Tips for Becoming Media Savvy at Any Age

Here's the Thing - Commentary by Jaci Clement, Fair Media Council
We feel you. 

If the news of the day is making you talk back to the TV and curse whenever your phone dings, it’s time for an intervention.

Here’s the thing about news: It should be informing and inspiring you, not polarizing you and your friends (whether real or imagined on Facebook). News should be what you turn to in order to help build a better life, make smarter decisions, and provide a greater understanding of the world right now. Stories in the news should open your mind and your heart.

But, we’re living in a time when news has changed dramatically from what you remember as a kid. Technology changes and evolves, and it takes the news business with it. What we’re left with at the moment is a highly fragmented media landscape that requires some effort to plow through it, and the time to find the sources worthy of your time and your mind.

Here’s what you need to know.

From Left to Right, Inside and Out

To get the full picture, use a variety of news outlets. Today’s heightened political atmosphere has people turning to news outlets that lean their way — which is ok, but you need to challenge your own thoughts. Otherwise, what’s the point of life? The classic standard here is: If you watch Fox News Channel, then watch CNN, too. Go ahead, compare and contrast. Now, thanks to the internet, there are loads more news outlets that cater to the splintering of ideologies, so add those in, too. In general: Get news from the left and the right, and from points in between.

Don’t stop there. You also want to get news from inside the country, as well as from outside the country. Inside: Think PBS, NPR, Voice of America. Outside: BBC, Al Jazeera, France 24 — the list here can be endless, thanks to the internet and cable packages with loads of channels you’ve probably never found much use for — until now.

Use a Variety of News

Just like a food diet, a healthy media diet encourages the use of different news outlets to feed your brain with different stories, ideas, sources, and opinions. Be sure to switch up your news sources often. If you’re like a lot of people and rely on your Twitter feed to bring you the day’s news, make it a point to routinely add more news sources.

Do Your Research

Here’s the good thing about America: Anyone with a broadband connection may now be a news outlet. Here’s the bad thing about America: Anyone with a broadband connection may now be a news outlet.

Take a moment to find out what company owns the news outlet you’re using, as well as their own stated purpose. Most websites offer an “About” link. Be sure to check that out, so you know what to expect from them.

Sources Over Headlines

The thing about technology is, it has trained us to click on headlines without much regard for the source. Before you invest your time in reading an article or watching a video, check the source. Many established media outlets are mimicked online by fake news sites, so it’s important to check closely. Here are a few tips on that. 

News Before Opinion

Reporting the news and talking about the news are two entirely different endeavors. Prioritize your time by focusing on news reports, first and foremost, before you turn to talk, commentary, op.eds., letters or analysis pieces.

Why? The former gives you the facts. The latter gives you a persuasive argument for choosing a side. This is where polarization comes in. A classic complaint about Fox News Channel, in general, is that it’s “faux news” or simply, biased. A couple of things to that point: The bulk of the Fox News schedule is comprised of talk shows, not news reporting. (A look at the weekend schedule showed 16 hours of talk shows in a 24-hour block.) The idea that cable channels are “all news” is a dated one: CNN airs documentaries and even food shows now.

Watch whatever you like, but know what you’re watching.

News. It’s a Tricky Thing.

People use the term “news” rather generically, much akin to the way people say, “I need a Kleenex” when they mean a “tissue,” or “Make a Xerox” instead of a “copy.”

For our purposes, we define news as reporting factual information. Nothing more, nothing less.

In the Battle of Local vs. National, Make Time for Both

Another misconception about today’s news is that one news outlet will bring you everything you need to know. Long gone are the days you could read the daily paper and leave it at that. The state of the news industry today has diminished newsrooms and resources for reporting — no surprise, you know that — which has resulted in management pivoting on their products. What’s happening here in real time: News outlets are choosing their sweet spots and focusing their energies on where they find themselves most effective. For instance,  The New York Times has cut local news reporting to reallocate resources to focus on national news reporting.

What does this mean to you? Change your habits to accommodate the changing product offerings of the news outlets. Read your local community newspapers for news impacting your backyard. (People unfairly regard local newspapers or online news sites as “insignificant” when, in reality, local news covers the issues closest to you. The size of a news outlet has nothing to do with its impact.)

Remember, too, democracy begins in your backyard, which is what local news covers. National news guards the front door of the country. You need both to understand what’s happening.

All Major Stories Are Local to Somewhere

Local news outlets are the ones with the boots on the ground and ready access to the right sources. So when a big story breaks that you are interested in, Google to find the local news outlets in the area.

For instance, when the tragedy at Sandy Hook happened, the community news sources in the area of Newtown were airing and publishing news updates that were running as much as two hours ahead of national news outlets.

Fact vs. Opinion

Being able to distinguish the difference between fact and opinion is the basic foundation needed to successfully navigate today’s complicated media landscape, yet studies tell us this is a real weakness in our culture. Some say as many as one out of two college graduates can’t distinguish between fact and opinion; others say as much as 70 percent of the America population struggles with this. Before you react to news, ask yourself if it’s a fact or opinion. Hand-in-hand with this advice: Pay attention to labels.

The news media does divide news into sections and offers a table of contents or programming schedule. Pay attention to those labels to help guide you through the products.

A big problem in the news media today is that it doesn’t have a standardized labeling method like movies do.  Technology has made media converge into multimedia offerings for the use of the consumer, but inside a news outlet, newspaper people still think of themselves as a newspaper. Same with radio, TV, cable and magazines. The industry hasn’t yet found the strength of joining together to create a true user experience that’s simple and streamlined.

Until that happens, you have to do the work.

Read More than You Watch

Written stories, whether in print or online, give you more depth and details than radio and TV stories. Think of written stories as the first place to first get your news, then turn to radio and TV for updates on that news.

Today, the typical television news story runs about two minutes long. A radio report? About 35 seconds. These formats can’t tell you everything you need to know, that’s why you need to read.

Why are the formats so short? That’s how long you’re willing to pay attention.

No One Story Tells the Whole Story

One news story on a particular topic doesn’t tell the whole story. Think of a news story as something more along the lines as one slice of a pie, and you need to see how other news outlets are covering the story in order to get the full pie.

Now, I ask you: What other diet encourages you with pie? -:)

Questions? Comments?
Email jaci@fairmediacouncil.org

 

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