Media Literacy and the Value of Skepticism with Ilana Lowery of Common Sense Media
Common sense is increasingly uncommon. And when it comes to the media, there’s a lot of common nonsense that circulates all too easily, making it harder and harder for ordinary, well-intentioned folks to find reliable sources of accurate information about the issues we face today. “Media literacy” is more important – and more elusive – than ever.
In this episode, Abbie Fink and Dr. Adrian McIntyre are joined by Ilana Lowery of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization committed to helping kids and families thrive in a world of media and technology.
Read Abbie Fink's blog post for this episode: "Is It Okay To Be Skeptical When Consuming The News?"
Ilana Lowery is Arizona Director of Common Sense. The former editor-in-chief of the Phoenix Business Journal, she retired from the daily business publication in June 2018 after 23 years as a key leader. The Chicago native also served as managing editor of the paper. She joined as a reporter and projects editor in 1995. As a reporter she covered nonprofits, finance, real estate, retail, travel, aviation, tourism, and sports business. Prior to the Business Journal, she was an editor for Independent Newspapers Inc., a community newspaper chain based in Scottsdale. Before moving to the Valley in 1989, Ilana served as a reporter and editor for Pulitzer Newspapers in Chicago.
Ilana is also an associate professor at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications. She recently served on the advisory board for the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix and is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, the Arizona Press Club, and the Arizona Newspaper Association, which in 2015 presented her with the Order of the Silver Key, an honor for journalists who have been in the profession for 25 years or more, contributed to the journalism profession both locally and nationally, and inspired fellow journalists.
If you enjoyed this episode, check out the PRGN Presents podcast, hosted by Abbie Fink, featuring conversations about PR, marketing, and communications with members of the Public Relations Global Network, "the world’s local public relations agency.”
- "Get Smart About News" by Scott Hanson
- "How harmful is social media?" by Marissa Baker
- "News Literacy 101" by Common Sense Media
- "News & Media Literacy" by Common Sense Media
Need to hire a PR firm?
We demystify the process and give you some helpful advice in Episode 19: "How to Hire a Public Relations Agency in Arizona: Insider Tips for Executives and Marketing Directors"
Copper State of Mind is a project of HMA Public Relations, a full-service public relations and marketing communications firm in Phoenix.
The show is recorded and produced in the studio of PHX.fm, the leading independent B2B podcast network in Arizona.
Common sense is increasingly uncommon, and when it comes to the media, there's a lot of common nonsense that circulates all too easily, making it harder and harder for ordinary well-intentioned folks to find reliable sources of accurate information about the issues we face today. News literacy is what this is usually called. It's more important and more elusive than ever. This is a topic we've discussed at length on previous episodes of the podcast, and we're returning to it again today. Joining us as always is Abbie Fink, Vice-President and General Manager of HMA Public Relations, and a special guest. Abbie, why don't you introduce our guest and tell us what's on your mind?Abbie Fink:
Well, thanks, Adrian, and yes, I will get to the introduction in just a second. The conversation we had a couple of weeks back around news literacy continues to be top of mind. We are regularly and often seeing news stories and conversations around, "I can't believe," or "Could this really be true?" or "Are they really talking about that again?" And when we talked, we decided that the conversation was worth continuing, and so, I decided that it would be opportune for us to bring in someone who is talking about media and news literacy on a daily basis, and that is Ilana Lowery, who is the Arizona director of Common Sense Media. She also is the former Editor-in-Chief at The Phoenix Business Journal. So not only does she come to it from a organization that is helping us as consumers understand the media, she is a member of the media, was a very active member of the media, and she and I have had years of friendship and working together professionally. So it's a pleasure, Ilana, to welcome you to our virtual studio of Copper State of Mind, our podcast that talks about all things communications. And really wanted to give you just a couple minutes to kind of talk about Common Sense Media, and really the role that the organization is playing to help all of us be better consumers of news and news information.Ilana Lowery:
Well, thank you, Abbie. It's nice to be here. Hi, Adrian. So yeah, you're right. I am coming at it kind of from both sides. I originally, in all of my years of journalism, was coming at it from providing the reader, the viewer, or the listener with the content. So the consumer was consuming the news, and now I'm working for a nonprofit that's based in San Francisco, but they opened an office in Arizona about two and a half years ago, and I became the director, and Common Sense Media is really just one arm of Common Sense. We do a lot of advocacy work for protections for kids, whether it's the digital divide, whether it's privacy. So we do that, but our main role and what people usually, what they know us for, is our ratings and reviews of all media for kids. So it's really interesting, and I'll talk about Common Sense in a minute, but I heard you in the introduction with both of you speaking about news literacy, and from my end, I stopped calling it news literacy once social media became a thing, because it really is media literacy. Particularly for young people