Media Literacy: Step Back from the News Channels

A few years ago, I was vacationing with some friends when I read that a Facebook pal of mine was a security guard for an event at the college where he worked. I didn’t recognize the name and asked the daughter of my friend.

“I can’t believe you don’t know him,” she said.

I assumed it was the latest teenage heartthrob band, but it turned out he was host of one of the discussion shows on Fox News.

“Oh,” I said. “Then no wonder I don’t know him.”

“And what do you mean by that?” My friend’s tone was quite offended, and I could see that we were about to engage in a political argument, so I quickly added, “I don’t watch any news channels.”

Before I go on, let’s have a moment of full self-disclosure. I am a liberal. Before the election, I took one of those tests that are supposed to tell which candidate you are most aligned with. As I was answering questions, I thought, “Wow. I am getting more conservative as I get older.” When I hit the results button, it turned out that Bernie Sanders was my political soul mate.

But my dislike for the 24-hour news channels has nothing to do with my political stance.

Here are my basic concerns:

  1. News channels have to fill up the time, so little stories become big stories as details are over-analyzed and expert after expert is brought on to discuss the impact of the event.
  2. Like all commercial stations, news channels need ratings. Therefore, three informed policy experts discussing the minute implications of an economic policy  in a calm tone, allowing each person time to speak, won’t do the trick. There must be people arguing and yelling, and someone, usually the host, has to be the winner.
  3. Psychologists have pointed out that repetition can make us believe things are true. We hear them over and over, and their very familiarity can make us lower our critical thinking shields. “Why, yes,” we think, “I’ve heard that before.” But we forget that we’ve heard it repeatedly from one source.
  4. All news outlets , in these days of the web, where information can go around the world in less than a second,  are pressed to get the story out first. This often leads to initial information just being plain wrong. Obviously, this is never good. But for 24-hour news stations, this is especially problematic. (See 1 and 3 above.) Wrong information is repeated and analyzed digging its way into our minds.

For those of  you who love your Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC  (and whatever else is out there these days), I know I won’t convince you to turn them off. All I ask is that you watch them with clear eyes and a critical mind.

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