What if you were “Media Illiterate” for a day?

“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.”

– Daniel J. Boorstin

Why are people so dumb?  Seriously.  Why can’t they see it?  This morning I saw this video on YouTube about this politician I hate.  He sucks.  The guy is basically ruining the country (I’m pretty sure that he’s a traitor).  I re-posted it and subscribed to the channel.  This country’s going to heck in a handbasket.  I don’t know how anyone could miss all of these stories, they’re all over my Facebook feed and Snapchat.  The thing is everyone else is basically brainwashed by the media!  It’s indoctrination from the schools.  Seriously, what are they teaching kids today?  I can’t be manipulated like that because I know the truth.  Trust me, I do my research.  I read a lot about this stuff.  Like the other day I heard…

The first step is accepting you have a problem

It’s easy to smirk at the above satire.  We have all probably met someone like this and felt a great swell of pity for how easily they’ve been manipulated.  The problem is that they lack media literacy skills.  They aren’t critical thinkers, they don’t evaluate and scrutinize the information that they consume, and they aren’t aware of the negative effects the media has on them (or how to resist, critique, and contextualize media messages).  They live in a echo chamber of their own making.


We tend to think of education as an armor that protects us from influence.  We feel immune because we read articles, engage in class discussions, and give presentations.  But media influence isn’t always a barrage of bullets coming downrange.  Media influence is sometimes like carbon monoxide poisoning: tasteless, odorless, and imperceptible.  You don’t know you’ve been exposed before you go to sleep.

As James W. Potter pointed out media influence is often subtle, having built up over a long period of time through habitual use and exposure. He argues that most scholars (despite disagreeing on the finer details) generally agree that this mass media exposure brings with it a wide range of negative effects.  The one that concerns me the most is that we think we are immune to it, that it happens to someone else, but not to us.  It reminds me of unhealthy eating.  I know that I should be eating more vegetables, I’ve read Canada’s Food Guide, and consider myself an intelligent individual.  Despite this I keep gaining weight.  Why is that?  Maybe all of those little snacks, lunches out with my colleagues, and “cheat meals” are adding up?  Nah, must be something else.

At the risk of sounding paranoid…

To extend the healthy eating metaphor a bit further let’s assume that I take my health a lot more seriously.  Health is an individual responsibility right?  If I do my part then everything will be alright?

Yes and no.

Manufactures are hiding immense amounts of salt, sugar, and fat in practically everything we eat.  Advertising for food is everywhere and targets us at a young age.  Government regulation is ineffective, untimely, and influenced by lobbyists.  Is this any different from media messaging?

Bulger and Davidson argued that the individualization of media literacy is a fallacy.  As they saw it placing the sole responsibility for evaluating the deluge of media messages solely on the individual denies the complexity of the media environment and absolves corporations and governments of their role in mitigating them.  As Alec pointed out no two people see the same news feed in the digital age.  You and I could submit the exact same search query to the black box algorithms of Google and receive entirely different results.  As Kim pointed out our viewpoints have narrowed due to constant reinforcement of algorithmically selected articles and news that reinforces our own bias.  The overall effect, she noted, was that we lose the ability to relate to other points of view.  Media literacy is not a purely individual problem when the deck is so heavily stacked against you.  As teachers we seem to want to fix the worlds problems on our own, but media literacy is bigger than classroom education – it is a societal problem that requires societal solutions.

The playing field isn’t level

Our emphasis on individual responsibility for media literacy ignores the fact that marginalized groups are being openly assailed with negative stereotypes, racism, and disparaging media depictions of themselves.  As Celeste notes in her article this is often done insidiously with dog whistle terms such as “urban” and “lazy” that become part of a normalized lexicon. As Jennifer’s activity showed the motivations of media messaging is not always clear and sometimes requires careful thought and examination. I came away from her activity thinking about my lack of critical reflection on the Buffy Sainte-Marie stories posted by the CBC.  I hadn’t couched my initial thoughts on it in terms of reconciliation and had blindly accepted the sensationalism.  The media doesn’t treat everyone equally – and despite my education in media literacy I was easily manipulated.

My key takeaways

I am not a media literacy expert but there are some things that are clearer to me now than before taking this class.  1) No one is inoculated against the effects of media (regardless of their education level) 2) Media literacy is not a solely individual responsibility to resist and deflect the negative effects of mass media messaging 3) Media targets and omits those without voices.

Trust me.  I did my own research.

5 thoughts on “What if you were “Media Illiterate” for a day?

  1. Hello Matt. Thank you for sharing your views on Medial Literacy. I like how you state that its not just an individual (a student) that is responsible for navigating through media literacy and the problems it brings, but is also government/society that plays a huge part of the problem and solutions. What I notice more each day is the self-selected exposure that we engage in and the need to take how media influences us more seriously. I did a self-assessment on my need to reduce screen time or social media time. To clearly evaluate why I need to change and what results I want; the need to set a plan with defined goals (results to be determined at end of my self reflection period).
    I personally think that its important to critically look at an internet source, sharing of information and to give others personal agency to formulate a view. This is a process that can be taught through classroom instruction, but the take away for our students is still an individual effort; what they do with the critical skill is in their hands, unless the school sets regulations with outcomes that can be assessed.
    Thanks for listening Matt (enjoyed your video)!!

  2. Hi Matt,

    Your point that no one is entirely immune to the effects of media is crucial. Education and intelligence do not necessarily shield individuals from media manipulation. The insidious nature of media influence, combined with the continuous exposure to messaging, can gradually shape perceptions and beliefs.

  3. Matt, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article. I found it incisive and thought-provoking. I found myself doing my own introspection and asking myself to what extent I have been and am being influenced or even manipulated by media. The truth is, it is frightening the extent of the media – whether social media or traditional media bombard our space. The importance of media literacy cannot be overstated. Then I wonder if as an educated person, my thoughts can be and are being influenced by digital media, then what about the students who are not as exposed as I am but who are even greater consumers of the digital era?
    I agree with the key points that you have posited. The importance of teaching digital literacy is even more paramount.

  4. Awesome observations, Matt. For a second, I missed the satire (due to sleep deprivation) and thought, Geeze, this doesn’t sound like him…he must be having a rough day! HA! I really love this imagery – “Media influence is sometimes like carbon monoxide poisoning: tasteless, odorless, and imperceptible. You don’t know you’ve been exposed before you go to sleep.” This is exactly what I was trying to articulate in our group discussion, but I couldn’t quite turn thoughts into words. We always believe it is the “other person” who needs to practice media/digital literacy skills, but – as I said before – each of us has to look at a broad range of perspectives to get the full picture. The second we become cocky about our media savviness is the second “they’ve” got us.

  5. Hi Matt, great post! It reminds me of the game telephone, where one person says something to another with the hope that the person at the end will receive the same message. Although we all know that this is not how it works, the internet becomes a huge player in this game. It has the ability to play telephone with people from all over the world, without the message changing. Just as you mentioned, people within this game of telephone enter into an echo chamber.

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