Where does your news come from? Who’s reporting it and what are their biases? Applying critical thought to media is imperative in today’s world, says APU communication professor Haytham Al-Rabeah. In this episode, he talks to Dr. Bjorn Mercer about why everyone must improve their media literacy, how to identify and address blind spots, and how algorithms essentially create echo chambers that limits and tailors information that people receive. Learn how to balance your media sources while also using the power of the internet to find new communities and groups that can aid in your own personal development and self-discovery.
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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and today we’re talking to Haytham Al-Rabeah, faculty in the School of Arts, Humanities, and Education. And today our conversation is about media literacy. Welcome, Haytham.
Haytham Al-Rabeah: Good to be here, Bjorn.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. This is a great conversation. We could literally have a dozen podcasts about media literacy and still have more to talk about. So to jump in, what is media literacy?
Haytham Al-Rabeah: That’s a great question. So I think everybody’s going to have a slightly different answer like with most of these things. To me, media literacy is understanding where we get news from essentially, where our stories are coming from, who’s telling them, how they’re getting around and how that affects society. Being critical about the world that we think we live in, and who’s telling us these facts. That’s what media literacy essentially is.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. So now as a communication professor and one that also focuses on digital communication and digital media, how do you approach media literacy?
Haytham Al-Rabeah: So, media literacy, I think, is rooted fundamentally in critical thinking, which is something that needs to be practiced beyond just media literacy. So learning to ask questions about the credibility of things, the different aspects and being able to weigh those things. So it’s really turning a critical eye toward media—how it’s created, basically what we’re consuming, what we’re believing in and things like that. So my approach is pretty basic, just fundamental critical thought applied to the stories that we hear.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I’m glad you brought up critical thought and critical thinking because one of the great skills that as adults we’re all supposed to develop is critical thinking and problem solving of course, too, and a dozen other critically important skills that we’re supposed to do.
But critical thinking is one of those things that is very difficult to develop, and each of us develops critical thinking you in different ways in our lives. So in one aspect of our life, we’ve got great critical thinking. And in other aspects in our lives, we’ll have this huge blind spot. Now, why do you think some people have a critical thinking blind spot when it comes to media literacy?
Haytham Al-Rabeah: Another great question. I get the feeling I’m going to be saying that a lot, Bjorn. I think it really depends, like so many things, the answer just depends. The problem with critical thinking is that it’s something conceptual that we then need to apply in different situations. And I think where people hit this wall is in the actual application.
And so these blind spots are basically not knowing either how or whether to apply critical of thinking to specific situations. And a lot of those come, in my opinion—and I don’t have any sources to back this right now—but they do come from beliefs that are either cultural, spiritual, personal experiences, things like that.
There’s this really cool thing that I explored during graduate school. They’re called schemas. And in psychology, we have these schemas in the brain, which are basically heuristic tools, shortcuts that we use to understand the world to make decisions. Like for most people, an example I always use is that when they think teacher, for many people, a woman comes up because they were just used to having lots of women teachers growing up.
And so we have these blind spots because we’ve accumulated so much knowledge about the world intuitively that we never thought to question. And that builds up into these huge blind spots, essentially.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s great. As you said, teacher, it really makes me think when I think of teacher, I do, I automatically think of a female. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t males. I taught K-6 music for one year and there was, I think, one male teacher in that entire elementary school. And then when my kids went to school, I think there was one or two. Now, one might ask why? But from a cultural perspective, males aren’t as encouraged to go into teaching.
And, so if you just look at that one example, that’s only one example. And then, put that on. So many other things, just like you said, with schema, we have certain ideas and schemas that are applied to different areas of our lives, different information, different situations and politics, of course.
And so this leads us to the next issue, and what are some issues when it comes to media literacy? And so we obviously started talking about critical thinking and schema, but what are some of issues that we see, well, unfortunately every day?
