Monday, November 19, 2012

Media Bias Inventory

This week, I performed a media bias inventory, using the tools outlined in Digital Community: Digital Citizen (Ohler, 2010). I discovered that I tend to consume media that either entertain me (news and information about the subjects that entertain me, such as sports, cooking, collecting, etc.), or that deal with conservative issues. I try to listen for bias toward liberal issues, for editorializing, and for ideologies that are harmful (even some of the more conservative ideologies are detrimental to real political and democratic progress.)

One thing I have observed is that I consume media from a much wider variety of sources than I initially thought. I like to be informed about a wide range of topics, and many times will read the headline and one or two sentences at the beginning of the story. By doing this I can see trends (in much the same way that John Naisbitt did for his book Megatrends, 1982) in industries, countries, organizations, and cultures.  
If the article, news cast, or blog is presenting just the facts, I will tend to read it through or stick with the article until I get from it what I want: the point of the story or a useful datum point or two. If there is any editorializing (someone opining on someone else’s quote, or assessing value judgments on a decision or direction in the story) as if I am being persuaded to adopt the bias, I tend to begin discounting the veracity of the story and the facts presented until I can read more sources, understand the context for the facts used, and compare what I know from history. (For me, understanding how civilizations and societies have risen and fallen serves as a great filter on the logical extension of any bias or viewpoint, since we have about 6,000 years of empirical evidence to show that the forces of human nature tend to repeat in every society and civilization.)
I tend to be socially and fiscally conservative, so anything that I read or listen to for information, I realize is filtered by that bias. That said, however, I observed that even conservative viewpoints annoy me that have no logical consistency, and no supporting or corroborating facts. I also find myself avoiding any media where the character of a person is assassinated or impugned, in order to make an ideological point.
As a media psychologist, I’m interested in studying and understanding how media persuades public opinion and perceptions of the truth. I’m also interested in understanding the “chicken-and-egg” syndrome relative to the media we consume: do we consume what comports with our a priori bias, or does what we consume inform our bias?  Secondarily, as part of a broader inquiry into media literacy, I’m interested in how literacy furthers the honest dialog that is integral to democracy: establishing a considered point of view that makes one think and is consistent with the history of human behavior.
Applying these concepts to teaching media literacy for kids is difficult, but I believe they can be broken down into some easier-to-understand concepts that most anyone can grasp. The beginnings of literacy can be understood through the asking of a few simple questions. There are three simple questions which can lead a student (no matter what age) on a media literacy journey:  How do I know? What’s the point? And, does this make sense? These 3 questions can be applied to any information-related content, whether print, digital print, television and video, or radio. These three questions begin a thought process that becomes more critical, over time, and is a good way to teach students how to watch or listen to programs and content, or read news sources and blogs, learning to separate the concepts that are worthy of critical thought from the persuasion tactics that are unsupported (no matter how right they seem). Let’s explore these questions a bit further to mine some further understanding:
1.       How do I know? Are the claims of the story supported, and can I check out those sources to corroborate the facts? Can I verify, or do I have to presume that the author or producer is right?

2.       What is the point? I often ask it this way: “Is there a chicken in this story?” What is the author really trying to get me to understand or to think about the subject at hand? Are there other cues (verbal, visual, sounds, music) that are telling me something different? Do these cues have any bearing on the point of the story, or are they just trying to persuade me on a parallel issue? Could I remove them and not lose the meaning of the story? If so, why are they really here?

3.       Does this make sense? In other words, is it logically consistent? Is it consistent with history? If I take this claim to its logical conclusion, does it hold together? Can I think of exceptions?

I’m sure that within a given class, the answers to these questions would vary for any given news story, but at least students begin to think critically and develop literacy that encompasses more than just the reading of material or listening to a story. Real literacy must teach us to recognize and deal with not just the body of content, but the way it’s presented, the meta-information that surrounds it, and the cues and influences that are part of the delivery.

As Arke (2011) claims, this sort of literacy is far more encompassing than just the teaching of words and their meaning. It requires thought across several disciplines: from sociology, history, anthropology, and psychology to start. Additionally, it requires thoughtful research skills. Our education system requires that we stop “admiring the problem” and get to work on setting standards and developing consistent study material for our kids. Our children are growing up to compete for jobs in a global market, and media literacy will be as much of a basic job requirement in this decade as the “3 Rs” were in the industrial age.

Arke, Edward (2011). Media Literacy: History, Progress and Future Hopes. Unpublished.

Naisbitt, J. (1982). Megatrends. Warner Books. New York, NY.
Ohler, Jason (2010). Digital Community: Digital Citizen. Corwin. Thousand Oaks, CA.

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