Media Criticism

For quite a while now I’ve been thinking that people just cannot tell whether a newspaper, internet site or even TV news are telling the truth or whether they have an agenda of some sort. The other day my doubts were confirmed. A large newspaper around here had an article last week about how kids cannot tell the difference between reliable sites and others that have ulterior motives.

A study by the University of Jyväskylä found that only about a third of 12-year-olds can assess information sources with necessary criticism. In the study, the kids were shown two texts, one a university paper about the health effects of energy drinks, the other a press release by a company manufacturing said drinks. Almost all could tell that the university paper was reliable, but only one in five could tell the latter text was commercial.

The researcher conducting the study thinks the results are worrisome, especially since the results do not seem to improve with age. Even 16-19-year-old students seem to have issues with media and source criticism. She says in the article that a majority had no criticism towards what they read. So that means that they basically believe everything some half-wit puts on paper? Wow.

The article continues by saying that even grown-ups have difficulties with discerning what the actual source or agenda of a story or article really is. I can totally vouch for this. As I may have mentioned, I work at a huge supermarket. We sell quite a variety of different gossip magazines and other such material known for less reliable sources and variable quality of writing. I’m regularly amazed at how many people take everything printed on that trash seriously and think it’s true.

There is a historic backdrop to this. Not so long ago (20 years back, even), Finnish media was rather reliable. You wouldn’t hear similar half-truths or direct lies in any respectable newspaper or on the TV news as you can today. Not everything was turned into a huge issue overnight like seems to happen all the time today. OMG, the prime minister made a happy tweet the same day (hours before) some huge disaster took place on the other side of the globe: he must be totally disrespectful of human suffering! (And unfortunately that’s not just an example I made up.) From this perspective, it’s really not so surprising that some people think the media is still the same. Newsflash: it is not.

From where I’m looking at this situation, some people have totally relinquished their free thought. The press (especially the yellow side) has taken up petty sensationalism over other, more important things. Now, I don’t want to sound like a total conspiracy theorist, but it can’t be a total coincidence that when there’s something that should really be discussed something minor and inconsequential (some person’s 20-30 years younger new spouse or a messy divorce of some useless celeb) takes precedence and the important stuff is just glossed over.

Then there’s the issue of social media bubbles. People only have friends who think like they do, who only share news they can agree with. If you have the wrong opinion you might even get unfriended (is that a word?) or at the least lynched by people who disagree with you. These people just bounce around their thoughts from other similarly-minded friends and start thinking everyone must think the same way (because everyone they know does!), even when they were in a minority.

So, is there a solution for this? Trying to tell the truth of things or to even moderate the shitstorm rarely works. Teaching kids media criticism will likely have a positive effect in the future, but what do you do about all those grown-ups who can’t be made to learn? They’ll just happily prance around with their bubbles firm in place until one day they drop dead… unless some personal experience forces them to learn it the hard way.

That sounds horribly depressing, but I guess that’s just the way of things. The subjects change, but some general themes just stay the same

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