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.