At the end of 1975’s Three Days of the Condor, Joe Turner – the everyday CIA analyst who gets caught up in a conspiracy bigger than himself – appears to have the upper hand. He reveals to the big bad CIA boss that he’s told his story to The New York Times and he starts to walk away free and clear. Then the CIA boss bursts his bubble.
“How do you know they’ll print it? You can take a walk. But how far if they don’t print it?”
It’s the sort of quintessential ending for a 1970’s political thrillers; sure, we got to the heart of the issue. But did we really stop it?
Perhaps more chilling is that this line wouldn’t be the same if we remade Three Days of the Condor today. After everything we’ve seen Joe go through, we know The New York Times has a scoop on their hands. They’d definitely print it. The real question is: How do we know people would care, or believe it?
Everyone wants to say they would, but the media blitz these days can be overwhelming, even for those who are part of it. In times like these it’s alarmingly simple to get that “alarm fatigue” and feel swamped by the news; it’s always coming, from all sides, with all sorts of negativity. It can be all too easy to just tune out.
But in the 21st century, literacy also means media literacy. This means cutting through the difficulties presented by the Internet’s amplification, the social media echo chamber, and the “alternative facts” pummeling the news ecosystem. It means finding tools that work for you—and that means finding tools that inform and challenge your media diet.
Here are a few starters (including questions from the Media Literacy Project).
Learn the tricks
Read things you like twice. Study the things you read closely, and figure out how they frame issues and intentions. It matters if a group is labeled as “protesters” rather than “demonstrators.” As Mark Twain used to say “The difference between the right word and the wrong word is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Not all words are wrong or even intentional, but they are always a choice. Pay attention to those choices.
- Who and what is shown in a positive light? In a negative light?
- What assumptions or beliefs do its creators have that are reflected in the content?
- Who and what is not shown at all?
Remember that things play differently
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So is media reaction. It’s good to read things outside your regular media diet and (especially) things outside of your regular world purview. Apply all those questions mentioned above and ponder how someone might see the information differently than you.
- Who created this media product? What is its purpose?
- What conclusions might audiences draw based on these facts?
- How might different people see this media product differently?
- How does this make you feel, based on how similar or different you are from the people portrayed in the media product?
Follow the money
Media is a business. Any journalism is counting on readers to keep it in business, but the way that commercial aspect pops up in stories can vary. There’s sponsored content (sometimes called an “advertorial”) and there’s clickbait — some of the more obvious traffic grabs — but there’s also things to think about with how content is distributed.
- How will it help someone make money? How does this influence the content and how it’s communicated?
- If no commercial purpose can be found, what other purposes might the media product have (for instance, to get attention for its creator or to convince audiences of a particular point of view)?
- How do those purposes influence the content and how it’s communicated?
Of course, there’s more to it than just these steps. News literacy is like exercise: the more you do it, the easier it’ll be — oh, and diversifying your regimen is key. Keep your head up, as well as your commitment to reading things that challenge you (and are well sourced!). Soon, with training, you’ll be able to do a marathon.