guarantee that the system will ever clear. So if we don’t want to be stuck where we are forever, what can we do to move forward? How do we shine a light through the fog so it doesn’t just bounce back and make the problem worse? ¹
There are no easy shortcuts. Isolated news literacy strategies are important, but insufficient. It is useful to know how to spot a spoofed news site by looking closely at a URL, identify a bot by looking at its activity history, use a reverse image search, or find backlinks to a website. But these tools only help after people have already identified a story or source as suspicious. And they rely on the longshot expectation that everyone is willing to devote the time and effort needed to use them. Moreover, these tools don’t address structural weaknesses of commercially constructed news – news that isn’t typically intentionally deceptive, but nonetheless is created in ways that lead people to distrust journalists.
Despite these challenges, things aren’t hopeless. Zooming out from news literacy to a more comprehensive set of media literacy skills can provide habits of inquiry and skills of expression that instill a sort of internal guidance system. Media literate people develop routines that become automatic, so the brain can’t look at news without asking analysis and reflection questions.
The process is much like learning to read print. Once your brain has learned the alphabet’s symbol-sound correlation, and learned that letters strung together form words, your healthy brain can never again look at text like this and not see words. Evne if teh sntense iz wrttten as gibrsh, you can read it because the brain’s default is to make sense of the world. Similarly, media literacy skills can help make sense of a muddled news environment. Media literacy isn’t a foolproof answer, but in terms of getting where you want to go, it can tilt the odds in your favor.