June 17, 2020
Title: Media Literacy: Separating Facts from Bias
Though types of media such as the news and the internet are meant to serve the public by providing credible information, they can also be deceiving. Whether you're doing research or just looking up current events, it’s important to determine if you can trust a source. Some sources will make it clear that they are on one side of an argument and use research to support their claims, while others will try to pull audiences toward their side with fake or misleading information. Media literacy means being able to analyze and understand the intentions of platforms such as the news, commercials, and websites. For example, if you are watching a commercial about cereal that has a catchy song and bright colors, then you will realize that the commercial is trying to sell you the cereal, despite how unhealthy it may be. Of course, this term is important to my everyday life since I’m interacting with media every day, but when I was in school, it was really important to understand it because I was an English major with a minor in History, meaning I was always writing research papers. Through my experiences, I’ve learned a few strategies to figure out if a source can be trusted.
- Check the URL and the domain
It is important to look at the URL in case there are any strange terms or any words that can tell you more about the website. If you are one of those people who click past the second page when googling something, then you are most likely to run into random sources that you have never heard of before. Even if that website has the information you need, still take the time to look at the URL in case there is anything strange about it and of course, check the domain too. Domains automatically tell you what perspective the website is coming from. For example, if you go to a website that ends with .Edu, then you know that the site is meant to be educational and, in some cases, represents a school. The domain does not necessarily make the website credible, but it does tell you what purpose the website is meant to serve.
- Check for sources
If a blog is making it clear that they are just ranting or just stating their opinion, then it makes sense for there to be no sources. However, if their opinion incorporates statistics or quotes, see if they give credit to their sources. If you see links at the bottom or see a hyperlink, don’t assume that it works or that it leads to a credible source. The same thing applies to Wikipedia. Of course you should never cite Wikipedia, but it can lead you to other sources since a Wikipedia page should have references at the bottom with links that hopefully lead to a credible website. Also, even with sources being credited, those sources can be just as biased as the one you’re reading.
- Ask yourself: Does this website affiliate themselves with any specific political party?
Though people love to say, “not everything is about politics,” the media is indeed about politics, especially when the topic revolves around social issues. If an ad, a website, or a print source is strong about their politics, then they are not always going to be objective. Instead, the information they provide will tell one side of the story, rather than getting both. There is nothing wrong with having an opinion, but before latching on to one belief, it’s important to understand the source's perspective and if there are other views you should be taking into consideration. When I worked as a tutor, students would come in with papers on controversial topics and since it was convenient, they would only choose sources that followed their beliefs. I would always suggest that they look up sources that have different political beliefs because a strong argument is really only built if the subject has been researched in full. I recommend searching, “media literacy chart.” It will take you to charts that reveal what sources lean toward a specific political party and if they are known for posting propaganda. You can visit this link to see an example, https://knowledgequest.aasl.org/how-can-school-librarians-teach-media-literacy-in-todays-highly-charged-media-landscape/.
- Pay attention to the design
Before reading anything, the first thing that you notice is how the source looks. Things such as misspelled words, too many exclamation points, and an obnoxious amount of pop up ads can be something to be weary of, especially if you are planning on buying something from the company. Too many errors show carelessness and unprofessionalism. Colors displayed in the media reveal are important too because colors reflect the message being sent and they also appeal to emotion. For example, if a candy company wanted to advertise their product online, they would make their website colorful to resemble candy and to make the website welcoming. If you think something is off about the way the source looks, don’t trust it. I had to learn this the hard way when I was doing a research paper on Holocaust deniers. I could only use primary sources, so I looked for letters and documents from officers who issued specific orders that made the Holocaust possible. I found one website that had a letter that proved my point perfectly about the Holocaust being calculated. Excited about finding this source, I put it in my paper. For some reason, I kept thinking about that source and how strange that its only colors were red and black. Thankfully, I listened to my instincts and revisited the website, this time going to the home page. On the home page, there was a message talking about how Hitler was a good, Christian man. The source was removed from my paper right away. So yes, paying attention to the design is very important and remember, anyone can make a website today, even a Holocaust denier.
- Find a date and the author
I am always cautious when it comes to articles that don’t have a date or an author's name. If the article is discussing important historical events or even current events, a date is important because it tells readers how relevant that information is. When it comes to authors, some people will try to hide behind fancy monikers such as “anonymous,” so definitely don’t quote them in a debate. Articles that are missing these pieces of information are not automatically untrustworthy, some may just be on an older website. I know when I research specific information about Native American history, I find websites that have information that comes with sources, but they don’t have an author and they only have the copyright year. So, when stumbling upon an article missing this information, you should wonder why that information is not included before deciding if it can be trusted.
- Avoid clickbait/ misleading titles
This one may be the most obvious one, but there are still people who fall for it because the headline in all caps is more interesting to the eye than the average headline. Even sources that claim, “breaking news,” may not be presenting information accurately since they may have put the information together in a rush, leaving behind “facts'' that have to be corrected later on. Just like colors, the buzz words used in the headline and even the font impacts the way someone interprets what they are reading. An inaccurate or a biased headline can decide right away who is the hero and who is the villain of the story. That’s why it’s better to choose sources that are objective at times so you can form your own opinion, rather than being told how to feel. If you really want to learn more about what’s happening in the world, take the extra step and see what other sources are saying about the story. It’s natural for big letters and certain words to catch our eye; we’re human. However, I believe everyone has a responsibility to not take every piece of information as factual, so they don’t spread lies about serious or sensitive topics. We live in a world where anyone can gain a platform and label themselves a journalist, so when you come across an eye-catching title, try to be observant so you can to stop yourself from being wrapped in the web of an untrustworthy form of media.
Do you think you can separate fact from bias? You can take this short quiz to test your abilities: https://www.channelone.com/feature/quiz-can-you-spot-the-fake-news-story/. To learn more about how fonts reflect feelings, you can visit, https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/typography-emotions.
Edited by Kristina Drendel