today, really for all of us, because we're all on social media. So it goes well beyond the traditional news literacy that we talk about. But part of what Common Sense does is we help parents and educators as well, really navigate the internet and find the really good stuff that's out there for kids, whether it's books, or movies, or video games, apps, you name it, we've rated it. And so, that's another arm of what we do, but really, we're an advocacy organization, and we're a very impactful organization, one of the largest child advocacy organizations in the country, and with that role comes the responsibility of looking at other things that impact kids like social media and their mental health, like media literacy, like civics, and sort of the argument or the debate over teaching civics in school. We're obviously very much in favor of teaching civics, so we have a program on that. We have a digital citizenship curriculum that is free to all schools. They can use our resources to help teach their students how to act better, how to be better online, and we support families with in-depth content, with trending information. Our focus is media and tech, so that's kind of who we are and what we do. We do a lot of different things.Abbie Fink:
Well, one of the things I find so fascinating about what you said is really the organization's focus on younger people, and the way that they are engaging with the media, and the news, and this information flow. And it reminds me of when I was younger and we probably all had this experience, we had to read the newspaper and bring an article into class, it might've been our social studies class or our English class, and report on it as current events. And part of what that was, was teaching us how to read the newspaper, how to find something, how to read a headline, read the story, and make a report by what you saw. And so, this idea really does start, and should start at a very young age, and I think where we're seeing it is today, is there is so much information available coming at us from so many different places, that it can be difficult to distinguish what is news, i.e. factual, researched, objective information, what is opinion, which certainly has a place. I mean, opinion is allowed in legitimate news space, and what is being created to manipulate us, change behavior in a very, maybe underhanded way, maybe a less obvious way? And I think that's where the distinction is for us, is really helping understand the difference between what we know is legitimately fake and what is coming across to appear quite factual, when it is not in any way truthful. And so, can you talk a little bit about really, that discussion and how we can be smarter consumers of all of this content?Ilana Lowery:
Yeah, absolutely. So I think, and this isn't just my opinion, there's been a lot of research done on this, but we have to learn how to use the media wisely and effectively. And so, really, what does that look like? Critical thinking is a big part of that, and again, that's why I mentioned that some of what we do with our digital citizenship curriculum, which I think adults could actually learn a lot from as well, is we teach kids how to think critically and how to have those opinions of their own about the news. And especially the last couple of years, I mean, kids were bombarded. We all were bombarded, but how, as a parent or as an adult, do you sit there with your kid and see this stuff coming at you, and then now you have to explain it, right? So I talk a lot about modeling behavior. So for example, and I know Adrian, you used Fox News as your example when you spoke... The first part of this podcast. And pick one, I don't care, but if you're somebody who listens to say, Fox News or MSNBC, so I'm giving equal time here to both sides of the aisle, and you have it on all the time, and it's in the background or whatever all the time, and your kids are home, particularly last year, all the time, what do you think is happening, right? And so, parents and adults have to really put on that critical thinking cap, and they have to figure out, "How do I use media in the most effective ways, and how do I use it wisely so that not only I understand it, but now I can share that information, if I'm going to be sharing it?" And I'm sure we'll talk about social media in a minute. But so, when we talk about things like, "What should I do?" or "How can I be a better consumer of news?" I would say, and you'll probably laugh at this because of my former journalism experience, is you need to be skeptical about pretty much everything. Now, being skeptical and being cynical are two different things, and you have to know the difference, and I know that in your world, Abbie, in PR, when you're dealing with reporters and you're dealing with people who tend to be cynical, as opposed to skeptical, it makes your job harder, right?Abbie Fink:
Yeah. So it's important to be open-minded, right? Which means that you can be open-minded and be skeptical, right? But you're being open-minded, but in today's world, you just have to be a little bit skeptical of pretty much everything that you see or hear, particularly on social media. I know in the first part of the podcast, you talked about what is considered legitimate media or what is considered the types of media that you would go to if you were researching something or fact-checking something, your Wall Street Journals, and your Arizona Republic, and that kind of thing, but you need to do that before you start sharing, forwarding, commenting on stories. That's the critical thinking part of it, right? So I'm going to keep coming back to critical thinking, because I think it's such a huge part of what this is.Adrian McIntyre:
