State Press Play: A Conversation on Media Literacy

Join students and instructors from the Cronkite mediactive course for a discussion on media literacy

The fast-paced news cycle of today can leave people overwhelmed by information. A course on media literacy is being offered worldwide through the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication to educate individuals on how to be responsible consumers of news. On this episode of “State Press Play,” podcaster Stefano Contreras sits down with mediactive course instructors and students to gain insight into the world of media literacy.

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Stefano Contreras: 

The media, fake news, misinformation, disinformation; all terms we've heard thrown around throughout the 21st century. In a society inundated by a rapid influx of daily information and ever-advancing technology, one might wonder: How is it possible to cut through all the noise? 

One possible solution: media literacy. At the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, a three week long mediactive course is being offered this fall geared towards this very specific goal. On this episode of State Press Play, I speak with both the instructors and students of this course to gain insight into the world of media literacy.

I first start off by speaking with Professor Kristy Roschke, managing director of the news Co/Lab at the Cronkite School and a course instructor herself. 

So I would like to first pose this question to you, Professor Roschke: What ignited the inception of this course? 

Kristy Roschke: 

Well, so news Co/Lab, co-founder, Dan Gillmor, our colleague and I had taught an online media literacy course back in 2015 using the MOOC platform edX. And it was a one-time thing, but it was a fantastic experience. And we always wanted to do it again because we had such a great reception to the first course. And, you know, we just think that media literacy is something that a lot of adults never formally learned in school. And because they're no longer in school, they don't have the opportunities to sort of take this intensive training.

And so, for the past several years, we've been trying to find a way to do this again. And so, when the opportunity arose and Facebook was willing to give us funding to create this project, you know, we jumped at the chance to be able to help people, especially now, because so much has changed since 2015, and we're in an election year.

And we thought it was a really important, timely time to offer this course up to, you know, as many people as possible. 

Stefano Contreras: 

So Professor Roschke, I'd like to follow up by asking, how would you describe the general media literacy level of the public today? 

Kristy Roschke: 

Well, it's tricky, because it's not something that we actually measure in very clear ways.

Right? Right. So, there's a lot of research about how people get fooled by misinformation and whether or not people can tell if a headline is real or false, whether people trust the media or not. And those things all get at media literacy kind of from the side door; but to be media literate is really, it's a personal behavior and usage experience.

And so, it's really hard to measure that. So, what I can say is that we live in a really complex media world, and digital and social media make it even harder. And because there are just a lot of ways that the platforms work and the ways that we deliver information, now it can be misleading whether intentionally or not, people are confused.

And a lot of those people, as I said before, are people who didn't learn this in school. So, it's not surprising that most people are confused. Research would indicate that a lot of people have a really hard time spotting misinformation, both younger adults and older adults, and also research would indicate that people think they're much better at it than they actually are.

I don't want to necessarily directly tie that to how media literate people are, because again, media literacy encompasses more than just that, but we have a lot of big issues to contend with right now. 

Stefano Contreras:

Absolutely. And I think something that's key when discussing media literacy is establishing a vocabulary.

We see the necessity for media literacy in our news diets. So, what exactly is a news diet? 

Celeste Sepessy: 

I can take that one. So, I'm Celeste Sepessy, I'm an editor at the news co/lab, and I also teach journalism at the Walter Cronkite School. So, a news diet is ... you're taking an inventory of all the types of media you consume throughout the day or throughout your life, right?

So that could be anything from checking Twitter and clicking through articles. It could be receiving a physical newspaper. It could be reading an email newsletter from The State Press, a student media organization, right? And people are always flabbergasted at how much stuff they take in. And throughout the day, you know, here's, here's what you're doing on a day to day basis.

And maybe what you thought was a good media diet or a balanced media diet wasn't quite, if you were only relying on a couple of sources or a couple of sources that, you know, tackle things from the same angle. You know, if you only follow people who have a very certain mindset, you're just going to absorb that information and those biases, just by virtue of reading things, you know, you put yourself in this little echo chamber of social media where the 500 people you follow all have a similar viewpoint and surely enough, you know, if you're not paying attention and if you're not reading laterally and looking for other perspectives, that may filter in subliminally. 

Kristy Roschke: 

Can I add to that a little bit? 

Stefano Contreras: 

Absolutely. 

Kristy Roschke: 

So I'm going to piggy back off of what Celeste was saying, which is there's a lot of research around confirmation bias, which are the sort of inherent biases that we have that come from our lived experience, our, you know, our, our values, our religion, our race, ethnicity, all of our background experiences kind of make us, us.