Haytham Al-Rabeah: Day-to-day, there’s lots of issues. Like you said, we can probably have 12 episodes on the same topic, because there are so many things to talk about in terms of issues. One of the big issues these days, and I’ll give you one that’s general and the one that’s more sort of locally applied.
One of the big ones is that we don’t seem to evaluate the sources of information, which is why when I say media literacy, it’s media literacy, it’s information literacy. In a lot of ways, they’re the same thing because you’re looking at well, what’s the source of information? Is there an agenda here? Are they trying to get me to act for some other purpose other than my own wellbeing? What’s the motivation? And all those questions. So that’s kind of a general issue, and we’ve seen this forever, but if we didn’t have these kinds of issues, we wouldn’t have things like, well, at least things like war wouldn’t be justified.
All these different contentions and animosities in the world probably wouldn’t exist simply because a lot of people are not credible sources and they say things that are untrue or slightly slanted in a direction or another.
So that’s kind of a general problem in terms of media and information literacy. More strictly these days with social media, this term has gained a lot of popularity over the last couple of years. There’s things called echo chambers. And the technology, I’m not sure they could have known where it was going to head, but these algorithms tend to feed us things that we already agree with, things that we’re looking for.
And so the problem is it’s almost anti-scientific. We’re starting with conclusions and then the algorithm supports those conclusions. The huge issue is the trust in the technology, and then you have people that understand the way that technology can be manipulated using that to inform audiences in ways that are divisive, ultimately.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It makes me think of just, well, I guess I can say my social media newsfeed. And one of the things I do is I try to read a variety of different articles. So I’ll read The Atlantic, The New York Times. I’ll read Fox News. I’ll read The Nation I think it is, reason.com, the Jacobin. I try to go right. I try to go left. I try to go center. I’ll read BBC and just to try to get so many different things, but then even my newsfeeds still gives me certain articles, even though I try to fool it.
But then, imagine if you aren’t thinking about trying to be balanced and you only choose certain articles that you already agree with, you’re only going to see the world through a viewpoint that fits your narrative, and that is not the world.
And that’s the weird thing is that when you watch the news, the news and the people that are supposed to inform us with hard facts, do a terrible job. Now, am I being too judgmental by saying they do a terrible job? Please correct me if I am.
Haytham Al-Rabeah: I don’t think you are. It’s such a long conversation, Bjorn, talking about how the watchdog of society, right? The fourth arm, the press, how they failed. The fact is America has a very long and rich history in yellow journalism, which is tabloids, which is telling stories just to make money. And so it’s not like this is unknown to us. It’s happening in Europe before it happened here around the same time. I mean, this is stuff that’s international, and it’s not unknown in society.
If we kind of go back and look at the history of journalism, there hasn’t been a very, very long stint of what you might call honest journalism that is full of integrity. There have been blips. And if you follow the money, unfortunately it will, I’m not going to go too much farther than that, but you kind of have to follow the money. And if being honest made them enough money, they might be more honest, but-
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I completely agree. And in previous podcasts with say, Allison Slade, we’ve talked about social media and two-point media literacy. And channels like Fox, MSNBC, or CNN, I will say you follow the money. They have created a product that goes for their demographic. And so they only have to make around, I think, 5-6 million people happy, consistent people, maybe up to 10 that watch their shows.
If you’re talking about a country of 330 million, and you’re really only catering to 10 million, you’re catering to 2% of the population. And then what happens is that message that goes to 2%, then a larger percentage think gets to true. And again, you can have news from a certain perspective. You say a factual event occurs. There’s some great studies at media bias that shows like Fox News, the actual news, and say, CNN, NBC news, report it relatively correctly, but with a more “conservative” or more “liberal” perspective.
But then what confuses people is when they start watching Tucker or all the other things on CNN and MSNBC, I can’t remember their names, where that’s not news. That’s opinion journalism. It’s just opinion. And so they translate the world through their opinion. And so then people think that that is the news when it’s not.
