When it comes to the media, it can be hard to know the real from the fake, the attainable from the unrealistic and the helpful from the harmful. How do we seek the truth?
Schools have always been focused on teaching literacy (how to read and write), but it is becoming increasingly important to ensure media literacy (how to read between the lines) is taught as well. We spend more time than ever bombarded with media, from traditional media (e.g. newspapers, television, radio), emerging digital spaces and the masses of marketing material shoved in our faces each day. This level of interaction becomes troublesome when we don’t know how to differentiate between what’s real and what’s not.
Once upon a time, when traditional media was king, everything went through a vigorous gatekeeping process before it reached the page, screen or airwaves. That doesn’t mean it was always accurate or representative of its audience; there has always been a need to question what we read, see and hear. However, now that everything and anything can be published and circulated cheaply online, media literacy is even more important.
So how do you to navigate through the modern media minefield?
It has been estimated that the human brain receives 5000 media messages every day. Most of these are designed to advertise something, whether it is a product, a point of view or a person. They are presented in a myriad of formats, some of which you might not even recognise as media—like slogan t-shirts or stickers.
Once you look beyond the surface, you might be surprised by the many ways you are exposed to media messaging each day and how the subtexts can be misleading, offensive or crafted to make you/someone else feel worse about yourselves.
Common Sense Media (online) suggests that you should analyse each piece of media with the following questions:
Who made this? For example, was it a company? An individual? Politician? Comedian? Artist? Or is the source anonymous—why?
Why did they create this? Was the purpose to inform, amuse, convince you or to change your mind?
Who is the intended audience? Consider the target age, gender or socio-economic group that the author is speaking to.
What techniques has the creator used to make this message (appear) credible/believable? Is the article backed up with statistics from a reputable source? Has this documentary quoted a subject expert? Does this podcast have an authoritative voiceover? Consider
the language and tone.
What details have been left out, and why? Does it feel like there is information missing, or a side of the story which has not been explored? Is the information balanced or one-sided?
How does the message make you feel? How do you think other individuals/audiences would interpret this?
If you can begin by evaluating the validity and motivation behind one to three media sources each day, you will gradually train yourself to do it instinctively. You will notice the red flags, such as articles with no listed author, quoted statistics which are several years old, or text riddled with typos. You will identify advertising jargon that is spun to appeal to you. You will be able to tell the difference between fact and opinion and recognise when they are being deliberately muddled. These are clues that the source is not as reputable as it wants you to believe.
Remember, this isn’t homework. You don’t have to submit your findings in an essay or share your thoughts with the class. The purpose is to pause and consider the information you are ingesting, citing and sharing.
The Fine Print
Advertising claims—whether on a billboard, TV commercial or product packaging—can be misleading. Soberingly, these problems are particularly prevalent for so-called ‘health and diet’ products, leading to a well-researched correlation between the media and poor body image.
Advertising tactics can include:
- photoshopping, colouring and bleaching photographs.
- hiding fees, disclaimers and surcharges.
- marketing products in oversized packaging.
- misleading customers by omitting information.
Consider These Examples:
- A 2014 television advertisement portrayed a certain model of car pushing a dune buggy up a sand hill, something the Federal Trade Commission discovered the car can’t actually do.
- We’ve all heard the slogan, ‘Red Bull Gives You Wings’, well, hilariously, one man sued them after years of consuming the energy drink and never growing wings.
- A company released a range of shoes in 2011 which supposedly increased the wearer’s muscle activation and calorie burn. Scientists determined these claims were unfounded.
Media literacy skills can help you to be realistic when it comes to advertising. Now, here’s your first test: Can you spot which one of these three stories listed above is actually untrue?
While subject expert opinions are never a guarantee, they are a good indicator of media validity and you might have spotted that one story didn’t cite any.
Unfortunately, the Red Bull story was a rumour which ended up being reported through an online version of the rumour mill. The true story was that a man named Benjamin Careathers claimed that although the slogan shouldn’t be taken literally, it implied the drink had a higher energy boost than a cup of coffee (which it did not). Red Bull settled the lawsuit, but not before it spawned some clickbait headlines and gradually the real story was lost in translation. The fake narrative even made it onto the Ellen show!
For more practice, the ABC have a website dedicated to media literacy activities and quizzes (such as picking fake news stories, differentiating facts from opinion and identifying satire). Check it out at www.abc.net.au/education/media-literacy/