The case for media literacy education

Having exited the center ring of the 24/7 cable news circus, we should take stock of the lessons learned from the Shirley Sherrod firing. She was the USDA official fired after a conservative blogger with already questionable credibility posted a crudely edited video clip of Sherrod, an African American explaining how she once chose not to help a white farmer as much as she could have. Rather than rehash the history, those not versed in the details of this debacle can check out the very thorough Media Matters timeline of the whole sordid affair.

This affair must be a wake up call to America. As a society we need to become media literate. Examining the Media Matters timeline it’s absolutely shocking it took so long for the truth to come out. Consider these points.

  • A cabinet member of a Democratic administration took action based on a conservative blogger known for his often distant relationship with facts. Andrew Bierbart is the poster child for the sad state of political discourse in the blogosphere. Just about six weeks ago Rebecca Mead profiled Beirbart in the New Yorker. Surely someone inside the beltway actually reads those New Yorker magazines prominently placed next to the brie and chardonnay on the coffee table. It’s shocking no one in the administration said to Secretary Vilsack, “Maybe we should look into this deeper. Do you really want to end someone’s career on Bierbart’s word?”
  • No one expects the Fox News opinion programs to properly vet an attack on a member of the Obama administration, so why did the administration react to these particular tantrums from O’Reilly and Hannity? Even the conservative Economist criticizes the network’s approach to discourse. But the blame here cannot be on Fox News. Neither Hannity nor O’Reilly call themselves journalists. They host entertainment programs, and the audience (and our leaders) should understand the difference between entertainment and journalism.
  • Why didn’t anyone question the editing of the video? It doesn’t take an experienced news editor to recognize that there was something more to Sherrod’s anecdote that was edited out. Why didn’t any mainstream media outlet call this out and demand to see the whole speech?

The mistakes pile up, and I could go on listing them, but I’ve made my point. The clear problem is that the mainstream news media failed to do journalistic due diligence before reporting this story, and the Obama administration showed poor judgment by taking the word of non-journalists as vetted fact.

If democracy is to survive the 21st century media onslaught, we need to do a better job of fostering media literacy. We simply cannot have people forming opinions, making judgments, and voting based solely on the prime time rantings of Fox News and MSNBC pundits, or the missives of Matt Drudge and Arianna Huffington. It’s not hard to teach kids how to interpret media messages — to teach them to ask questions these basic questions: Why are they telling me this? What to they want me to think? How do they want me to react? What’s in it for them? Is that audio or video clip complete? How can audio, video, and statistics be manipulated?

Glenn Beck and Rachel Maddow sit in sets that look like traditional news sets, but they are not journalists. I hope the issue is simply that we as a people are ignorant, and not that we’ve chosen to enter echo chambers that tell us only what we want to hear. Because if the latter is the case, it’s 1984.

2 Thoughts on “The case for media literacy education

  1. Nice post, Frank. Agreed. My daughter’s 7 and media literacy will begin (has begun, really) at home. Given the context, a little amusing to see the newsmax.com Palin 2012 ad next to your post.

  2. Thanks for this great post. Ironically, as this story was developing, a group of 5th graders in Philadelphia were having their own unhappy learning experience with media distortion.

    When a Philadelphia TV news crew came in to shoot a story about Powerful Voices for Kids, a media literacy summer learning program, their news clip actually reinforced racial stereotypes and presented inaccurate information about the program. We had hoped that children would discover the power and the potential of journalism to help them develop “powerful voices.” But due to deadline pressure and sloppiness, children found themselves misrepresented in the news media… exactly the same way that Shirley Sherrod was misrepresented.

    Media literacy education– as a community education movement– is the only way to prevent these kinds of abuses of power.

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