If it’s online, it must be true

Not surprisingly, Facebook, among other social media and news outlets, is swarming with photos of the damage from Hurricane Sandy. Some of the photos are so shocking that their legitimacy is questionable, such as sharks in the flooded streets. Yet people continue to share them, seemingly accepting their authenticity without question. The blind acceptance of photos and information posted online is frightening. We all know that photos can be doctored, that people can lie, yet many people view such media communication as inherently credibility (minus the adversarial slant in politics where claims of biased reporting and sharing are made, and in some cases, rightfully so). I am still surprised at the lack of media literacy in schools; we are taught how to use computers, how to type, how to seek information. Yet, there seems to be a breakdown when it comes to instilling the necessary critical thinking skills and even the impulse to question the credibility of what we find. It wasn’t until a mid-level psychology research methods course that the question of credibility was even posed to me. The lecture stands out in my mind, even to this day, despite 6 years of coursework since. My professor asked us how we knew, what our sources of information were, and then when we inevitably gave the news equivalent of “because they said so,” he responded by asking us what made them credible, worthy of acceptance.

I am no stranger to “because I said so,” as a daughter and as a mother. I was taught to accept the word of authority figures, period. I am surely not alone in this, and while obedience was expected and even rewarded in childhood, going against that as an adult was not a natural instinct. That professor was one of my favorite, as he really taught me to question, to dig deeper, to probe the credibility of information and whether the source was indeed an authority on the subject, deserving of acceptance.

Another major area of media that seems to instill blind acceptance and inherent credibility are statistics; this is an area I have been interested in for awhile, and I frequently cite some statistic or research to make my point. However, between my courses in psychology and communications, I know better than to accept any statistic that the media throws out at us. Statistics can be skewed in any number of ways; there can be minimal parameters, bias, faulty research methods, dishonest or lax practices. There are plenty of instances where studies come out with contradictory results. Again it wasn’t until deep into my research methods courses in college that I became aware of this. I remember sharing a study in a class where breastfeeding was linked with decreased incidence of breast cancer. While it didn’t come out and say that it was a causal relationship, it was implied in the news brief. After seeking out the original study in the research databases, it became apparent that the correlation could indeed be coincidental, the result of a number of other things that women who breastfeed versus women who don’t breastfeed have in common.

My 6 year old son is enthralled by technology, eager to learn and use the computer. It is disheartening to realize that 24 years after I began school, there still seems to be little media literacy being taught with the mechanics of using these technologies, even more so considering the immense potential of negative effects. Of course part of this is my responsibility as a parent, one that I am fortunate enough to be decently equipped to meet, but these types of critical thinking skills are just as vital and relevant as any other subject in school.

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