Media illiteracy is its own pandemic

While the composition of a cell and the history of the Revolutionary War are important parts of school curriculum, I would argue that one of the most important lessons in my son’s high school classes this year has been the one about media literacy. I was very pleased to see that topic being studied by a demographic that is arguably at its peak in terms of online presence and susceptibility for influence.

As a matter of fact, I’d make the argument that most adults I know could stand to enroll in a course on that topic, because there is clearly – CLEARLY – a giant chunk of the adult population who just plain don’t understand how to safely and effectively navigate media content. Fine if those people want to live their life in a world of misinformation, but the problem is, that choice is contagious, and it’s negatively affecting the rest of us.

The worldwide panic over the spread of Covid-19 is unprecedented. I’m not here to tell you how to handle it or react to it, but I think we can all agree that public panic has reached a point not even seen after 9/11, and it’s showing no signs of slowing down. Problem is, the panic is made possible by the influence of social media and “fake news”, as well as by countless information sources, media and otherwise, that, with financial motivations, contribute to the distortion of news in alarmist and sensationalist ways. These realities make necessary the need for a different approach to receiving and consuming news and, specifically, the need for news recipients to learn how to sort fact from fiction and expose false or misleading information.

Like so many other topics, especially those with a technical aspect to them, commentary, much of it meant to educate and inform people, has turned into Battle of the Experts, with people arguing and debating over which expert is more credible. In many circumstances, the opinion of a microbiologist from Johns Hopkins Medical Centre would be one to trust in the sphere of infectious disease literature, right? It’s not a know-it-all with a computer trying to spread lies online, and it’s not a biased think tank with ties to a major pharmaceutical company, it’s a respected medical professional with nothing to gain by sharing the wrong information.

So what happens when that opinion or information, conflicts with that shared by a high-level expert with the CDC? Or another equally-respected, equally-educated, equally-credible microbiologist? How is the average person supposed to know which one to believe? How are we supposed to ensure we’re listening to the right information?

I don’t know how to solve that problem, I just don’t. The bigger issue, anyway, isn’t with credible expert information vs credible expert information – it’s with credible expert information vs a Facebook article written by some guy in his mom’s basement, shared widely as though it’s fact.

Our leaders and information contributors – journalists, fact-checkers, media relations spokespeople – have a role to play in preventing the flow of false news and information, and in providing clarity as to which information is fact and which is opinion. This is a collective responsibility of governments, media establishments, and all organizations in the international community. Experts will argue that, since misleading information is so detrimental to social balance, the process of reform should be led by those controlling the information output. While I agree that there should be a scrutiny to which content is held before publication in any capacity, I tend to think we shouldn’t rely on anyone but ourselves to ensure we separate truth from fiction.

Not to over-dramatize the problem, but our entire civilization desperately needs a worldwide awareness-raising campaign on the problem of the lack of media literacy and ways to address it. Social media platforms and a growing number of content sources almost guarantee that, with journalistic freedom, we won’t be able to regulate the information being shared. With this certainty comes the duty of all information consumers to arm themselves with the understanding required to effectively and responsibly sort through it.

There are many lessons to be learned as we watch the coronavirus drama unfold. We learn which of our leaders are capable of leadership, and that political agendas can hide behind a global health crisis. We learn that a person can never have enough toilet paper. And we are always learning that we have to re-examine the way we consume information.

Oh, and wash your hands.