Haytham Al-Rabeah: Totally agreed. And actually, the thought crossed my mind that a lot of news these days, essentially it’s op-ed, right? It’s their opinions. It’s extremely editorialized, and they’re not hard facts necessarily. And this might be outside of the scope of this particular episode, but this is part of the dangers I see in a world where people are so, I don’t want to use the term illiterate per se, but where media literacy isn’t taught in schools extensively, especially K-12, right? I mean, we’re still trying to get critical thinking to be really strong outcomes in K-12.
So I’m not surprised, but media literacy isn’t a strength for a lot of people, even for people that think very literate because, oh, they question the man or whatever it might be. You need to question everything, not just the stuff that you disagree with, but that’s a different story too.
In this world where people are not as media literate as I think we should be, it scares me that we are producing journalists, that we’re putting other people into this media complex, this media industry, who think that interpreting the facts, editorializing them and telling these stories is reporting the news. I think it’s dangerous because we’re just essentially reinforcing the machinery of media bias.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I love that because I think from a most people, they need to recognize the fact that there is a media bias and it comes to demographics. So I’m not really sure, this sounds funny, who watches Fox or CNN or MSNBC anymore. Because the only time I ever see it is when I travel and well, because of COVID I haven’t travel in a while.
But it seems like a lot of those stations are on people who used to have cable or “older demographic,” which again, there’s nothing wrong with that, but if you are watching it, if you have it on all day, you have to know that a good percentage of filling up 24 hours a day is opinion journalism. Just like you said, it’s op-ed.
And so when you watch those op-ed, you read it just like you read The New York Times op-ed or The Wall Street Journal op-ed. It’s somebody’s opinion. But the problem is that you get these charismatic people and then they speak real nice. And so you get used to it and they sound just so intelligent and researched to a point they are and you can take part of their arguments as legitimate, but then there’s other things that they just go off the deep end and they’re pushing things that have no constructive purpose.
Haytham Al-Rabeah: Yeah. And not to get too abstract here, Bjorn, and knowing you, you really like philosophy, so I know we can probably dive into this for a long time, but we’ll try not to. Every human alive has the ability and some would argue even the responsibility to construct their reality to see the world accurately and act ethically within it.
And the problem with taking other people’s opinions as fact and acting on those opinions as if they are some sort of gospel, we take that responsibility from ourselves and we take the ability to sort of forge our own realities and the world as we see fit.
Now that can be applied in a good way or a bad way. I just wish sometimes that people were more honest with themselves and consuming biased news keeps you from being fully honest with yourself, which keeps you from being as impactful a person in your own world. And that’s kind of sad.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I completely agree. I will one-up you by saying everything is fake and everything is made up. And that probably sounds funny, but from a philosophical perspective, all of the cultural schemas we have are made up, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with us inheriting certain cultural ideas and societal ideas or inheriting the government that we live in. These are all things that because we exist, that’s what happened.
And so the critical thinker though says, “Okay, what did I inherit? Where did it come from? How is it helping? What does help mean?” If you go down the philosophical rabbit hole, you start questioning everything, which is also a good thing.
When it comes to media literacy, where is a good place to start? Is there a source of news that is more fair and balanced than say the big three that people usually get. Should people turn on BBC because it’s an English source, or DW because it’s a German source, or the Japanese source that I can’t remember, I apologize, because it’s translating American news through other eyes, or are they equally biased because of other reasons?
Haytham Al-Rabeah: I can’t say for sure that they’re equally biased and I hesitate to make that kind of a recommendation. I assume that everybody’s biased to some extent. I don’t have the numbers to say which ones more or less. I’ve heard good things about international news. One that comes up a lot, especially for millennials and Gen Zers is Al Jazeera. That one comes up a lot as a recommended source, but I’m sure they have their biases and whatever segments that are most relevant to them. So I do hesitate to recommend any particular news source.
