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#YALIChecks: What’s your role as a media consumer?
April 9, 2019

During an April 2018 YALICHAT with fact-checking experts, YALI Network members posed some challenging questions. While not all could be answered during the chat, there were a few unanswered questions that needed to be addressed.

The question that came up time and time again for the panelists was, “How can I become media literate?” The simple answer is that it’s not so simple. Fortunately, in addition to the three steps of “Stop. Reflect. Verify.” there are plenty of resources to help you develop your skills.

What happens if you find out information is false?

There are many ways that you can respond when you find out that information you’re seeing is false. But the key is to be proactive and stop, reflect and verify the information before you share it (if you share it at all), whether you find it on social media, on the radio or in the news. While you cannot control the information that other people receive, you do control what you share and how you frame it to others.

How can I advise on a topic or criticize without hurting the other party(ies)?

We’ve seen that people often react emotionally to news stories and images, which prompts them to share the information with their networks. Keeping that in mind, approach the person in a way that won’t embarrass them. To do this, you can try using phrases that characterize the information as one perspective and cite sources that support another perspective whenever possible. Social media are tools for your voice, and it is important to remember to communicate with others as you do when you talk to them in person.

In what professional way can one correct an error or wrong/unverified information?

Good journalists do their research before a story is put in print, but mistakes can still happen. What’s important is that if a mistake is made, the author or publication makes a public correction, not only to inform its readers, but also to regain and retain readers’ trust. On rare occasions, stories may be retracted, or withdrawn, which can have negative consequences for the journalist and the news outlet

How can I stop fake news from spreading?

A simple click has its consequences. While the best way to prevent the spread of fabricated news is not to share it, being an engaged citizen means participating in the conversation. You have several choices, but before you make one you should think about the repercussions by reflecting on the impact you can have and thinking critically about the story.

The temptation to share immediately may be strong, but refrain from giving in and take time to reflect. Ask yourself questions to determine the source and goal of what you’re seeing and then think, “Do you really need to share this?” Another way to think about it is to consider the audience: Is what you’re thinking about sharing relevant to every person in your network or to just a select few?

Fact-checking is the act of verifying the accuracy of a piece of information, while reporting is relaying the information that was presented to the journalist. In their reporting, journalists are careful to present different aspects of a story and, as a consumer, you would be mindful of how an article or report is worded. For example, words like, “reportedly,” “allegedly” and “suspect” are key to maintaining an accused person’s reputation should claims against them be proven false. If a story has been verified and you decide to share it, be sure to keep this consideration in mind.

What if a story is coming from an official or is on their website?

As journalist Alphonce Shiundu says, “Just because it’s official, doesn’t mean it’s a fact.” This means that officials will use strategic phrasing for their messages, which can lead to a lack of transparency. And businesses and governments will often select the information they want you to hear. This, however, is not necessarily the information that you need or want to know or learn from them.

Citizens have a role to play in keeping government transparent and fair, and they can do so in part by adopting certain technologies. From published court papers, government contract documents and ePolicing to providing better real-time responses, technology is closing the gap between government and its citizens.

Another tactic is to read laterally, or use multiple sources, to assess the credibility of a story. When you read laterally, you get a better idea of the media landscape, and you may start to notice discrepancies between the accounts of government or business officials. Organizations such as Africa Check have developed online tools for you to submit suspicious claims you see in the media. Other watchdog organizations, like Follow the Money in The Gambia, use open source code to track how public funds are spent.

Who can be a journalist?

You can be an advocate and active participant in journalism without having professional training. Citizen journalists are people who either deliberately or accidentally capture and distribute news stories. Did you record a human rights abuse on your phone and share it on social media? Then you’re a citizen journalist. Whether professionals or citizens, all journalists should remain independent and objective. Some go deep undercover to expose abuses. However, the media as tools don’t only reveal bad news; some use their journalists’ skills to highlight positive news in local communities and in government.

Choosing your role as a media consumer

“What I’ve learned during my career is that we “the people” can bring about change. Don’t be afraid to push the limits, to ask probing questions, even in instances where you may not be welcomed. You don’t have to be a journalist, you don’t have to be a member of the press. Remember, above all, you are a citizen.” — Shaka Ssali, host and managing editor of Straight Talk Africa, Voice of America

The speed at which information flows and exchanges is faster than before, and it is expected to increase as more people gain access to phones and telecommunications infrastructure expands and improves. But once you have an understanding of how media messages are constructed, you are a step closer to becoming a better media consumer.

Emerging and healthy democracies are a three-part system: a free and fair press, an open government and an informed citizenry. Many citizens, through social media, take it upon themselves to disseminate the information they’ve found, regardless of the source. What you share and how you share it is an extension of your personal branding. So ask yourself, “How do I want to be perceived by others when sharing on social media?” Remember, when you share information, your credibility and reputation are at stake. If you want to position yourself as a sharer of reliable information, be consistent in your effort and only share the things that you have verified and that are relevant to your network. As Nickolaus Bauer said in the media literacy panel discussion, “It’s better to be right than to be first.”

What next?

When you lead by example and share smart, you promote media literacy. To educate others about how they can be better news consumers, organize a #YALILearns event in your community.