Media literacy: the cure for polarization

Monday, January 11, 2021


We all know Einstein’s definition of insanity. So, I am suggesting we look at the challenge we are experiencing on the political scene from a fresh angle.

After this last week’s events caused by a small group of misguided souls, and now that new leadership approved, it is time to start the healing process. So, let’s remove Trump from this conversation.

The cure for polarization between the left and the right will be mostly around how our own human nature effects our ability to properly source, analyze and share information (media literacy). The thinking is that we will not resolve our differences by trying to convince the other side of our superior beliefs and strategies. We all have way more in common than what we disagree on. Our political challenges are not from the sickness of our system — they are symptoms of a deeper, more urgent problem. We are suffering from “truth decay.”

Situations and traits we all suffer from are at the root of polarization: We have never experienced the avalanche of media we are attempting to process nowadays. Combine that with the fact that much of it is mis- or dis-information, and not properly researched or written to follow the tenets of professional journalism. In general, we are having problems finding the truth. Not the Fox truth. Not the CNN truth. Or the social media truth — but the empirical truth. Agreement on the truth is the basis for trust. Reliable research shows trust is declining. This insidious decline is serious because trust is the basis of progress.

Two obstacles to discerning the truth are: 1.) Our confirmation bias — Readily accepting information that agrees with our current beliefs and rejecting that which does not. There are reliable media sources. But too many publishers pander to specific segments of the political bell curve. Those targeted viewers find a source they believe in. Then, too often, they feed exclusively on that source — continuing to strengthen their bias. 2.) Negativity bias: When given the choice to pay attention to good news or bad news, our conditioning over thousands of years, propels us to focus on bad. In the more violent world of the past, being hyper alert for that which could hurt us was critical. However, data on declining crime and war victims, combined with improvements in healthcare, poverty, and overall conveniences of modern life, show there has never been a safer, more comfortable time to be alive. Of course, there are problems. We will always have them. And humanity is good at finding the solutions.

Simply stated, the solution to our political polarization is media literacy. When it comes to finding the truth, we need to combat our vulnerability to untruths due to our biases. We also need to remember that some media platforms profit by unscrupulously leveraging our biases. (If it bleeds, it leads.)

Reminding ourselves of this, helps us stay alert to some media preying on our biases simply to make a profit. It is the same whether it is the algorithms working behind the scenes at digitally-driven social media platforms, or 24-hour news stations that are intentionally biased.

The lack of media literacy is an urgent problem around the world. NATO has made it a strategic priority. Here in Livingston, our school superintendent, Don Viegut, is encouraging and enabling the faculty to integrate media literacy into their courses. In addition, our Getting Better Foundation has produced “Trust Me” a documentary on the causes of, and solutions to, media illiteracy. It premiered at the U.S. State Department. And 28,000 educators have been given access to the film and its study guide. It will be available to our community later this spring. Meanwhile, whether we lean left or right, let us all focus on properly sourcing and analyzing the media we receive to build trust through the truth.

Joe Phelps
Paradise Valley