Media Literacy Is About Where To Spend Your Trust. But You Have To Spend It Somewhere.

A lot of past approaches to online media literacy have highlighted “debunking” and present a large a portion of cases where students debunk tree octopuses and verifiably false things. And show students how they are manipulated, etc.

And this is good in the right amounts. There’s a place for it. It should comprise much of your curriculum.

But the core of media literacy for me is this question of “where you spend your trust.” And everything has to be evaluated in that framework.

There’s not an option to not trust anyone, at least not an option that is socially viable. And societies without trust come to bad ends. Students are various, of course, but what I find with many students is they are trust misers — they don’t want to spend their trust anywhere, and they think many things are equally untrustworthy. And somehow they have been trained to think this makes them smarter than the average bear.

A couple stories will illustrate the problem. I was once working with a bunch of students and comparing Natural News (a health supplements site which specializes in junk science claims) and the Mayo Clinic, one of the most respected outfits out there. OK, I say, so what’s the problem with taking advice from Natural News?

Well, says a student, they make their money selling supplements, and so they have an incentive to talk down traditional medicine.

I beam like a proud papa. Good analysis!

“And,” the student continues, “the Mayo Clinic is the same way. They make money off of patients so they want to portray regular hospitals as working.”

Houston, we have a problem.

I was in an upper division class another time and we were looking at an expert in a newspaper cited for his background in the ethnobiology of issues around the study of birds. I did what I encourage students to do in such cases: as a sanity check, make sure that the person being quoted as an academic expert has a publication record in the relevant area, preferably with a cite or two. (There are other varieties of expertise, of course, but in this case the claimed expertise was academic).

The record comes up. This guy’s top article on birds, biologists, and indigenous knowledge has something like 34 citations in Google Scholar. “So what do you think?” I ask them.

“Eh,” they say. “Not great.”

This was, mind you, not a room full of published ethnobiologists. And the ethnobiologist quoted in the article was not claiming to overturn the fundamental insights of ethnobiology, or anything requiring extraordinary evidence.

So 34 other experts had considered this person’s niche work worth talking about but hey, we’re still not sure this guy’s worth listening to on a subject we know nothing about and in which he is making rather moderate claims…


Another class, looking at Canadian paper the National Post, noted that while it was a “real” paper with a real staff, the Wikipedia page on it noted a controversy about some wrong information they published in 2006, where the editor had to actually pen an apology. “So kind of half-and-half, right?”

I’ve referred to this before as trust compression, the tendency for students to view vastly different levels of credibility of sources all as moderately or severely compromised. Breitbart is funded by the Mercers, who are using it directly to influence political debate, but the Washington Post is also owned by Jeff Bezos who donated to Democrats. So it’s a wash. And yes, we have the word of an expert in a subject where she has multiple cites against the word of a lobbying group but neither one is perfect really. Everyone’s got an agenda, nobody knows everything, and there’s not 100% agreement on anything anyway.

You see this in areas outside of expertise as well, incidentally. With quotes I often ask students (and faculty!) to source the quote and then say if the quote was taken out of context. The answer? You’ll always get a range from “completely taken out of context” to “somewhat taken out of context”. That upper register of “Nope, that quote was used correctly” is something you really have to coax the students into.

I don’t quite know how to square this with the gullibility often on display, except to say that very often that gullibility is about not being able (or willing) to distinguish gradations of credibility.

This should scare you, and it has to be at the core of what we teach — to teach students they need to decompress their trust, get out of that mushy middle, and make real distinctions. And ultimately, put their trust somewhere. Otherwise we end up with what Hannah Arendt so accurately described as the breeding ground of totalitarianism:

In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, that everything was possible and that nothing was true… Mass Propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow…

I do believe this insight — that trust has to be spent somewhere and that our problem is not gullibility, but rather the gullibility of cynics — has to be at the core of what we teach and how we teach it. You have some trust, and you have to be willing to spend it somewhere. So enough of the “this isn’t great either”, enough of the “eh”. What’s your best option for spending that trust? Why?

If everything is compromised, then everything can be ignored, and filtering is simply a matter of choosing what you want to hear. And students will economize that lesson in a heartbeat. In fact, I’m worried they already have, and it’s up to us to change that.

21 thoughts on “Media Literacy Is About Where To Spend Your Trust. But You Have To Spend It Somewhere.

  1. I appreciate the focus on trust here while nodding to the debunking approach. We spend A LOT of time in media literacy/fake news/info lit talking about debunking but not as much time framing the problem from the perspective of trust. It feels like there is a rich conversation to be had there but with no one speaking from that perspective it is hard to get going. Thanks for writing this!

  2. Wasn’t this exactly the goal of the Russian IRA? Not to advocate for Trump over Hilary, or one political idea over another, but to sow distrust in the system of democratic thinking – “you can’t trust anyone!” would be the end goal. Fewer people participate, more chaos ensues, nothing gets done, everyone is unhappy, but only in an amorphous, “can’t do anything about it” kind of way. If so, then fake news is about disempowerment and not advocacy, really.
    “.. “defraud the United States by impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful functions of the government through fraud and deceit for the purpose of interfering with the US. political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016.””

    • Yes exactly! Actually there’s a rich literature on disinfo’s aim really being to dissolve all bonds of social cohesion and alliance to weaken an enemy. Goes back even to the 1960s, when Soviet disinfo agents would paint swastikas on town graveyards and watch the towns spiral out of control.

      Trust is necessary for forward motion on things. If you can erode trust, you can plunge a society that is moving forward into stasis. Initial effort of the Soviets were always to weaken NATO bonds. There’s also a relevant Cass Susstein paper on preference discovery which shows that by demonstrating horrible behavior (trolling, conspiracies, etc) you allow others to discover a preference for horrible behavior, thus having an outsize impact.