We talked a little bit, both on that previous episode, and Abbie mentioned it just now, about the different types of media, and I just have a question for you, Ilana, as someone who has participated in this industry we call journalism, for decades. Just rewinding the clock, as I was looking at your bio, you graduated in 1986 from the University of Illinois with a BA in Mass Communications and English, and I'm thinking 1986, Ronald Reagan is bombing Libya, the Berlin Wall is still dividing East and West Germany, we're in the midst of the Cold War, and all of our sources of information about those issues are three channels on network television, and a variety of newspapers, some national, some local. As you fast forward in time, here you are working as a reporter in Chicago for Pulitzer newspapers. You moved to Arizona in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall comes down, the game changes. In 1991, the Gulf Conflict makes CNN, basically gives them a place as an upstart, a new media channel, if you will. And we fast forward through those tumultuous years, and we get to today, where everything from TikTok to YouTube, to every other social network, it's become easier than ever before to become a creator of media, not necessarily news, but media of all kinds. As a professional journalist, as someone who has achieved the highest honors in that field, who adheres, or at least when you were working in the field, adhered to the established code of ethics, the practices and norms of the profession, as you now teach young students at the Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications, and have this role educating families, what are your thoughts on that trajectory? What do people need to understand about where we are today, and how this diversity of media and its relationship with the one kind of media called journalism, how does that all sit together?Ilana Lowery:
So looking at it from my own personal perspective, I'm all about progress, and innovation, and moving forward, and moving ahead. And so, and I love social media. I think there is a place for social media. I loved when Facebook launched and of course, you've already given everybody a good taste of what my age is, thank you very much, but when Facebook launched, or I guess I should say when Myspace launched, I had no desire. It was for kids, I didn't want to have any part of it. I didn't even consider it media. I'm not even sure when they started calling it social media. But Facebook came along, and I truly believed that in the beginning, I was using Facebook the way it was meant to be used, to connect with my family, to share funny stories with my friends, to reconnect with people from high school. That's largely how I still use it, right? Because of my journalism background, I very rarely will share news on any of my social media platforms, unless I know for a fact that it came from a legitimate news source, and by legitimate, I'm going back to the legacy media. I am going back to The Wall Street Journal, I am going back to NBC, or CBS, and it may sound a little old fashioned of me, but in my mind, those are the news outlets that have always done it right, or have always excelled at the news. And by that, I mean they actually have reporters going out and getting the stories, and talking to people, and they were real storytellers too back then. You have to understand that today, because of all the technology we have, journalism is far different than it was, and this is what I have a hard time teaching a lot of my students. They're wanting to do interviews over the phone. They're wanting to do interviews with email. They're wanting to, I hate to say, take the easy way out, because it's not really the easy way out, it's just the technological way out. And I have a hard time with that, because I need to look somebody in the face when I'm interviewing them. I feel like, at least if I'm talking to them on the phone, I can hear the inflections in their voice, I can hear the pauses, I can hear emotion. You can't do that on email, you can't do that with a DM. So I feel like in some ways, and we talk about this at Common Sense a lot, because we're not opposed to technology at all. We know for a fact that technology and media can be used for good. And so, the idea is, how do we teach, whoever it is we're teaching, whether it's educators, whether it's our parents, whether it's our children, how do we teach people how to use media for good? And TikTok, I think for the most part, I think is pretty fun, if people use it the way it was meant to be used. I also have a big problem with Big Tech company and their accountability on a lot of this stuff. So it is a huge question that you asked me, and I'm pretty sure that I didn't answer it at all, and I just gave you my opinion of what I thought. But going back to this idea of lots of different news sources, that's only one problem. The other problem, and Abbie touched on this briefly when she mentioned opinions, is there's a lot of different kinds of content. So when you're talking about anybody can be a publisher or anybody can publish content, that is so true and so frightening to me as a journalist, that looking at the types of content, you have everything from investigative journalism, to research studies is actually considered media or journalism. You've got blogs, which sometimes are considered opinion, it depends on the author. You've got the evening news. I mean, so there's so many different kinds of content that you have to be smart and you have to be informed about what you're seeing, what you're hearing, what you're sharing, rumors let's face it, word of mouth, rumors, not always true. So let's be a little more careful about the difference between fact and opinion, and being objective versus subjective, and having biases and all of that.Abbie Fink:
