The emergence of what scholars call the "modern media literacy movement" took hold in the 1990s, but in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, the essential nature of media literacy has never been greater. Dr. Seth Ashley, an associate professor in the Department of Communication at Boise State University, has authored and co-authored many studies on media literacy; and prior to a Friday, Oct. 6 panel as part of the Idaho Library Association annual conference, Ashley talked about discerning fact from fiction.
Where might you prefer to start the conversation about media literacy?
The idea that all media messages are constructed; it really starts there for me. And we're talking about every media product, a song, a film, a television show, a newspaper. It's a human construction with people making decisions about what's going into it and what it's going to look like. If you start there, I think it's easier to have a nonpartisan discussion about the nature of media messages.
Can you talk about bringing media literacy to the classroom?
Common Core Standards have brought some broad attention on media education in K-12 classrooms. Here at Boise State, we have an Intro to Media class, required for all our media majors—media literacy is really the foundation of that. Most students, even in our media program, haven't thought much about the role of media in a democracy. Much of what we do is about having a greater understanding of corporate ownership of media and the job a journalist does versus a public relations professional.
Can I assume you're talking about "sponsored content," which looks like news and is tucked among legitimate journalism?
Absolutely. That's part of it, and much of it has to begin in knowing that it exists in the first place. [The content is] skillfully displayed to masquerade as news.
Much of the sponsored content even has a headline and is, quite often, in the same font as the news stories.
A lot of people say the so-called firewall between news and sales was never really there.
More and more high-profile news organizations have turned to sponsored content.
It's a desperate time for some organizations and people are trying everything they can think of to cover the gap to get them through to whatever a better business model might be. I hope it's not the new normal.
Do you think the media is a willing partner in improving media literacy?
No. I don't think they see it as part of their purview. Listen to the way our phones ping at us constantly. It's not an accident. It has us salivating like Pavlov's dogs. That, for me, comes back to the classroom, to getting students to think critically about content and how it's produced. A lot of this is basic sociology.
Which brings us to social media.
The internet was going to be this amazing level playing field, with open access to all but, not surprisingly, it has become a totally commercial monster. There are about 2 billion people on Facebook—almost a third of the world's population.
What do you make of Facebook announcing that it would take a greater role in filtering out fake news?
That's a good start, but they only want to think of themselves as a technology company. They don't really want to be responsible for the content, for all kinds of legal and other reasons. When they put in human editors, they got accused of liberal bias. When they put robots in place, there was a lot of crazy stuff that was totally fake. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.
What are you working on outside of the classroom?
I have one book under contract and another in the proposal stage.
What will we see from you sooner than later?
The book that will come out next is called American Journalism and Fake News.
Wow. Are you constantly rewriting with updates?
There's so much that is timely, but we'll be talking about this for quite some time.