Learning the news: Preparing for the final test

The most important thing is not to accept at face value everything you read, hear or see, writes Roger Plothow.

Nearly a year ago – I know, it seems longer to me, too – I promised that I would write one column a week for one year on the topic of media literacy. Commentary page editor Katie Stokes turned that into “Learning the News,” which I thought was kind of clever.

This is Learning the News, edition 50. We’re nearly there. My only goal over the past year was to change the world, as usual. As usual, it’s hard to tell any difference. But I have learned a lot in my research and the discipline of writing once a week has forced me to pay close attention to what’s going on out there.

As I recall from high school, the teachers used to conduct subject reviews as the term neared its end and the final exam approached. There won’t be a test at the end of my 52 weeks, but a review seems like a good idea

When it comes to media literacy, the most important thing is not to accept at face value everything you read, hear or see. While some sources are better than others, there’s no such thing as an infallible news source. That seems obvious, yet we fall for these fake stories over and over again.

We know why we do this, don’t we? It’s because we want to believe anything that reinforces our world view, our own very special collection of biases. Once any of us has arrived at a conclusion on something, it’s very hard to change that conclusion.

A lot of people – I consider myself one of these sorts – want to believe that if you just present the facts to anyone in a commonsense, understandable way, the facts will always persuade. It simply isn’t true. It isn’t true of me, and it isn’t true of you.

Almost universally we all have a bad case of confirmation bias – the tendency to believe only that information that confirms our existing set of beliefs or values. We are very good at finding errors in the arguments of people who disagree with us, but we’re terrible at spotting errors in our own arguments. (The next time you have a few spare hours, Google the research of Hugo Mercier and go to town.)

We play games that delude ourselves and confuse others. A longtime favorite now practiced by nearly everyone is called the “whataboutism.” I also refer to this as “yeahbuttism” or, “IknowyouarebutwhatamIism.” As soon as we hear something that makes us uncomfortable or with which we disagree, we throw out, “Yeah, but what about …” and we bring up, oh, I don’t know, Benghazi, groping, emails, blah, blah, blah. It’s much easier to go on the counterattack with an unrelated accusation than to have a reasoned conversation.

What does this have to do with media literacy? Just pay attention. When any public figure starts to get into trouble, the first tactic in response is a big, fat, “whatboutism.” Oddly enough, it seems to work, serving to distract us long enough until the next shiny scandalous news item pops up.


Roger Plothow is editor and publisher of the Post Register. This is part of a weekly year-long series on media literacy.


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