I don’t run the biggest law enforcement FB page, but I do run one that’s trusted by the people who follow it, because I’m careful about what gets posted there.
When I asked readers if they’d like to know more about media literacy, the (surprising) answer was an emphatic YES.
Therefore, this will be an in-depth, two-part explainer: Part I will be about media literacy itself, Part II about what media is and how it works. Like the field of law enforcement, there are a lot of moving parts, and it’s complicated.
“Media literacy” means understanding, analyzing and evaluating the information drowning you on the daily.
Until you can do that with confidence, and just enough skepticism, you’re at risk of being steered instead of informed.
How do you know what that article is that you’re reading, that podcast you’re hearing?
You didn’t ask for it. You didn’t seek it out.
There you are, scrolling through your social media, and link after link bombards your feed– suggested, sponsored, shared by friends and family, or just appearing from the Upside Down. Now what?
CHECK THE DATE
You see an ‘Officer Down’ headline, and your heart races. Don’t touch that share button without looking to see when it happened. News about critical incidents floats back to the top of news feeds because of increased search activity on anniversary dates, or when follow up articles get published.
Who is this writer or speaker?
How do they know the stuff they’re telling me?
What do they want me to think about it? Why?
Who’s paying for this?
Who is the target audience? (Who do they expect to be reading this article, or watching this video?)
If your answer to any of the above is, “I don’t know” then you have two choices.
1.Find out OR
2.Skip the article and move along with your day.
But in that case, don’t share it. If you’re going to find out more, here are your next steps.
IDENTIFY THE SOURCE.
Did it appear unsolicited on your social media? If so, it might be a promoted post, or ad.
Is it a source you recognize? What do you know about it already? How do you know it?
Did someone else share it on social media?
What do you know about that person’s judgment, personal biases and critical thinking? Someone can be a good friend and be an unreliable source of information. Don’t enable that.
Is it even a real news source? Lots of articles posing as news on social media are from conspiracy, pseudoscience, and satire sites. Well-intentioned people are captured by the initial hook, and pass it on as if it’s real.
The saying ‘Video or it didn’t happen’ is cute, but it isn’t accurate. As technology evolves, it’s as easy to manipulate video as it is to alter static photos. Beware the Deep Fake
, and do some fact-checking if anything seems off. Fakes are engineered to provoke that “I knew it!!” reaction from viewers, so be suspicious when a video perfectly, conveniently makes a point you’ve always ‘felt’ was right. You can’t believe your eyes, actually.
Plug the source into a search engine and find out who owns it; association with or financial backing from a highly influential or political person or institution, or with a religious organization, will influence the way the news is reported.
It doesn’t mean the information is necessarily false. It does mean you should use that information in evaluating the reportage and deciding how much credibility to ascribe to it.
News is like groceries: local is likely the best, and every news story starts out local.
Once the national sources pick it up and syndicate it, the story is edited for time, losing depth, context and follow-up. Therefore, if it’s a national news story, search the topic or name in the incident and find a local news source about it. Think of the game ‘Telephone’ you played in kindergarten: information still works like that. The closer to the original story source, the better.
EVALUATE THE SOURCE
What can you tell from the link? The domain may show you whether it is a government office, a nonprofit, a business, or a school.
Is it a press release straight from a government source? Again, the closer the news is to the original source, the fewer options for dilution, contamination and opinion to seep in.
For law enforcement readers, this can be especially important when sharing news of a line-of-duty death. The accepted etiquette requires that the officer shall not be identified until the death is verified and the name released by an official source, to allow for next of kin to be informed. No one deserves a death notification by social media.
Cross reference the story. Search for coverage of the same event, and see how the story differs in other publications. What’s being left out? Added? Why?
If you cannot find the story elsewhere, hold off on passing it on.
I like a site called MediaBiasFactCheck.com
for assessing a potential source. It is an independent outlet supported by donations and third party advertising, used by many large media companies and fact checkers. And, it’s free.
I can search for a source there and find out who owns it, what the site’s evaluation of their bias is (ALL sources have bias, because humans), and the source’s history of factual reporting. The site has a clearly explained method for evaluating bias,
and I’ve found them to be reasonable.
The more you know, the more value the information has.
and cliffhanger headlines indicate clickbait
, not news. There’s information being conveyed, for sure, but it’s to make easy money off quick clicks, not to enlighten you. Here’s a visual guide created by a Reddit user
for his grandma:
Don’t go down that rabbit hole. And don’t share it.
And I’m sorry to add, don’t assume a source is reliable just because it has ‘law enforcement’, ‘blue’, ‘police’ or the like in its name. News sites and social media pages know that cops are suspicious of “mainstream media” and will take advantage of your (justifiable) suspicion to gather your eyeballs and your clicks. You deserve better than that. Find the ones that are neutral in tone, well-sourced and reliable. You may not always like what they have to say, but it’s worth that once in a while to not be manipulated for better results in a search engine.
Loaded language is another red flag, in the body of an article or especially in a headline.
News reporting should tell you what happened. If it tries to steer the way you feel about what happened (outrage, anyone?) , it’s no longer just ‘news’ and you need to turn on the skeptic filter.
Some examples of loaded language versus neutral language:
*Did the involved officer shoot the suspect, or “gun them down”?
*Is the suspect a…well, a suspect, or is he/she a “father of two” “a grandmother” “a teen” (at 18 or 19, rather than “a man”)? A “graduate”?
*Did someone “say ” something? Or did they “report”? “Admit”? “Concede”?
*How about “died”? Or, “passed away”? “Was killed” or “was murdered”?
Each word may be technically accurate. Each word also carries its own positive or negative implication, influencing the reader’s view of what happened. Loaded language does not necessarily make a report incorrect, but it may very well make it misleading.
It’s worth the time and effort, to preserve your own credibility and the integrity of the information you pass along. If you’d like to start teaching your kids to be wise news readers as well, try playing online games
designed for students. Make it a competition, and talk about the results.
The Golden Rule of Media Literacy (Especially Online) is verify, cross reference, and when in doubt, wait.
Yes, I just made that up.
It works anyway, I promise. I’ve been doing it for years now.