And we are likely to seek out information that confirms those biases. And that is not necessarily a conscious decision. We will react in a way to something that says, "Oh! I knew that was a thing!" Right. And have this reaction to that based on these, these biases and, and I'm not sure I would use the term subliminally necessarily so much as it's contextual. So, media literacy is a social and it's a contextual practice. It's not like something that, you know, you learn your alphabet and all of a sudden, you're media literate. You're taking the things that you see, do, hear, learn, the people you talk to you every day and that creates this experience. And then when you encounter media, all of those experiences lead to how we react to it. 

Celeste Sepessy: 

I know there's been a research that shows that people in general have a really hard time distinguishing between things like opinion and fact, that seems like it should be a kind of no, duh like, yes, this is a fact, and this is an opinion. And if I remember correctly, people tend to want to believe things that are facts if they agree with them.

So when you're reading a story or not even a story, if you're reading an opinion piece and it aligns with your point of view, you're going to take that at 100% factual, you know, face value when in reality, you can't and that's also a literacy practice is being able to tell between analysis and news and opinion, sponsored content, all of these types of different stories, right? And so, when we're thinking about things like confirmation bias, you know, if someone sees a tweet that supports their point of view, they're not going to readily fact check that because they want to believe that it's true. And so, they're going to think it's true. And that's something that I think we're seeing a lot of right now.

Stefano Contreras: 

Yeah, thank you both for answering that with so much depth. So, in conversation, I feel like I hear the terms misinformation and disinformation tossed around or used interchangeably. Within a news diet, we see the possibility for the existences of either misinformation or disinformation, but what exactly is the difference between the two?

Kristy Roschke: 

Quinlyn, do you want to tackle that one? 

Quinlyn Shaughnessy:

Yeah, I'm Quinlyn Shaughnessy, and I'm the Communications Assistant and one of the mediactive course instructors. So, from my understanding, it was always that misinformation was just information that was wrong in some way, for some reason, and disinformation was more of a malicious, on purpose, somebody spreading things that are false, 

Stefano Contreras: 

How would you recommend individuals sort through and decipher all of the information thrown at them? 

Celeste Sepessy: 

So, the SIFT method is something that we use. It's from Mike Caulfield at the Washington State University, Vancouver and it's something that you can do in 30 seconds.

You want to stop. If something is causing you to feel emotions, whether that's "Yes, I knew this was true, or, "Oh my God, that's terrifying!" First you need to stop. So, if you see something crazy on social media stop. Then you're going to investigate. You want to investigate where this is coming from, right?

So, you know, is this something that's tracing it back to a news article, like click through to the news article. Don't just read the headline. Is this something that's coming from a report? You want to search for that original, that source material. Then you're going to find other mentions of this. So, this is what we call reading laterally. 

You know, if you see a news article that touts something about, say, "The COVID-19 vaccine is going to be ready in November" and you think, "Hey, is this actually a thing?" You're gonna go into Google and do a trusty Google search of "COVID-19 vaccine November," and see if anyone else is covering this too. And just because something is all over the internet doesn't mean it's true, right? But this is where your media diet, your trusted sources that you believe to be credible, come in handy. 

So, if you say, "Hey, I see that this is on the Washington Post and the Washington Post is a source that I, a news outlet that I find to be trusted and credible, then you can go ahead and stop there. If you want to go the extra mile and you see that this COVID-19 November vaccine has come from a particular report that a new source is citing, then the last part in SIFT is trace the claim back to its original spot, right? So, whether that's an image or a quote or whatnot.

So, in this case, you're going to try and find that original report that these new sources are talking about, because something that happens in the media is that the media could misinterpret a scientific report, right, or a study, and, you know, if you're of that mind and you want to go back to the original, original source, you can take that extra step.

Stefano Contreras: 

And finally, in our interview, a moment.

Kristy Roschke: 

This just in, unfortunately Ruth Bader Ginsburg has passed away. And also, the reason I bring that up now is because as I was like, letting them respond, I just casually went to Twitter, as one does. And it's like, you start to see these things and you're like, "Wait, what's happened?" And then all, you know, then it, and then you start to see more and then you can quickly put these things together. But this is just a media literacy lesson in the making, where it's like information breaks in a second and then already, of course the obituaries are starting to pop up because, you know, media organizations already have those in the can. 

It's just, it's crazy. But what I did in this exact moment was someone had some expletives on his Twitter, and I was like, well, that can't be good. And I scroll down and then a lot of people were like, "Oh no!" And then I scroll down again, and I saw a journalist who reported on it. So, I'm like, "Oh, that's how I'm going to know that this is probably a thing."

