Literacy in media essential

REBECCA WHITE, Evergreen managing editor

Media literacy, a skill that can help media consumers stay logical in the face of a constant stream of new information, has been heavily researched at WSU.

Erica Weintraub Austin, a communication professor and the vice provost of student affairs, conducted a study in 1994 which found that students did not care about the source of information as much as the content of the article. In a follow up study she found that the source of the information mattered much more to older faculty and staff. That research is still relevant today.

Columbia Journalism Review, a journalism magazine and trend researcher, recently conducted a study similar to Austin’s which tested whether readers were likely to care if a story appeared in BuzzFeed or The New Yorker. They found that those who relied on print product were more likely to trust The New Yorker, while the more a reader trusted what they found on the internet, the more likely they were to trust BuzzFeed.

Weintraub Austin, who was cited several times in Columbia’s research, has looked at the generation gap in how people use and comprehend media and worked to train people in media literacy. She said having an understanding of the way media messages work can help people not only understand the news media, but also look skeptically at glamorized portrayals of sex and reduce the influence of advertising.

“They don’t necessarily want you to be thinking deeply through the issues,” Weintraub Austin said. “Media literacy can reduce the influence of emotion on decision making.”

Media literacy can also include entertainment media, said Jessica Willoughby, an assistant professor at WSU who contributed to several studies with Weintraub Austin. Media can often influence people, especially adolescents, without their realizing it.

“Young people kind of have skewed views about what is entailed in sexual activity,” Willoughby said. “You can use media literacy to try to encourage people to see the whole picture. There’s more going on here than what we’ll see in that two-minute clip.”

To become media literate, Austin said it is important to be skeptical, and constantly seek out more sources of information. She said even credible sources can get something wrong and it’s important to verify information in several places, especially before posting to social media.

However, she said to avoid cynicism. Cynics often take the form of trolls in the comment section of social media, and have already closed themselves to finding out more. Skeptics in contrast, are engaged and always on the lookout for more information and new ways to look at an issue.

Austin said it’s also important to understand the goals of a message, and whether it has the audience’s best interest in mind.

“Every message is produced by somebody,” she said. “That somebody did it for a reason,” whether to persuade, teach or accomplish some other goal.

Bruce Pinkleton, the acting dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, said it is important to remember that the audience, not always the content, is being negotiated.

“A lot of people don’t understand,” he said, “that when they are consuming media, they’re actually what’s bought and sold.”

Pinkleton said many in media were excited when the internet was started and hoped people would become more informed because of all the opportunities to access information and improve the health of democracy. Unfortunately, Pinkleton said, it hasn’t quite turned out that way.

“They’re (readers) essentially echoing back and forth and there’s not a real growth in terms of informed decision making,” he said. “More information sources does not mean quality information or better decisions.”