What I do like to recommend for those that want to dive deep into an issue, my whole thing is before you make a decision, and that decision could be to believe something or it could be to act on something, before you make that decision, just question the sources that you’re using to make that decision. In terms of practical application, just question what’s leading you to this before you actually commit to doing it.
And if you want to dive of into that rabbit hole, especially for students at APU, AMU, we have access to the library, peer-review journals. We can dive into more scientific literature that can maybe be more enlightening than these interpretations that we hear on the media that are often wrong. So that’d be the approach. Maybe it’s slightly academic, but in a world that just it’s filled with so many options and so many people begging you to believe so many different things that seem to be contradicting each other, I would definitely recommend diving into academic literature more if you really want to know and questioning up before you commit to making a decision to believe or to act on a belief.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Absolutely excellent. And so Haytham, this brings me to the next question is, what happens when you start questioning something that say your family believes in or your group or your community truly believes in? How do you then come to a place to where you can be okay with that? If that makes sense, because there’s a lot of social pressures for people to conform.
Haytham Al-Rabeah: Bjorn, I love that question. Absolutely love it because you have a lot of people that go down this path of self-discovery and of critical thinking, just personal growth. And in that process, you find yourself disagreeing with a lot of things that you grew up with, that you believe, that your society around you believes, that your group believes, and it’s easy to feel isolated. And it doesn’t matter.
I mean we can apply this to thinking differently on religious terms, discovering a different part of your identity. For a lot of people, it’s sexuality. For a lot of people, it’s maybe atheism or finding faith or losing faith, whatever you want to call it. When you divert from what is local, it’s easy to feel isolated.
And I think the response just, it depends on how people take it around you. There’s some people that will just accept it and leave you be. For those that don’t, then you need to find a safe place. If I’m being completely honest about it, sometimes there is violence. Sometimes there’s issues that come up, but one feels like they must stay true to themselves.
And one thing that I loved about my own journey of self-discovery and personal development, if you will, is I discover there are other people going through the same thing at the same time. Your journey converges with so many other people’s journeys and you just have to find them. And that’s one of the beautiful things about the internet and one of the reasons that the internet has been so successful in terms of enabling activists and starting movements, is that it lets us find other people that are in the same place as us in life and work together and support each other and build these new segments in society.
So for people that are in this path of critical thought, self-discovery, personal development, I just encourage them to go online. There’s thousands of subreddit threads. There’s lots of Facebook groups where the question you’re asking yourself has been asked. And forming those societies can be a saving grace for other people like you going through the same thing, trying to figure things out.
So it kind of goes back to social media, the good and the bad of it. It allows people to sort of rally around ideas. And if that idea is coming from a good source, if it’s a great idea that has good backing, that’s a good thing. And if it doesn’t, that can be dangerous, but that’s kind of the beauty of it.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And thank you for saying that. One of the things that I always encourage people is to explore different ideas, different thought processes, different belief systems. And it doesn’t mean that at the end of the day, you’re going to change your belief system. There’s a transition and a growth and reflection that all people have to go through.
Example: if you’re a person of faith, you have to question your faith, or else you will be just following your faith without thought. And if you look at Fowler’s six stages of faith development, stage one through six, a lot of people get stuck at stage three, which is basically just “I believe” and that’s it. Excellent book for anybody who wants to look at it.
And then that can be applied to so many different things, politics also, and to question what you believe or what you have followed, especially what you learned as a teenager. For some reason, a lot of what we learn as a teenager sticks with us are entire lives. And then sometimes we have to question like, “Wait, is this mythology? Is this just something I learned back when I was 14 and it never just came out of my brain? Or is this something that is real?” And further investigation and research is always important.
Now, one question which is tough, which deals with people in-person or online, why is it so difficult to interact with people who just think they’re right? And it’s a simple question, but if you’re on Twitter, everybody thinks they’re right. And my whole thing from a philosophic perspective is stop and imagine you are completely wrong about a topic. How would that change your view? So why do you think everybody has such bravado in thinking they’re right?
