Recently, the Academy for Eating Disorders held a tweetchat about how to critically evaluate media with author Harriet Brown, who is an Associate Professor of Journalism at Syracuse University. Since the media has invaded our life to an even greater extent, due to the advent and predominance of social media, it is essential that we are able to glean the information available in a mindful way.
The conversation began with a general question regarding the definition of a savvy media consumer. Brown defines this as “someone who thinks critically about the media and understand that not all media sources are equal.” She also emphasized how important it is to be able to ground yourself and relate media back to everyday life. Additionally, a savvy media consumer can distinguish between helpful and harmful media messages and have the reserve to deal with the negative.
A problematic message that has become associated with media, however is that media cause eating disorders. A recent and poorly titled article summarized Kate Winslet’s comments on social media and eating disorders to a causation statement. It is inaccurate claims like these that propagate misconceptions. Eating disorders are brain-based diseases that are the result of genetics and environment, but media cannot cause eating disorders. Nor are they completely harmless; they do impact people’s sense of themselves and no one is immune to media messages.
Brown also discussed the dangers of not being a savvy media consumer, which include being emotionally influenced by messages even if you think you know better. Additionally, one could fall prey to media scare tactics or stereotypes or believing everything that is written. Media literacy is critical to be able to filter the messages you see.
This concept ties into the next topic addressed of what skills are important for people to hone in order to become better media consumers. Brown advocated gaining media literacy and staying off sensationalized media sites and platforms, especially celebrity gossip sites. She also emphasized that with many reporters and journalists on deadlines, they don’t always have time to make the most nuanced statements, so we have to interpret with care.
Media is currently divided into two categories: ‘legacy media’ and ‘new media.’ Legacy media consists of TV, radio, film, newspapers, and magazines. These are accepted and long-standing types of media that we are consciously aware of. New media are media sources that we are just beginning to use and understand, such as websites, social media, and even apps. For example, many media messages are posted on newer platforms such as Snapchat and Tumblr. Combined, all of these media invade almost every aspect of our lives, making it difficult to every really ‘unplug.’
Images in media are almost as important as media messages. A savvy media consumer has to understand the role these images play, that images automatically affect us on an emotional level, and that we must put them into context. The emotionality of images can usually be fought with intellect and rationality. An unfortunate new finding that Brown shared is that knowing an image has been digitally manipulated doesn’t lessen its impact on viewers. This is why recent legislation to label photoshopped images is a waste of time.
Finding reliable media sources is another key issue Brown highlighted. She suggested looking for sponsorships and “collaborations” with advertisers that might indicate a conflict of interest. For example, Dove is owned by the multinational consumer goods company, Unilever. Be sure to look for accuracy and information rather than gossip and ask yourself who stands to benefit from the media messages. Whenever possible, look for the primary source for the information (academic paper, press release, etc.). Also, try to look at multiple perspectives on an issue, because that allows you to get the whole picture.
Social media is an interesting caveat for media literacy, because it is a more personal type of media and therefore feels more ‘real.’ It also happens faster (especially Twitter & Snapchat), which means there is less time to process and evaluate media messages. Social media is also more democratic in the sense that anyone can contribute to this type of media. However, social media can also be utilized for good; for example, there is considerably more body positivity on Tumblr, eating disorder tweet chats on twitter, and the presence of eating disorders organizations on Facebook and LinkedIn.
Being a savvy media consumer can be a difficult task for any adult, but for children with their growing minds and limited understanding of fantasy versus reality, it can be nigh on impossible. Therefore, parents must take an active role in promoting media literacy even at a young age. Parents must encourage children to think critically about the media; have them question what they see and talk about the issues with them. Ask them about their reactions to media messages, offer other points of view, and most importantly, listen to what they tell you.
Becoming a savvy media consumer is not an easy task, but Brown helped provide some very important pointers for improving our own and our children’s media literacy. Now it is time to put these skills to work.