Media Literacy Must Be Improved


Social media platforms often circulate many false news stories on the web. (Courtesy of Flickr)

Erica Scalise, Projects Editor Emerita

On Jan. 21, liberatarian-leaning broadcaster, stand-up comedian and mixed martial arts commentator Joe Rogan declared he’s backing Bernie Sanders on his podcast, “The Joe Rogan Experience.” The endorsement came as an upset for many on the left who know the talk-show host for his conspiracy theory commentary, racist wisecracks and bigoted remarks toward transgender people. Rogan’s endorsement, and Sanders’ unexpected embrace in the days following, struck the Twittersphere in tsunami-like waves, ushering in a flood of commentary on the power of endorsements and what it means to be a practitioner of purity politics in the wake of a critical election.  

As a self-proclaimed local news junkie with an affinity for the Times’ Metro section, “The Joe Rogan Experience” doesn’t fare as well when seated beside my regular line-up of local politics podcasts and old standbys. Rogan’s voice is nothing like Ira Glass’ and he regularly discusses national politics. Meanwhile, I’m still taking to Twitter to mourn the loss of Andy Byford, former New York City Transit Authority president. 

I’ve been on Twitter long enough to know when to, but more importantly, when not to dip my toe into the vapid whirlpool that is Twitter politics. Yet, I somehow found myself indirectly entangled in the Rogan discourse after reading a tweet by Ryan Broderick, a senior reporter at Buzzfeed News. 

Broderick tweeted: “On a recent trip to the Boston area, I was talking to a bunch of 20-something guys from my small town. They get their news from 3 places: Bill Simmons, Joe Rogan, Reddit. Beyond the Bernie endorsement, there is a big problem happening here that journalists need to deal with.”

I want to make this clear from the get-go; this tweet isn’t completely unfounded. Broderick’s claim that 20-something guys living in Boston, a city that’s 52.58% white, get their news almost exclusively from two white men outside of the journalistic sphere is sadly believable. The addition of Reddit, a site where 70% of users are white, also checks out. What I’m quick to take issue with is Broderick’s assertion that this “big problem” is somehow due to the journalists rather than the consumers. 

The veiled problem Broderick ambiguously dangles in 278 characters is actually one of critical thinking concerning media or “media literacy,” not journalistic negligence. As a chronic retweeter, occasional replier, but almost never a “retweet with comment” kind of person — I found myself responding to Broderick with a quote tweet, remaining steadfast on a quest to engage in political discourse rather than aimlessly shout into the void. Of course, he didn’t reply to me, but the question still begs to be asked: in a time governed by instant gratification where news is available at the touch of a button, why is media literacy such a problem? 

In order to better understand media literacy, it’s crucial to consider where we as consumers have fallen short in nurturing our news ecosystem — how can we come to understand media literacy in a time when we’re increasingly being steered away from the very practices that make us literate? Simply spending 20 minutes per day perusing Twitter, watching a video long enough for it to count as a view — a whopping three seconds on Instagram, shouting into a vast echochamber on Facebook or joining the scholarly likes of Snapchat news savants are not viable ways to stay informed. 

News begs to be read, consumed, engaged with and analyzed apropos of the betterment of the greater world around us. With morning/evening news briefings, 10 minute daily podcasts on National Public Radio (NPR) and headlines such as, “10 Things to Know for Today,” reporters work to consistently produce digestible news in tandem with longform pieces, providing endless opportunities for media consumption. To scapegoat journalists as the be-all-end-all gatekeepers of media is to wrongfully ignore the stake that consumers have in choosing how they get to consume news.

However, staying informed via morning briefings doesn’t exactly epitomize media literacy. Whether on the surface or deep in the catacombs of comment sections, boldface lies and factual inaccuracies run rampant. A 2018 study by MIT found false news stories are 70% more likely to be retweeted than true stories, and it takes true stories about six times as long to reach 1,500 people as it takes for false stories to reach the same number. This is where media literacy comes in. Being able to recognize news as a trustable avenue toward a pathway for democracy and truth, rather than as something cheap and easily attainable through the podcast of a stand-up comedian is essential. I like to think poring over several options for an accurate and trustworthy news outlet is a bit like choosing a romantic partner — you’re going to have to sift through a lot of seemingly promising outlets before you strike gold.  

There also lies the issue of partisanship. Studies by Pew Research Center have shown Republicans and Republican-leaning independents are most likely to be skeptical of news derived from social media. Axios also reported that a whopping 92% of Republicans and 52% of Democrats say traditional news outlets knowingly report false or misleading stories at least sometimes. A large part of being media literate involves being skeptical to an extent, checking one’s own personal biases and being open to dissecting multiple angles of a story in order to obtain the news in its fullest capacity. When the news begins to function like regurgitated political jargon to feed a consumer’s confirmation biases, media literacy is extinguished and consumers are left in the dark. Surely, The Washington Post was onto something when it declared that “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”

In considering all of this, I’m obliged to wonder, is the small town Broderick describes in his tweet simply a macrocosm for the greater Fordham community? Sure, Gabelli students are granted a free subscription to The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times is in the entry way of every dorm and we have an NPR-affiliate radio station on our campus, but is it really enough? In order for media literacy to effectively flow through the university, enough to spit us out into the women and men for others that the administration so consistently touts, the core should dedicate an entire class, beyond Communications 1000, to media literacy, a mandatory skill in any profession, not just for those preparing for a liberal arts degree.

As a student journalist who serves as both an informant and consumer, I recognize I am not the final arbiter in the case for improved media literacy, though I do know the commitment to staying informed is not a mere suggestion, but a civic duty. As long as journalists are on the frontlines churning out content today, it is up to the informed consumers to be the critical thinkers of tomorrow.

Erica Scalise, FCRH ’20, is a journalism major from Chicago, Illinois.