Haytham Al-Rabeah: I think Twitter’s prone to that because it’s where people go to scream about things. And a lot of people feel like they need to hold their ground to be heard because other people are holding their ground and being oppressive or whatever it might be. And so I think in a lot of ways, that’s what happens in places like Twitter. It’s that place where everybody gets their soapbox. They can yell about things. And that’s the place to do that. I think it’s become the place to do that. So not to say that it’s in vogue to do it, well, that way in Twitter, but that’s what it’s become.
I don’t think that everybody does that on all platforms. I’m not sure that everybody does in a real life, but it does lead to the question of the things that we let people get away with, the behaviors we let people get away with on social media. Are they going to translate into real life at some point? I’m sure they will at least to some extent, but there is a certain etiquette and a certain culture that develops on specific platforms, and I think Twitter has just sort of developed that way.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I find Twitter fascinating because it is a valuable social media. It “democratizes” communication, because literally you can tweet out and it could go around the world. World leaders can see your tweet or be potentially influenced.
But at the same time, according to Pew Research, almost all the tweets come from 10% of users. These super users basically tweet out most content on Twitter. And then typically Twitter is younger and typically Twitter is more liberal. Now all these things are just facts. That’s fine.
But then the media, going back to media literacy, media should not use then Twitter as examples of what people think all the time, where you’re watching a news story and they’re like, “Here’s some tweets from Twitter,” and it’s like, “Yeah, but have you ever talked about what the demographic of those Twitter users are?” Because it can seriously skew their reporting, yet rarely do they talk about their own skewed reporting. Now can you say a few words about Reddit? Now, Reddit is one of those platforms that people I think have heard about, but they don’t understand. Why is it both amazing and a little fuzzy?
Haytham Al-Rabeah: So to all listeners out there, we haven’t practiced these questions. So I don’t have canned answers for that. So you’re going to hear the thought process out loud. So one of the things, and Twitter’s been through many phases, it’s evolved a lot. And I think that one of the things it was always good at was letting people sort of explore and discuss things openly. It was like, it essentially is a forum, but like an enhanced forum. And you can find all kinds of information, and there’s a lot of rabbit holes, which is probably one of the issues that it faces is the rabbit holes.
These days, one of the issues that Reddit faces is politics, just platform politics. You hear about subreddits getting just shut down for things. You hear about these mobs that form on these niched subreddits kicking people out, moderators that are overzealous. Stuff like that happens because it does put power in people’s hands, which can be good or bad, sort of like Twitter does.
I tend to see Reddit that’s probably one of the better ones. I think if I had to choose a social media that I thought was most useful, that probably would be Reddit. I don’t think it has as many issues as something like Facebook or Twitter or maybe even Instagram. It is a lot more democratic. Up until recently, it was a lot less gamified as well or gamified, however you guys like to pronounce that word.
And so it didn’t have so much that addictive user experience where, I’m sure some people do scroll for hours, but not like Facebook. You hear about people scrolling on Facebook for three hours and they disassociate while they’re scrolling. And Reddit, in my experience, I haven’t really felt it as much, having used most of the platforms, and it’s just been really informative.
But on the other hand, sure, you don’t know where information’s coming from, same as with any of social media. You get people that jump in anonymously. Your face isn’t attached to your profile. So people could just jump in, and you hear about this a lot. Actually, Twitter, sorry, Reddit and Twitter have been huge sort of we’ll call them mechanisms, right? But they’ve been really big in these cryptocurrency pump and dumps where people come in and say, “Hey, latest cryptocurrency. It’s going to go to the moon. You’re going to be a millionaire.” There’s all these crypto scams that people promise the moon. And then they have a bunch of people spend hundreds of thousands on this cryptocurrency that’s basically pointless. They cash out. And then all these people are left with the bill.
