Has media literacy led us down the path to partisanship?

Telling someone to "do the research" may in fact do more harm than good

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Allan BonnerThe expression that beauty, or art, is in the eye of the beholder means that it’s the viewer who decides. The same is true of the beholder of news stories.

More simply, new research shows us, again, that news consumers see what they want to see. The latest research data comes from the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

Before this current war, there was also violence, conflict, and academic study. There were also ideological divisions, with a portion of the “Russia-leaning” Ukrainian population hoping to rebuild relations with Russia while rejecting their own government’s legitimacy.

The research by Joanna Szostek of Royal Holloway, University of London, also shows that “rational individuals purposefully decide what to watch or read based on personal needs, interests, or predispositions.” Many want their own opinions reinforced. Other strong factors in news consumption are the time available, convenience, and the “social or family environment.”

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For me, this all means that if you watch the news in a union hall, university common room, fundamentalist Church basement, or gun club, you’re going to have some other strong influences besides the actual news. When the media outlet and content agree with the opinions of the particular audience, the news is considered credible. The news is incredible if there’s disagreement – cognitive dissonance.

There are other divides. Regular people have “everyday” ways of describing their experiences in conflict zones, which are often quite different from the descriptions that elites use. Think of how wars from Vietnam to the Gulf to Afghanistan were described on American TV channels versus the experiences of civilians amid those conflicts.

And how discerning are news consumers? Not very. Szostek’s research found that many consumers favour the news on the channel playing their favourite soap opera or a movie. News media consumption might result from “one-off decisions taken years ago – such as the choice of an Internet browser, a home page …” or bookmarking a website. Up to half of news consumers may just browse spontaneously and don’t really care about the source of information. Many others get mad at coverage and opt-out.

What do we say is the solution to a polarized electorate and strident, partisan media? I hear the phrase “Do your research” – mainly from people who have not done much research. That may not be a solution, though.

In this study, the Russia-leaning group “accessed sources linked to the Russian state that are associated with deliberately misleading reporting.” So, the advice to engage in “cross-checking” advocated by those who promote media literacy does not necessarily lead to media literacy.

As a potentially civil society, we have a lot more work to do than advocate media literacy, research, and education. It may, in fact, be those very things that got us into our polarized and angry state.

Allan Bonner was the first North American to be awarded an MSc in Risk, Crisis, and Disaster Management. He trained in England and has worked in the field on five continents for 35 years. His latest book is Emergency! – a monograph with 13 other authors on the many crises that occurred during the pandemic.

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2 Responses to "Has media literacy led us down the path to partisanship?"

  1. Allan Bonner   September 10, 2022 at 6:27 am

    Mr. Black:

    Interesting topic. I’m offsite and don’t have the article with me. However, are you having difficulty finding it? Of course, we can all conduct independent research, yet what percentage of Troy Media readers would have encountered this particular article? I suspect absolutely none. My fear that readers may encounter similar research does not dissuade me from conducting research and writing about it.

    I’m not concerned with any scholar’s resume unless it’s unusually good or bad – a resistance to ad hominem debates. As for why her work, it’s what a researcher of mine threw up for consideration. There are certain topics I want to know more about, and I make a judgment call based on the abstract, year of publication, keywords, and so on – the modern equivalent of walking the stacks. Had I chosen another, there might be the same question – why that one?

    With that said, do you know a better source or want to question this one? Why?

    Hard to believe there’s an EU consensus on this or many other topics, but I’d enjoy reading about that potential, but not the bend in bananas. Little research is not funded by somebody (other than mine), and so that’s always a concern.

    Two related points: I’ve been reading academic literature for 50 years and for about half that time, probably many more than 200 articles a year. There has been a significant diminution of their quality with dots not connected, assertions not proofs, small sample sizes and on and on. Secondly, as for other sources – of course. As an undergraduate I heard that there were about 7,000 published articles in the field of psychology alone. Take all the other disciplines and the proliferation of pay-to-publish journals it must be in the hundreds of thousands of articles now.

    Happy to receive alternative articles or rebuttals. Yet, all is well in media literacy will be a hard case to make.

  2. Chuck Black   September 9, 2022 at 7:48 am

    I’d appreciate a link to the source you cited for your article, Allan. I think many of your readers are smart enough to independently research and validate the topics you discuss.

    Near as I can tell from the little information you did provide in your article, Joanna Szostek is a post-doc researcher at Royal Holloway, part of the University of London, who funded most of her recent work using a three-year Marie Skłodowska Curie (MSC) fellowship from the European Commission.

    I’m curious to know why you used her work to illustrate the point of your article. She’s not the only expert in this area and her views mostly reflect the basic consensus of the EU, which funds her.


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