Well, and that's I think a point I want to drive home here as well, that there is a place in mainstream or traditional media for opinion, and it is usually defined and clearly stated if you open up your daily newspaper, it is the editorial board, or the letters to the editor, or the opinion page, and it is clearly stated that, "This is the opinion of the author, and is not reflective of the newspaper," or such. We used to see that on local news, television news. The newscast would end at 10:27, the screen would go dark, it would come back up, and it would be the general manager of the station who would say, "This is my opinion and not reflective of our station." So it was clearly defined. I think today, those lines are blurred, and it is more, and increasingly more difficult for a consumer, even the most educated, well-versed consumer to be able to make that distinction. All that being said, we all have the right to publish our opinions in whatever capacity. The distinction for me is when it is couched as news, and that its intent is to manipulate or create a situation that is not neutral and objective. And I think I read certain newspapers, I read certain magazines, I watch certain things on television, I stream certain podcasts, all that align with a viewpoint that I share. I believe that information to be truthful, and as you say, I am trusting in the process that it was fact-checked, and that there was multiple sources to create that story. And again, I'm not your general consumer of news, also having gone to journalism school in much the same time frame that you did as well, so those things were happening. But I remember being in my journalism class, and we were not allowed to turn in a story if we didn't have three sources, and if the answer was, "I couldn't find one," then you failed the paper. I mean, you could not do that. And we talk about that a lot in our business communications today as a public relations agency. When we issue news from a client, it is one-sided, but we fully expect the journalist that receives it to do something more with it than just take my word for it, right? And we have to explain that to our clients as well, that you are not the story, you are part of a story. You add to a story. We are there to provide additional information. A good journalist tries to find other sources. And so, if we think about that in that larger context, I loved what you said about being cynical, and being skeptical, and being critical. Those are all elements of being good at consuming information of any kind, right? You should go into it with a bit of cynicism and "Is this too good to be true?" Because as we know, if it sounds like it is, it probably is. And so, I'm intrigued by this idea about the aggregate of our communications, right? Whether we're consuming our news via a social media platform, whether we still subscribe and get the daily paper at our doorstep, or we are listening to some streaming radio program that we, the recipient of that information, have to be responsible enough to find other sources for what we're doing. And we should have an expectation that our friends in the media, media generally speaking, are doing everything they can to put forth factual, objective news, and if it isn't, it is opinion, and therefore needs to be placed in that category. And again, opinion is fine. It's just not necessarily should be taken as news sources. So I appreciate where you were headed with that, and I think as business leaders, and as those of us that are guiding conversations, that we owe it to those that we're talking to as well, to remind all of us of the responsibility of taking in this information. And Adrian, with your youngsters and you're having these conversations and allowing them to access information, it really does start as soon as we can start formulating our own opinions about taking a look and researching, and where else can we find some things out? Are there other places to be able to get the information to see if what we heard today is still accurate tomorrow.Adrian McIntyre:
One of the things that you and your organization both do is educate people on how to be those thoughtful, critical consumers, and you've outlined a number of specific points on your website, we'll link to that in the show notes, but I wonder if we could talk just about a couple of them. For example, it's easy for us to say, "Check your sources, examine the source of the information," but I don't know if that's a meaningful statement to somebody who's not a researcher or not a journalist, and doesn't really know what we mean. So for example, when the advice is to think about where news or content is coming from, can we give some specific guidelines here? What does that mean? How should somebody do that? How should they think about the source?Ilana Lowery:
Yeah, there's a couple of things. So you want to look for signs that that the source is legitimate and not fake, like go to the About us section and see what it says. Is it a standard URL? So is it a.com, for example, instead of a com.co? A lot of times, if you see the .com.co, I would watch out, because it's probably not a legitimate news site. You want to look at things like, for example, who's got the byline? Who wrote the story? Maybe do a quick search of that person to see do they actually exist? Do they work for a different publication? A lot of times, just that alone. Can you find them on LinkedIn? So that's another way, is looking at the byline. Of course, looking at the news source itself, what kinds of stories are on there? Look really closely at photos. A lot of times, these fake news sources will alter photos, and not in a good way. I mean, they don't do a good job at it. So their Photoshop skills are terrible and you can tell. And that's part of the reason why it's really scary when stories start getting shared on social media, and the example that I use with students a lot of times when we talk about really paying attention, is how many times have both of you, say on Facebook, and Adrian, I don't know if you're on Facebook, but I know Abbie is, you'll see somebody comment about somebody who died, like a Hollywood star or a famous person, and, "Oh, this is so sad, blah, blah, blah," and then you think to yourself, "Wait, I thought that person died six years ago." And you go look