Write Team: Practicing media literacy

Is NASA installing internet on the moon? Was an alligator found swimming in a bathtub in Florida? Do the COVID vaccines cause damaging side effects? Which of these article titles are considered fact or fiction?

I will tell you two are facts, not fiction, backed by supposedly trustworthy sources. Although nowadays, I, an educated individual, need help to evaluate sources.

In 2021, the Illinois state legislature passed Public Act 102-0055 mandating a unit of instruction in media literacy in public high schools, beginning with the 2022-2023 school year. The law defines media literacy as “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create and communicate using a variety of objective forms, including, but not limited to, print, visual, audio, interactive and digital texts.” (Illinois State Board of Education).

The keyword in that description is “objective.” Are the days of unbiased media simply a thing of the past?

I have been teaching my middle school students a unit on media literacy for years. I am sure other educators also have embedded media literacy into their teaching. We analyze non-fiction articles and texts, examine the claim, evaluate evidence/sources to support the claim and explore counterarguments and rebuttals.

We learned to look for bias, ad hominem, rhetorical fallacies and stereotyping. We became better consumers by researching persuasive techniques that convince us to buy a particular product, follow a specific narrative, or change our stance on an issue. The timing was perfect for this unit because I planned it during the Super Bowl. What better way to test our knowledge of the persuasive techniques used than analyzing the Super Bowl ads?

I even had a journalist from The Times visit our classroom to discuss his take on how to remain unbiased when following a story and relaying all sides. He, like many journalists, went into this profession to follow leads that lead to truth. While he admitted it was hard to remain unbiased, he tried his best to state the facts and push his thoughts aside. He had such passion for his career and empathy for all he interviewed for a story. He was a breath of fresh air.

Unfortunately, in my mind, solid reporting is over, more so at the national level. We know certain news outlets support one political party over the other. I am not even into politics and I am aware. Therein lies bias-missing objectivity.

There are always two sides to a story-maybe, even three-my side, your side and the truth. If any type of media shares only one side of a narrative, we must question the sources. When one side of a storyline is silenced, we must examine it, especially when experts on the opposing side are weighing in. All sides should be presented.

The point of teaching media literacy is we can thoroughly analyze what we are being fed and use critical thinking to make solid decisions about our beliefs, stances and information presented. Social media and marketing also are included in the media literacy bubble.

Mayo Clinic, considered a reliable source, has researched the adverse effects of hours of social media use on people of all ages. Depression, low self-esteem, sleep loss, anxiety, unrealistic views of reality, etc., have increased over the last few years. This is also the case with constantly watching the news.

Like our nutritional needs, media use must be balanced to live a happier and healthier life. I remember a scene from the 1994 Jean Claude Van Damme movie “Street Fighter.” One of the characters who was going to fight Van Damme’s character was being prepped for battle by watching the news, which consisted of the three Ds-death, destruction, and disease. He became more volatile and full of rage the longer he watched. He was being programmed. Sound familiar?

The doctor exposing him to all that negativity felt terrible, so he switched the program to a happier nature scene. His rage instantly faded, and he began feeling happy and peaceful. Our mental stability and happiness dramatically depend on what we take in. The great thing is we get to CHOOSE what we allow in.

We can choose who we follow on our social media apps. If we follow individuals who are constantly negative, then we will live in that state of negativity. The opposite also is true. We will bring that into our lives if we focus on the 3 Ds daily. That reality will manifest itself because that is all we consume and think about.

There is usually only one feel-good tidbit in a newscast. This is one reason that actor John Krasinski from “The Office” created Good News Network to focus on inspiring and positive stories. So much good is happening in our neighborhoods, communities, and the world than is often shared. We must not forget that.

Yes, we need to be informed of what is happening in our world, but we have no control over most things. However, we can control the time and energy we give those stories and who/what we engage with. We all can gut-check ourselves when it comes to what we are absorbing daily. Reflect on how you feel physically and mentally after turning off the news or reading the latest Facebook post. Are you angry, frustrated, and irritated? Or are you feeling joy and a sense of peace? Those things are in our control.

Unfortunately, our beautiful world seems filled with hate, division, and anger. Yet, we also have the power within to change that.

This relates to a quote by British journalist/author George Orwell, “The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it.” How poignant.

I commend and thank all the journalists in the field who are doing great work in seeking the truth and objectively sharing their stories. I know good reporting can be tireless and relentless, and I admire the passion and persistence of all passionate about seeking the truth and sharing their voices.

Lee Ann Raikes is a resident of Ottawa, and now teaches at the Regional Safe School in Peru. She’s been teaching for 18 years.