We are surrounded by electronic mass media. Television news tells us what we need to care about, advertisements tell us what we can’t live without, television programs and films fill us with fear and violence, social media pushes endless misinformation.
Yet through all of this, research tells us that the average American consumes over 12 hours of electronic mass media each day, according to the market research firm Statista. We often feel anxious and inadequate.
Pope Francis recognized this in his 2019 World Communications Day message: “Today’s media environment is so pervasive as to be indistinguishable from the sphere of everyday life.”
How do we distinguish what is real, meaningful, valid and true in the midst of all this noise?
Some advocate for government regulations, others suggest that media corporations provide a better product. Given the First Amendment and the media’s economic structure, both outcomes are unlikely.
Media literacy advocates encourage citizens to be critical consumers of media. It’s not about hating the media — it’s about recognizing that since we spend so much time consuming media messages, they simply warrant thoughtful discussion and reflection.
Our society does not value thoughtful reflection. However, being a media-literate consumer of messages means we engage in research and reflection on the messages we receive. This can be time consuming, yet thoughtful analyses of messages are necessary in our media-saturated world.
A roadblock to media literacy is the “third person effect,” the claim that people tend to think the media affect others more than it affects themselves.
People struggle to critically analyze media when they have been surrounded by media messages for as long as they can remember; whether they be propaganda, hyperbole or deliberate online misinformation.
Yet the time for media literacy skills is now.
The electronic mass media that exist to make a profit for their shareholders define the world for us. They persuade us which stories are important and which ones aren’t. They tell us what it means to be attractive or successful. They tell us about ourselves and, perhaps more important, they tell us about others.
St. John Paul II suggested the same in his 2005 World Communications Day message when he said, “They teach people how to regard members of other groups and nations, subtly influencing whether they are considered as friends or enemies, allies or potential adversaries.”
Media literacy skills are even more important in an election year, since online misinformation and disinformation can travel at the speed of light.
Although we tend to think that we can identify so-called “fake news” online, the technology of shallow fakes and deep fakes can challenge even the most seasoned media consumer.
We tend to congregate online with those who think, feel, vote and believe the same way we do, so we are less likely to check messages for authenticity if they affirm our already-held beliefs.
Just as we listen for God’s voice to discern his will for us, we must carefully listen to the messages the media tell us to discern their impact on us.
The National Association for Media Literacy Education suggests that we ask questions about the media we consume.
Who is the sender of the message? What is their motive or intent? Who profits from this message? How is the message created? What information is omitted? What lifestyle is presented? How credible is this source?
It’s not hyperbole to suggest that the media affect nearly every aspect of our daily lives.
As thoughtful citizens and Catholics, we must recognize not only how we use the media but how the media use us. We may not be able to outrun these messages, and we can’t outlaw them. But with media literacy skills, we can outsmart them.
By Julie Smith Catholic News Service
Julie Smith is on the faculty at Webster University in St. Louis and is the author of “Master the Media: How Teaching Media Literacy Can Save Our Plugged-In World.”