Click above to listen to Larry Magid's conversation with Michelle Ciulla Lipkin of the National Association for Media Literacy Education
The United States is about to celebrate its first Media Literacy Week (@MediaLiteracyEd) as Canadians have done for the past decade.
While the week is not directly related to the U.S. elections, it does coincide with the early stages of both parties' primary campaigns, which strikes me as a great time to think about media literacy. Very few of us will have a chance to meet any of the candidates face-to-face so what we know about their records, their platforms and their promises comes from the debates, the sound bites we see, hear and read and the analysis of pundits, spin doctors, commentators and reporters.
The United States inaugural Media Literacy Week takes place as both the Democrats and Republicans start the process of figuring out who will represent them in the general election in November, 2016. But next year's Media Literacy Week will take place the week before every U.S. citizen aged 18 or older can go to the polls and exercise that precious right to help make that important decision.
Sadly, not everything we hear from the candidates or their supporters and detractors is necessarily the "truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth." Even though we are still very early in the campaign season, candidates from both parties have already been shown by fact checkers from sites like Politifact, FactCheck.org and various news organizations to have exaggerated or been simply wrong with some of their facts.
Media literacy in everyday life
Elections are far from the only chance we have to think about media literacy. It's all around us and affects almost every decision we make ranging from what we buy, how and whether we worship and what we decide to read, watch and listen to. And, in the age of social media, it also affects what we post.
To learn more about this media literacy, I had a conversation with Michelle Cilulla Lipkin, the executive director of the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE). NAMLE's mission is to "help individuals of all ages develop the habits of inquiry and skills of expression that they need to be critical thinkers, effective communicators and active citizens in today's world." You can listen to our entire interview by clicking on the link at the top of this post.
Media literacy has been an essential skill for centuries. There is nothing new about citizens having to sort through everything we hear from authorities and the media to figure out what's true and what's important to act on. But one thing that has changed is the nature of media. When I grew up there were three national TV networks and every city had one or two newspapers and maybe a couple of local talk or news radio stations.
Striving for a balanced media diet
Today there are millions of websites and blogs and you don't need a transmitter or an FCC license to broadcast. That, as Lipkin said in our interview, gives us a lot more options when it comes to what we consume and -- for the most part -- that's a good thing. But it also means that we, the consumers of media, have to take more responsibility to distinguish facts from fiction and opinion and put what we consume into proper perspective. We also live during a period where people's livelihood depends on how many clicks they get or how many people are watching or listening to their programs so there is plenty of incentive to be brash and provocative, sometimes at the expense of truth and rationality. And, with the enormous competition for our attention, electronic media -- both online and traditional -- are under pressure to "go to press" immediately -- often before anyone has the time to check all the facts.
And since fewer of us are watching entire news broadcasts or leafing through newspapers, it's more important than ever to get a balanced diet of news, opinion and information. The Internet makes it all too easy to live in a bubble and only pay attention to sources that reinforce our own worldview. I like to mix it up and expose myself to a variety of media and opinions to make sure I'm not just hearing one side of an argument or one set of "facts."
Our personal responsibility as content sharers
Finally -- and perhaps most important -- ordinary citizens are no longer just media consumers, but media producers. Anyone with a Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or YouTube account is in a position to produce media. We can even produce our own live broadcasts on Periscope and Meerkat. Even people who don't think of themselves as "citizen journalists," really are if they're using social media to share information or express their opinions.
The fact that we're all journalists of sorts means that we all have a responsibility to be as accurate and responsible as possible. I'm not holding every teenage Facebook user to the same standards as my colleagues at CBS News and other national media outlets, but I am suggesting that we are all responsible for what comes out of our mouths and our keyboards.
As I argued in a Forbes post, think critically about anything you're about to post, share or like. If you see an assertion online that you're inclined to share, take a moment to figure out whether it's true before passing it on. It's not hard. In most cases, all you have to do is highlight a little bit of the text with your mouse or pointer, right click and see what comes up in a search engine. If it's an urban myth or a hoax, there is a good chance that you'll find a link to the truth on Snopes.com or some other site that tries to shed light on false assertions. Also, consider the source -- is it one that's generally known to be accurate? And see if it's mentioned in more than one credible place. I'm not saying that reputable news outlets are always right -- even professional journalists can make mistakes, especially on breaking and developing stories -- but for the most part major news outlets do strive to make sure that their facts are correct so if you see it referenced by multiple legitimate news organizations, there is a reasonable chance that it's true.
We live during a very exciting time and we're in the midst of a media revolution that's just as profound as when Guttenberg invented the printing press in the 15th century. Today, literacy means much more than knowing how to read and write. It's knowing how to process information, separate fact from fiction and know when and how to act on what we learn. It's also a time when everyone has the tools not just to consume media but to produce it as well. That gives each one of us a great deal of power and, as Uncle Ben of Spider-Man fame said, "with great power comes great responsibility."
Congratulations to the National Association for Media Literacy Education on the launch of Media Literacy Week -- a time to think about the skills and habits we need to adopt not just for a week, but for our entire lives. And if you want to share what you're doing for media literacy, use the hashtag #MediaLitWk.
This post first appeared on ConnectSafely.org.