Sunday, January 21, 2018

If I'm the Media, what does that say?

I believe in the news. And, as much as any rational, educated person can be reasonably well-informed while also scrutinizing any source of information, I also believe the news. That seems to be an ever more rare and suspect position in the era of fake news and Russian trolls, and I think a lot about what that means for contemporary society. The number of people who "don't believe the news" or simply don't pay attention to the news always surprises me (with increasing frequency), and a couple of recent conversations have re-framed this for me in interesting ways.

For one, I have an old college buddy who regularly challenges my blog posts and tweets as being part of "the media." The criticism mostly implies that I am "brethren" to the liberal mainstream media that is in conspiracy against the President and his agenda. Now, I am definitely a critic of the current White House, and I will occasionally post about relevant issues. But I'm a personal blogger with a couple social media accounts. That ain't "the media." For me, the media are professional news organizations such as The Wall Street Journal, CNN, and NBC. Journalists are people who have trained to report the news and information. While any individual and organization is bound to have bias in the way stories are reported, I'm fairly comfortable with the state of news.

The issue of a news organization's "trustworthiness" came up over Winter Break with my middle-school-age daughter and one of her homework assignments, and the subsequent discussions I had with another parent also baffled me a bit. I was initially annoyed by the task my daughter had because she was asked to gather some factual information on a government-associated issue (hers was military spending), and her teacher told her she could not use news organizations because they were biased. She was instead steered toward using "a dot-org" because it's unbiased. Now, clearly any educated person knows that Americans for Prosperity and the Progressive Policy Institute are both .org groups, but each has a clear bias and agenda. So, I didn't like the assumptions about a website's inherent bias or the implication that CNN would be intrinsically biased about reporting of military spending.

Yet, interestingly, when we did a bit of researching, the quickest way to find simple facts about spending was, in fact, to go to a ".org" like Pew or the Petersen Foundation, and all searches of news sites truly did offer some biased commentary even in the headlines. And, I guess a lot can be said for not just turning kids loose on news websites because it's not so easy to simply go to Time or CNN or the WSJ or Fox and just collect facts and information.  That said, I am surprised by people who simply don't read or watch "the news," and I am a bit saddened by people who choose to remain somewhat aloof and uninformed simply because "all news is just biased."

Certainly, as an educator and teacher of rhetoric and argumentation, I am committed to developing a better understanding among my students about "what's out there," and I still seek to create "people on whom nothing is lost." This challenge of interpreting the media is actually in the media with the recent AP report that "States Push Media Literacy in Schools." While that goal is already ripe for criticism because of who will teach what to whom, it's probably a worthy goal for schools. And, interestingly, even as I was composing this post, I was challenged to find some sources. For example, in terms of an organization actively pushing a political party's agenda, I immediately referenced AFP. But I was initially at a loss to come up with a comparable group pushing the Democrats agenda that had equal prominence. Here's a good question: who makes up the progressive version of AFP?

Lawmakers in several states have introduced or passed bills calling on public school systems to do more to teach media literacy skills that they say are critical to democracy. The effort has been bipartisan but has received little attention despite successful legislation in Washington state, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Mexico. Several more states are expected to consider such bills in the coming year, including Arizona, New York and Hawaii. "I don't think it's a partisan issue to appreciate the importance of good information and the teaching of tools for navigating the information environment," said Hans Zeiger, a Republican state senator in Washington who co-sponsored a bill that passed in his state earlier this year. "There is such a thing as an objective source versus other kinds of sources, and that's an appropriate thing for schools to be teaching."

I'm not sure what the answer is, but I do know a few things. I will still read the Denver Post everyday and the Wall Street Journal on the weekends. I will still subscribe to Time Magazine and occasionally check in with CNN. I will still get my news and news commentary from sites like The Atlantic, Vox, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. And I will still trust my ability to read news with a critical lens, rather than simply choose not to read.

And I will maintain that I am not "the media."

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