And then I started to find other sources. It's like SIFT in the works. So, I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but this is really not a great thing that's just happened, but it's perfectly indicative of how we are overwhelmed by information all of the time. Like we just can't escape it. 

Stefano Contreras: My next guest is a current ASU student enrolled in this online media literacy course here to speak more on the necessity for media literacy from the student's perspective.

Kambell Schmidt: 

My name's Kambell Schmidt. I'm 19 years old. I'm studying sports journalism at ASU at the Walter Cronkite School. 

Stefano Contreras: 

Nice to meet you, Kambell! So, what led you to enroll in this mediactive course? 

Kambell Schmidt: 

In all, it's a course that everyone should take. I think it's necessary to be aware of the biases within, especially because media is a big part of our life nowadays. I think it's important to be able to identify those biases and see how the news is in the media as compared to broadcast or paper or anything like that. 

Stefano Contreras: 

As an aspiring sports journalist, do you feel a sense of responsibility to media literacy? 

Kambell Schmidt: 

Oh, 100%. I think it's very important as journalists to be literate and to, especially nowadays with all these fake news accusations and all that stuff, I think it's important to be able to differentiate the truth and be able to give out accurate news whether that be sports or politics, or just news in general. 

Stefano Contreras: 

In your own news diet, where do you notice biases? 

Kambell Schmidt: 

I think you could find small biases in any sort of news source. I think because punctuality is a big thing I've learned, especially like in the big companies.

Like they're all about like getting stuff out on time, so it's easy for them to not fact check all the time. So, it's just really important to be able to identify those biases right away, fact check sources yourself, whether it be like ESPN, which is like a credible source, you don't want to just automatically think everything they write is true. You want to be able to just identify that yourself. 

Stefano Contreras: 

Finally joining me here on State Press Play is recently retired ASU professor Martha Cocchiarella - a first time formal media literacy student herself. So, Professor Cocchiarella, what led you to enroll in this mediactive course? 

Martha Cocchiarella: 

Well, first of all, I was on Facebook, just scrolling through it, and I saw the advertisement for it. And what caught my eye, it's terrible to say, but the word "free." And I saw the word free and I thought, "Well, we'll see." 

I was going to enroll in some courses, because I've just recently retired. And so, I thought this might be a good way to start. And then the more I read into it, I thought, you know, in this landscape right now with all that's going on politically, I thought it would be a good way to start.

I don't know. Maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm the only one that's confused with what is true and what is not true. And so, I think really media literacy is something that people don't really dive into it. I think they have surface knowledge about it, but not the in-depth knowledge that we are receiving in the course. 

Stefano Contreras: 

As a witness to, you know, changing sentiments and socio-cultural attitudes in academia over time, how do you feel the perception of media literacy has changed over time? 

Martha Cocchiarella: 

We live in the world of media, right?

I mean, there are some of us that are at different levels in exposure to media. I know that my husband, just within the last three, four years, he's gotten more into the media and the guy is always in front of Facebook now, whereas before he would never touch anything or read anything often media other than watching the news.

So, within the last, I would say to me, within the last five years, media has changed a lot because we're, we're being exposed and introduced to all different apps, all different ways to present information. Just look at ourselves within the last year, what happened with the pandemic and all of a sudden things had to change for everyone.

The unfortunate thing, I decided to retire and the one thing that I regret is: Am I going to lose out? Because I left at a time when all of a sudden there was going to be much more media introduced to students in different avenues, but I'm trying to keep up. So, I'm always trying to keep up. I think all of us, you know, there's a lot of us trying to keep up based on our age.

Stefano Contreras: 

Do you feel more courses like this should be offered to ASU professors? 

Martha Cocchiarella: 

Yes, definitely. I definitely think that a course like this would give us a good, would give individuals a good foundation of what media literacy is, and you know, what are the things that segue into it? It isn't just sitting in front of, you know Facebook. There's so much more to it.

I, myself, I want to get well educated on the good, the bad and the ugly. I want to know all three aspects of media so that I can be an educated consumer of information. I can't, I'm not the spokesperson for everybody. I'm just speaking on my behalf, but I mean, I had been at ASU for 23 years. And so, within the last eight years, my students were coming with a lot of knowledge when it came to media and every semester I taught, my students would kick me into a different level. Like, you know, so it was okay, I've got to do this. And I had to be able to somehow bridge what they were coming with and what I knew. But now, you know again, just like my students and myself, I'm having to decipher what is true and what is not. What is information? And what is information that's biased? And what is information that's totally false? 

Stefano Contreras: 

For the State Press, I'm Stefano Contreras.


Reach the reporter at scontr16@asu.edu or follow @contrerastefano on Twitter.

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