As a media literacy educator I hear a lot of misconceptions about news media. The most common is that news should be objective and without bias. While that is a noble aspiration, as Dr. Katherine Fry points out in her recent blog post, there are far too many constraints on news media, especially in the digital age, for purely objective journalism to exist, if it ever did.
I heard another misconception recently while speaking with a class of university journalism students in Kosovo. When I asked the students, “What is news?” one student replied that, “News reflects reality.” Another student beat me to the punch when she pushed back, asking, “Whose reality?”
My work as an educator is primarily focused in marginalized communities, and one thing that many of the young people in these communities bring with them to a media literacy program is a deep distrust of news media. But their distrust doesn’t stem from a concern over the spread of “fake news” or an increase in sponsored content. Their distrust is usually rooted in the representation of their communities in the news — that, essentially, the news doesn’t reflect their reality.
“The news doesn’t care about us,” one of my students in the Bronx neighborhood of New York once said. “They only come to our community when something bad happens.”
If you only ever see your community reflected negatively in the news, how does that affect how you feel about your community, or about yourself?
Who Makes the News? (And How Does that Affect How We Think About the News?)
People make the news — journalists, photographers, producers and editors. Businesses, organizations and governments also make the news; they determine agendas, hiring practices and economic structures. Culture also determines how the news is made, from the stories that get covered to the ways those stories are told.
News is a business, and like most businesses, news is in the business of making and selling a product for consumption. That product is tested and packaged for specific markets and audiences, sold to advertisers and distributed across a wide variety of networks and outlets. For-profit news media rely primarily on advertising dollars. To sell ads they need your attention, your clicks and likes, and they’re competing for that attention in an increasingly saturated media environment. That competition drives news media to rely on formulas that work — clickbait, sensational headlines, stereotypical representations and “if it bleeds it leads” broadcasting. Because of these organizational and economic constraints on mainstream, for-profit media, many people are turning to non-profit media and citizen journalists to find their reality presented in the news.
News is also very much under the control of the cultures we live in, especially in whose stories we choose to tell and how those stories are told. You’re unlikely to see positive coverage of LGBTQ communities, for instance, if you live in a country that traditionally doesn’t acknowledge their legitimacy. Of course there are courageous journalists who challenge cultural traditions and norms, sometimes at great professional and personal risk, and they should be celebrated and protected. Far too often, however, news media ignore certain communities or reinforce harmful cultural representations when they do address those communities.
The ways we tell stories can also skew the realities presented within news media. Mass audiences tend to like unambiguous stories with a beginning, middle and end, and with clearly defined heroes and villains. The news also caters to these storytelling norms. As a result, news stories are often presented in us vs. them dichotomies — man vs. nature, settlers vs. immigrants, the West vs. the East, Republicans vs. Democrats, etc. This way of framing news stories limits the level of nuance, balance and sensitivity journalists ultimately have in reporting the news, especially in the intensely headline-driven online news environment.
Tell Your Own Story (Or Someone Else Will Tell It For You)
In my news literacy programs, there is always a production component in which students create their own print, audio or video news stories within their communities. Along with audio and video production skills, students analyze the language of news construction, practice conducting interviews and learn how to research online more efficiently and more responsibly. They ultimately learn how difficult it is to produce the news, but also how essential the news is to sharing information and how important it is to try to do it well.
By making their own news stories focused on their communities and issues that matter to them, students also learn to challenge the more problematic aspects of news media through active participation. As the internet and social media have enabled an unprecedented ability for citizens to participate in constructing the media landscape, we have to decide as individuals how we will participate. Do we want to add to the noise, or do we want to help construct a more positive, thoughtful and inclusive media environment?
Media literacy empowers citizens to understand how media are constructed and how they influence us, but media literacy should also inspire citizens to challenge media by producing and sharing their own stories.
This post was contributed by Alan Berry. Alan Berry, M.S. in media studies, is a Fulbright Research Fellow investigating media literacy education in Kosovo. Berry has been interested in media literacy education since his time as a Peace Corps volunteer (2006–2008) in Mali, West Africa, where he experienced the powerful influence of American media on cultural perspectives, especially his own. Formerly the education director for The LAMP (Learning About Multimedia Project) in New York City, Berry has designed and facilitated hundreds of hours of media literacy programs in schools and out-of-school spaces for youth, designed and taught an undergraduate media literacy education course at Queens College, and provided professional development for educators across the country on using media technologies and integrating media literacy competencies into K–12 classrooms. He is most interested in media literacy education as a learner-centered approach to developing critical thinking skills and as a tool for empowering underserved and underrepresented communities to civic engagement.
The views and opinions expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the YALI Network or the U.S. government.