Literacy in the Modern Age

Literacy has an irrefutably profound effect on our success and well-being. Ever since the existence of the written word, literacy has always meant the ability to read and write. However, being literate has acquired more modern connotations in the 21st century. Nowadays, most of our information comes in various forms of media, which include the internet, television, magazines, radio, video games, books, newspapers, billboards, etc. Being media literate is more vital to communication than ever, and its importance will only continue to grow as technology and new forms of media enter our lives.

A competent communicator possesses the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and communicate information in a variety of forms, as defined by the National Association for Media Literacy Education.

Why is any of this relevant? With a decline in viewership and funding to news outlets and a surge in the content-hungry 24-hour news cycle, advertisements and self-serving agendas have crept into the fading, impartial craft of journalism.

Imagine yourself reading an article about defunct car parts, listening to a broadcast announcing new health findings, or watching your favorite anchor debrief current events. Now imagine that car article being sponsored by an automaker, that health broadcast paid for by juice companies, and your favorite anchor only highlighting news that aligns with the broadcast company’s views.

Would that change the way you consumed the news?

We should strive to be more media literate, especially with the news. Understanding how media messages shape our culture and society not only lifts the veil from our eyes but also teaches us to be critical thinkers and producers of media. You may think I am exaggerating the effects of news media, but continued exposure to the same message will start to have an impact on us over time. Compound that effect with our friends and families being shaped by the same message, and the result is a clear molding of our public opinion.

Mass communication majors are all too familiar with agenda-setting theory. It is the theory that the news media creates public awareness and concern for salient issues. The Theory relies on two assumptions: The media does not reflect reality, and concentration on a few issues by the media causes the public to perceive those issues as more important than others. Over 400 studies have been published on the function of agenda-setting and it remains relevant both inside and outside the classroom.

In light of recent events surrounding Brian Williams, I chose to focus on the news media and how we can consume the news with critical eyes and ears. For those unaware, Brian Williams is an NBC news anchor who lied to his nearly 9 million viewers about terrorists firing at his helicopter in Iraq. When investigations revealed Williams embellished the story with glittering heroism and ornate tales of friendship with SEAL Team 6, skepticism grew as his tall tale began to look more like a tacky scrapbook project. NBC suspended Williams for six months without pay. However, Williams suffered more than a dent in his salary—his credibility as a journalist may never recover.

Williams is the face of that scandal, but large-scale, refined campaigns that shape the topics we think about go widely unnoticed and with no single face to blame. “Native news” or “advertorials” are catchy terms coined to disguise a more strategic aim. They are essentially paid-advertising disguised as news, which is why we need to be wary of their presence permeating our magazines, newspapers, television—you get the idea.

Sure, the FCC may conduct their investigations, but it is mainly our responsibility to question who sent the message, why the message was sent, where the message was placed, and what are the embedded values of the message. Consider what station broadcast that particular message, and are they politically biased? Was the news found in a men’s magazine or a YouTube video? How does that story want you to feel? These are all questions we should keep in mind when consuming the news. Like learning to read and write, media literacy will also become second nature through practice.