Remember the doctored Nancy Pelosi video that was made to look like she was slurring her words during a public appearance earlier this year? Basic editing software made that possible. Ever heard of the Kalamazoo Times? According to the New York Times, it’s one of almost 40 websites named and designed to look like unbiased local Michigan news agencies, yet most content supports politically conservative stances; the sites are owned by a business run by a Republican activist from Illinois.
Media literacy is more important than ever, which is why University of Findlay College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences 2019-20 Richard E. Wilkin Events series is addressing this topic. Chaired by Diana Montague, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Communications Program, the series is emphasizing how online information consumers must always view media’s origins and intent with a critical lens, given that authoritative news arbiters and curators have all but fallen by the wayside. The era of CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite, often cited as “the most trusted man in America,” is long gone.
On Sept. 30, Montague kicked off the Wilkin Series by presenting “The Changing Face of Media Literacy,” a retrospective that addressed how attitudes and technology have paved the way for social media and its challenging dynamics. She began with a quiz from www.whichfaceisreal.com illustrating how to identify altered photos; algorithms can now use real photos to create images of people who don’t exist. So-called “deepfakes,” which also manipulate images to create videos, are proliferating online.
Knowing how to be savvy media consumers enhances our ability to be productive citizens within a democratic society, empowers our own communication methods and influences the value we place on content, and protects us from a variety of harms, Montague pointed out. The key, she said, is to be able to “distinguish real information from fake, opinion from fact, misinformation from disinformation, and the important information from the trivial.” But these tasks are not easy for anyone.
“One of our challenges of media literacy is that technology changes so fast we can’t keep up,” Montague said. Another challenge: the ubiquity and unlimited variety of information in a world where almost everyone can publish whenever they want (depending on online access).
What can we do? Some pertinent media literacy tips Montague offered:
- Pay attention to the content of the message.
- Identify the message’s source.
- Take into account how the message is delivered.
- Consider the message’s intended audience.
- Determine the veracity of the information.
- Recognize the biases inherent within the message and yourself.
Historical context can be helpful as well. Montague pointed out these key communication milestones that have affected how we acquire and synthesize information today:
- 1440s: Johannes Gutenberg invents the printing press, which allows for information to be mass-produced, and therefore more widely distributes power via message control.
- 1833: The “penny press” decreases newspaper prices to one cent, encouraging low- and middle-class citizens to become readers, and those readers wanted news of crime and gossip, not politics and business. Also, the Industrial Revolution during this century causes a shift away from an agrarian society to a time-clock schedule, increases household incomes, and introduces mandatory education that drastically increases literacy rates.
- Late 1800s: Serious, objective journalism begins to educate citizens as publishers such as James Gordon Bennett, Jr. encourage investigative techniques and publishers such as Horace Greeley make clear the difference between opinion pieces and factual stories.
- Early 20th century: As trust in and use of radio and TV increases for news and entertainment, disruptions began to occur, such as the 1938 “War of the Worlds” fictionalized radio broadcast that had some believing aliens had actually landed on earth; and the Quiz Show scandal during the 1950s that revealed the game was rigged.
- 1990s: The internet begins to be used for commercial purposes, and federal laws are passed that limit the liability of online companies such as AOL by declaring they aren’t publishers.
- 2003: MySpace debuts, and a year later Mark Zuckerberg creates his first version at Harvard University of what is now Facebook.
Next in the 2019-20 Wilkin Event Series: A “Speak Off” featuring competing Communication 110 students who will compete to determine who is best at “fact-checking the news.” Following the Speak Off, Holly Zachariah, a reporter and intern supervisor at the Columbus Dispatch, will speak. This free public event will be held at the Mazza Museum on Monday, Nov. 18, beginning at 4 p.m., with Zachariah speaking at 4:45 a.m.