Those are the kind of issues that I’ve seen on Reddit personally, lots of scammers, the credibility’s in question, people’s faces aren’t attached. Not that on Facebook you can’t put a fake picture, but you have to put a picture. Right? So the anonymity can be an issue, but that’s kind of me spitballing some of the issues. I still don’t know that it’s as problematic day-to-day as Facebook in terms of the echo chambers that it creates.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That’s great because everybody’s familiar with Facebook. Everybody’s familiar with Twitter. I think most people are familiar with Instagram, and TikTok is more specific about what it actually does, but Reddit is one of those that is always discussed, but I think more people aren’t as familiar with it.
And another podcast which we can talk about is how should these platforms be potentially regulated? I think most people will say, “No regulation, let the market decide.” But the problem is that, and you can see this when Facebook and Google leadership have been interviewed at Congress, the average congressperson has no idea how those things work or the internal policies or just how they truly influence the largest society besides through their own biased, political leanings. And so truly regulating, I guess I can say social media in a way that is common sense, I have to question if non-politicians can do that. Any comments about that?
Haytham Al-Rabeah: Yeah. I definitely agree. And you see these things and anybody who’s on Facebook, we’ve seen videos of ignorant congressmen and Congress people sort of yelling at the young tech entrepreneur about things they don’t understand. And it’s beyond understanding the internal policies or the technology. They just don’t culturally sometimes seem to understand the point and they don’t understand the implications because they are in these sort of ivory towers. They’re separated. They’re the ones that influence the news in the first place. So I don’t know that they’re as affected and they don’t understand sort of the news cycle for regular people and how people consume media because that’s just not their lifestyle. So they’re separated in so many ways, not just generationally.
And yeah, then they have their political leanings, but it’s clear they don’t get it. And I think it’s, I’ve seen other platforms are starting to self-regulate and I think that’s the smart move, self-regulation. You don’t want the government to kick-in, especially people that don’t understand the tech. They don’t understand the culture. They don’t understand the point. You don’t want them regulating what they don’t understand. I would imagine, right? I’ve seen sort of an uptake in self-regulation, which I think is fantastic and hopefully that kind of quells these fears in Congress and satisfies users and makes them feel safe as they’re using these platforms.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And at the end of the day, you could just not use it. You really have to think, how should I use this? How should I use this in my life? Is this a positive force in my life? Because that’s a real good question. Scrolling and sharing images with friends, do you want those images to be shared out to tens of thousands of people who don’t know who you are? You should really think about that before you post anything. And so really great conversation, Haytham. Any final words?
Haytham Al-Rabeah: I enjoyed the conversation a lot, Bjorn. I think maybe we should do this again and expand on some of the topics we covered. Last words. So I’m going to throw this out there. I’m not going to call this a plug, but one of the assignments that we do in some of our communications courses, we sort of litter this throughout the program, is called an annotated bibliography. And I bring this up because it’s one of the places in my classes where I feel like we’re very clearly showing people this is what critical thinking looks like. It’s about questioning your sources. It’s about looking at how valid a source is for what you’re trying to write and things like that. And it’s one of those frameworks that it’s just critical thinking applied to writing and to research. There’s one that I like to use and called The Radar. You guys can look up, but it helps you sort of figure out how good and how useful is a source for a conversation.
So I’ll throw that out there and last words, it’s I don’t like the phrase, “Think for yourself.” You should definitely think for yourself, but you should also think critically. And I think if you don’t know the difference, just go ahead and look it up, understand what it is to question all your assumptions, understand what it is to question other people’s assumptions and motives. Because thinking for yourself but with a bias isn’t really as useful as thinking critically about things. That’s how we change the world.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. Really great final words, and it’s important. Annotated bibliography is a, first of all wonderful assignment, and it’s a really good thing to do just in life to really think about the sources. And so today we’re speaking with Haytham Al-Rabeah about media literacy. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and thank you for listening.