Media Literacy

When I was at school I the study of English was broken into three separate subjects – English Language, English Literature and English Media. I loved English Literature and I tolerated English Language as a compulsory subject. Wherever possible I avoided the elective English Media.

I have recently been researching a post which has led me to regret some of my past educational decisions. Hopefully the post will come. However, I thought the challenges were worthy of some exploration. I am trying to research around a historically semi-nomadic peoples with very little written history. Their histories are passed orally and through artwork and tapestries. All written accounts are provided by outsiders, mostly with their own agendas. These peoples have sort of integrated with the surrounding cultures however there are still very few reliable sources. This is an area and a culture are entirely alien to me.

I started by reading newspapers from the areas these peoples had settled. However before even reading the articles I have no idea of the political affiliation of the publication or its agenda. In the UK if I picked up a copy of the Times for example, I know where on the political spectrum this paper sits and I would also look for other sources with opposing political affiliation to try and achieve some balance. However, I have no context for the papers in, South Africa, India, or Brazil. So how can I be sure of a balance.

There is an art, which I am still trying to master, in picking out the fact from a statement. “This is a Blue Shirt” is a factual statement (presuming the shirt is blue and we don’t have a Jean luc Picard “There are four lights” situation). There are unlikely to be many political or biased opinions about this statement. Although I would be asking why I am being told what colour a shirt is.

In contrast “This magnificent blue shirt can be yours for only £14.99” can be broken into three parts. The emotive, the factual and the motive. Magnificent is a subjective and emotive term, it’s trying to make you feel something is good. The shirt is blue, there is your fact. They are trying to sell you the shirt, there is the motive behind the statement.

One of my favourite statements on this subject, which I have quoted repeatedly comes from George the Poet, “nothing is ever said without reason, even if it’s a lie”. A good starting point when reading anything is usually, why are they telling me this? what are they trying to achieve? what do they have to gain from this?

The next consideration must be our own biases. We all have them, we are programmed a certain way, every day from birth. The programming comes from our culture, our schools, our parents, our socio-economic background, our gender, our sexuality. Millions of factors, big and small influence how we see the world. If you state you are entirely without bias you are either an idiot or a liar. The trick is trying to identify our biases and mitigate them. However, advertisers are very skilled at understanding social biases. Many adverts from a many different deodorants for men show a “normal” man, not particularly physically fit, maybe a bit pale, probably with glasses to emphasise the physical imperfections, he’s just like you and me. This man applies the deodorant and suddenly he is surrounded by incensed scantily clad women thrusting their genitals at him. The implication is, if you buy this deodorant, attractive women will throw themselves at you.

My issues with this are myriad however the big two are –
1. Applying a chemical to relieve a woman of choice, free will and the ability consent in order to gain sexual contact with them is called rape. What these adverts are really saying is “you too could be on a register”.
2. If this chemical existed and worked I absolutely guarantee it would be selling for more than £4.49.  

But there is a reason these adverts stick in your mind. Sex sells. In the long history of mankind, it is well recorded that men in a state of sexual arousal do not make good decisions. But procreation is also a primary evolutionary drive. Its hard-wired into us and I am sure there is a fair bit of research out there that explains why men who are aroused have the decision-making capacity of a demented earthworm.

So, authors, advertisers and politicians often try to capitalise on our biases. The Biases that are most effectively manipulated are usually the ones we either don’t know we have or the ones that we think we are above.

When I am reading a newspaper from a country with extremely poor freedom of press. Researching a subject that his highly politicised, there have literally been national conflicts over these issues. I can’t be sure that what I am reading is balanced or even truthful. But these papers are my only contempory sources due to the extreme lack of academic research. There are websites advocating the rights of this particular group, but they are provided by outsiders to the community, and in shining a light on the oppression of this culture the sites are pressing an agenda.

I feel this subject is one that I really want to write about however its taking a lot of work. In the meantime, I thought this short post on my approach to media literacy might be fun.

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