The fall semester begins this week at UIS. To me, this time of year feels more like New Year’s Day than Jan. 1. I have new lessons and assignments to try and a fresh crop of students motivated to earn good grades, work experience and diplomas.
So with that in mind, allow me to wish you a Happy New Year and provide you with some new year’s resolutions.
Specifically, let’s make a list of four resolutions for everyday news consumers, who are constantly flooded with headlines, opinions and endless social media posts of varying levels of accuracy.
Over the past year, arguments about what’s true or not in regard to COVID-19, the vaccinations that will stamp it out and the presidential election have torn this country in two. The arguments almost always center on information we consume in the media. So here are some tips I hope you adopt, if you haven’t already:
Escape your media silo
What’s in your daily media diet? Fox News? MSNBC? Wall Street Journal? Washington Post? Breitbart? Daily Beast? Your local newspaper or TV station?
In an ideal world, people would base their personal views on straight, down-the-middle journalism that gives voice to all relevant sides in a report that is grounded in verifiable facts and doesn’t have an agenda to make people think a certain way.
In the real world, media consumers are drawn in by opinion makers, who often play fast and loose (or not at all) with facts to confirm their world view. Attracted by these strong opinion personalities, many news consumers find themselves in a media silo, where they only read, watch and follow views that align with their own.
These silos are why you see headlines about a majority of Republicans believing the presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump.
If you’re stuck in a silo, jump out. Read sources that aren’t endorsed by your favorite talking head. Critically consider what informed people on the other side of an issue are saying instead of dismissing it out of hand.
Eliminate the trash
Like any diet, you need to consume a healthy mix of nutrient-rich options and reject material that is unhealthy or even harmful. In a media diet, that means consuming material from news organizations that have a good reputation for fair and accurate reporting. Does this mean you can never consume material from a source that is one-sided? Of course not, but you should be aware of what you’re reading and take it with a grain (or a boulder) of salt when coming to your own conclusion.
Beyond this, there’s the dangerous world of misinformation. Unfortunately, we see bad actors masquerading as news sources and peddling false information intended to confuse the electorate, gin up political outrage and further divide the country. Eliminate this trash from your media diet. It’s not helping.
Need help figuring out which sources are trustworthy and which are trash? The Ad Fontes Media Interactive Media Bias Chart rates media organizations on reliability and political bias and plots it all on a handy, ever-changing chart. Titles that appear high and closer to the middle are keepers. Take a pass on those lower and on the extreme edges of the chart.
Confirm before you share
Don’t be part of the disinformation problem. Before clicking the retweet button on Twitter, the share button on Facebook or otherwise sending someone else’s headline to your followers, make sure it’s correct. Do a quick search for the information in question on the internet. If it’s corroborated by a source that ranks high and toward the center of the bias chart, you can feel better about sharing. If the search doesn’t pan out, skip the share.
Political conflicts in America are dividing co-workers, families and even individual households. We’ll never agree on everything. But Americans sure can do a better job of being civil about it.
A former student of mine who is now a reporter in Springfield, Missouri, a COVID-19 hotspot, was threatened this past weekend by an angry attendee of an antivaccine protest. As I told my student, he doesn’t deserve that. No journalist does. You can disagree with what journalists cover or how they cover it, but that type of behavior doesn’t help get your point across.
This civility rule also applies in the online world. It’s tempting and maybe even a little fun to get people stirred up on a Facebook comment thread to the point of hysteria. But it all just further adds to the unhealthy and useless rancor. You can do your part by not engaging in the fight and just scrolling on.
Jason Piscia is an assistant professor and director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois Springfield. He came to UIS following a 21-year career at The State Journal-Register.
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