at the story, and the story was actually a legitimate story, and you look at the date of the story, and the date of the story, is a lot of times, from six years ago, because that's when the person actually died, but yet, somebody took it upon themselves to share it without reading the headline. So again, look at the actual story to see if it's legitimate, to see if it came from a legitimate source. And again, I have all kinds of charts and graphs that show the intersection of legacy media and good sources, and it's really funny, because I know Abbie talked about when she was younger and The National Enquirer. Well, you don't really hear much about The National Enquirer anymore. I mean, but it's still on the newsstands, if you can believe it. And things like Soap Opera Digest, those aren't legitimate news sources. That's not The Wall Street Journal, that's not Reuters, that's not The Associated Press. And I know Abbie mentioned this before too, but news organizations, the legitimate ones, they follow a certain code of ethics and they have professional standards, than most other publishers, and I'm using air quotes around "publishers," because it's just, it's in our blood as journalists. What we believe is that we want to be able to give people the information they need to live their lives, and we want that information to be accurate. And I'm only going to say one thing, one more thing, because I know we're running out of time, and Abbie made a point of saying when news is disguised, or is covered up and kind of made to look like a news story and it's really not, and when I was with The Business Journal, one of the things that aggravated me to no end was almost this... We always had advertorials, right? That's what they were called. They were advertorials, they were text, they were boxed, they were made to look different than the regular news, but that has all changed because of all of these publications having online content. And so, now when you see a flow of headlines, you don't always see the sponsored content that is in the lightest possible gray color and the smallest possible font available, so that when you click on it and you read it, you think it's a news story. Most people will think it's a news story, when in fact, it was an ad. They paid to have that put on the website. And so, I don't think even that industry, I don't think the advertising industry is doing anybody a favor by allowing their client's content to look like news.Adrian McIntyre:
For sure, the rise of what's now called branded content, which used to be called sponsored content, which was the truth about it, it gets much murkier and very hard to watch out for. Something you mentioned, and I think is really important, is the question we ought to all be asking ourselves, "What is this particular piece of content trying to do to me? What is it trying to get me to do? Is it trying to reach my head with information, with updates about things happening around me? Is it trying to reach my wallet by getting me to do or buy something? Is it trying to reach my heart or my gut? Is it trying to piss me off and make me even more upset about something?" I think whether something is seeking to inform us or inflame us, is really a distinction we ought to get better at recognizing. It's harder to do, because we get hooked by the emotion, but if I'm reading a story and I'm finding myself agreeing with everything, and I'm getting more and more upset as I read, I ought to actually pause and ask myself, "In whose interest is it that I'm upset right now, and why is the story being presented that way? Maybe this is not an objective source, because it's actually trying to make me do or feel a certain way, other than just straightforward information, to allow me to make good decisions."Abbie Fink:
Well, and that's the puzzle pieces of all of the things that come together to create a news outlet from advertising, news, editorial, and all of the blendedness that's been happening in the news business, is another 30 minute show to talk about the evolution of the news media and where that's going. But I think the bottom line here is that with a healthy dose of cynicism and skepticism, and asking a few questions, and doing your homework when you see something, and not relying on a single place to get particular pieces of information, makes us smarter news consumers, makes us more actively engaged in our communities, in the dialogue that's happening in our communities. And again, opinion has its place, and we need to encourage civil dialogue and civil opinions to be expressed, but when we're talking about news and those things that are meant to inform, and educate, and raise awareness, that's a very different type of platform. And those of us that come to it as consumers, those of us that work within it, all have to assume the responsibility to continue to do everything we can to maintain that level of objectivity, and that the sources that we have at our disposal, whatever side, or where you choose to get that information, is done with ethics, and integrity, and a sense of objectivity, and that makes us all media literate, to use Ilana's point, and much more of a smarter society as we are consuming the news that comes at us each day.Adrian McIntyre:
Abbie Fink is Vice-President and General Manager of HMA Public Relations, Arizona's oldest continuously operating PR firm. Ilana Lowery is Arizona Director for Common Sense Media, a long-standing leader in the journalism business, and currently on a mission to make us all better consumers of media and information. Thank you so much for joining us for this conversation.Ilana Lowery:
If you enjoyed today’s show, please find and follow Copper State of Mind in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or any other podcast app. You can also find the show online at HMAPR.com. For all of us here at PHX.fm, I’m Adrian McIntyre. Thanks for listening, and please join us for the next Copper State of Mind.