Separating Fact from Fiction: Media Literacy

game tiles with fake news text as title

By Michael Coffey

How do we separate what things seem to be from what they actually are? From the first time I read a Sherlock Holmes mystery, I've been interested in answering that question. Most of us can happily go through our lives without having to solve a murder mystery, but we can apply basically the same skills to the media landscape we're in today, more than a century after Holmes and Watson wandered the streets of London.

Studying logic and psychology in college helped me understand evidence, the impact of emotion, and systematic errors that people make as they think about things. And, of course, those who might wish to manipulate perceptions or beliefs will use those same tools to pull us off course. I teach 'What’s News: Media Literacy', focusing on real-world application of skills to assess how likely something is to be true, evaluate sources for ulterior motives or biases and use research tools to check on things we’re not sure about. 

This class was inspired by a media literacy course I originally designed for middle- and high-school students at the Puget Sound Community School. I created that course in response to the disturbing claims that we were now in a "post-fact era" leading up to the 2016 US presidential election. Since then, we've learned more about Russian interference in that election, social media manipulation by troll farms and botnets, and all kinds of other malfeasance to warp our perceptions about the world for other people's gain. 

grey laptop open to searching real versus fake newsBut of course, facts still exist! We need facts to be able to make sensible, considered, rational decisions. Without them, we risk making terrible choices, and only occasionally make good ones by random chance. That's no way to live! I think it's critical, then, to apply a little critical thinking to the information we are exposed to so that we don't let inaccurate information into our brains. Sherlock Holmes himself described brains as " a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose." Choosing accurate information is far more useful in the long run.

One tool that's really useful is called a "reverse image search," where you can take an image you see on social media or associated with an article, and put it into to search for other identical or substantially similar images. You may discover that an image purportedly showing a recent event at a specific location is actually a picture of something that happened 10 years ago somewhere else. With just a quick search, you've uncovered something that may not be 100% accurate. 

In the first session of class, we will go over some basic ideas and a simple framework (only about 30 seconds!) to dig a little deeper on a story you see. The second session includes additional tools and research processes that can take your investigations even further if the first round doesn't satisfy you. Session 3 will cover a slightly more philosophical arena--things like what makes good evidence, and deciding when to change your mind about something in the face of new information. Finally, in the last session, we’ll review some of the techniques that bad actors often use against people they're trying to trick, and some defenses you can use to debunk the misinformation.  

Not only will participants leave the class with a host of tools to keep them better informed, but also some ideas for continuing to spread the practices and build informational resiliency in their communities.

Michael J. Coffey is passionate about evaluating information, discerning its most useful, relevant form for the tasks at hand, whether that's in business or evaluating the media landscape. Founder of Ardea Coaching, Michael provides small business owners with business analysis and training for improving the effectiveness of their online presence, whether that's a website, social media, a blog, email newsletter campaigns, search engine optimization (SEO), pay-per-click ads, or online trainings. Learn more about Michael’s classes: 'What’s News: Media Literacy' and 'Essentials for Starting a Small Business'.

Photo Credit: Joshua Miranda and Negative Space