  3. Yes. This. So this made me think of several things and inspiring me to do a class activity which I’ll blog about in a minute. First reaction is, you’re basically describing Perry’s model of intellectual development. Students get stuck in multiplicity and relativism but haven’t yet moved onto contextual relativism where they can recognize when one thing is more authoritative than another given additional information about context, etc. (roughly speaking). The other important thing, though, is that when we over emphasize skepticism we lead students to that cynicism, but we need to constantly also talk about when to trust (something more in line with feminist approaches to critical thinking). The last thing I’m thinking of is that this is where the far right extremists go wrong in applying criticality. They misuse what we call critical thinking to just call everything fake on their own whim and resist authority for being authority.
    i say all this, and Perry’s model of intellectual development is highly problematic (built on mostly white male Harvard students) but hey. Women have built on it with more diverse research participants and they came up with the thing where you infuse connected knowing before constructed knowing and voila – space to build trust and not just skepticism… Now I’ve forgotten the class activity, but it’ll come to me eventually…

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  6. Among other steps noted, I look for cui bono… note slant in interpreting actual happenings and loaded language too, and triangulate trusted resources with different perspectives. The more and the longer you do it the quicker and more intuitive it becomes — not unlike Vance Steven’s advice about “navigating chaos intuitively.” At some point the lizard brain takes over.

  7. Love this angle, Mike, but I wonder is trust in sources of information the goal? It winds down the path of “Washington Post Always GOOD, FOX News Always BAD”. The Post makes mistakes and I bet sometimes Fox is accurate.

    Isn’t it more as I think Vanessa suggests, like always a process of operating from and recalibrating your hunches about the source? And trust maybe more at the Story level (factoring in reliability of source, possible bias of source/author?)

    It reminds me of an upcoming PD project on open education with some university faculty. We’ve asked them their thoughts and student use of Wikipedia; we want them to appreciate the way the system works to produce knowledge but they cannot get past their grounding that Wikipedia is not reliable; an all in one judgement. It ends up reducing critical thinking to a thumbs up / thumbs down, or a focus on being “right” / “true” rather than helping us refine our hunches.

    • In general, you need sources that you trust. Can’t live without them. So it’s not Washington Post is GOOD and FOX is bad, but rather — “If I can find that covered in the Washington Post I’m probably OK.”

      Which is true! Usually! And honestly, following that rule — that the Washington Post is reliable with facts even if the analysis is off is probably important, because here’s the thing — the WaPo is probably far more reliable than you are. In fact, much of the “I’m going to adjudicate each story as to whether it’s true” is just motivated reasoning.

      Now if you want to go beyond that to the sources, we do that too.

      It’s weird we cut out news as something different than the rest of education. In any class if I walk in as a student and say hey, I want to learn discourse pragmatics or whatever what are the best books on that if the professor said — well, I can’t tell you that, but here is a list of qualities of the best books on pragmatics so just read stuff more or less randomly and check the list I think we’d say um, could I just have a list of books to start? And then move on to the qualities?

      But ask people with good knowledge of accuracy of a bunch of news publications what’s most likely to get facts right and we suddenly get very timid.

      That said, what we do do a lot is force students to understand not all content in a newspaper is the same. I think of this as not being on the “story” level as much as the “genre” level. Opinion pages at the NYT are not hard political news which are not the pop science pieces which isn’t the health section. These sections operate under different rules and with different levels of trustability. Also, headlines are often unreliable even on top of articles which are good. So you end up with a situation where maybe the WaPo is your goto on D.C. news, but you choose local sources for local stories like Parkland, and you go straight to Science Daily for coverage of new scientific studies. That’s a level of unbundling that is practical without getting down to the story level, and it’s one that will make one less prone to discounting stories they don’t like. Occassionally you have to develop hacks on top of that, but I would apply them carefully — I really do not like Maggie Haberman’s reliance on unnamed sources, for example, and hate a lot of her reporting but I’m still wary of discounting it.

      In analysis pieces (unlike news) bylines matter more, and particularly if you know something about the subject. So I’ll take various people seriously on misinformation or education for example. But that’s different than news IMO.

      On Wikipedia, I’ve found the best way to break down faculty resistance is tell them what *not* to trust on Wikipedia — bios on minor still-living figures, articles on contentious evolving subjects that have not been locked, articles with a recent flurry of anonymous edits, articles with a single author. So it’s sort of genre there but not quite.

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  9. Great commentary, Mike. Many of us came up in an era when the sources were ‘curated’ for us; that is, there weren’t that many to choose from and they were mostly very reliable. I grew up in Maine and we read the Bangor Daily News and the Boston Globe, and my parents occasionally watched PBS Newshour or Brokaw.

    Our students today are coming up in a fantastic environment of information and opinion dissemination, but I wonder to what extent we, as schools, need to provide students with a curated baseline of sources where they can spend their trust. Something like a curated ‘playlist’ of 20 go-to sources. Students build up their own playlists from there, justifying why a new source should be added to the list. Yes, let’s let them wrestle with source evaluation, but they’ll always have that baseline to return to.

    I whole-heartedly agree with your idea of the ‘gullibility of cynics’. I teach Grade 8 and I see it often–students so quick to dismiss something because it’s ‘obviously’ fake news or ‘probably’ photoshopped or manipulated. It’s stunning sometimes how quickly they go there. I utilize a framework for teaching source analysis, but it too often ends up where you do at the beginning of your post, with students equating Newsmax and the New York Times because, ‘they’re both trying to make money.’

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