by Amanda Muntz
2008: I was 10. I looked away from the television, where Fox News was broadcasting the election results. My father shook his head in disbelief.
“Well, that’s it, folks. Barack Obama has just been elected the 44th president of the United States of America.”
My father, who prides himself on being a “constitutionalist,” went on: “Well, he’s got America fooled.” And: “You’re living in a totally different world now, Amanda.”
I was too young to process what was going on, but I trusted my parents and I believed that Obama could only be bad for this country. Back then, I thought of the government as an immoral institution that didn’t have the majority’s best interest in mind.
2017: At 19, I now recognize that I lived in a political bubble. It took a move and a new school to start broadening the views that I was exposed to. And when I began an internship with the News Literacy Project, I realized that if I had been taught at a younger age what I learned this summer, I would have been spared a long and rocky road to reaching an understanding of news literacy. NLP taught me how to properly check citations for credibility and to research facts across different sources. This ability alone has made sifting through large amounts of information much more manageable and efficient.
As a child, I’d hear members of my extended family mutter “socialist devil” and yell “Oh, all you do is lie!” whenever they saw Obama on television. I was never exposed to anything positive about the president and his family until I moved from Austin, Texas, to New York City at age 16.
The students at my new high school were more liberal than my classmates in Texas, and, over time, I saw that although I had been raised as a conservative, I had no idea what I truly thought about politics. My new friends would discuss Obama, and I recognized that I knew nothing about his administration or policies. I had heard at home that nothing he said could be believed, and I knew that most people who were close to me couldn’t stand him. But once I came to the realization that their opinions weren’t necessarily mine, I decided to take a step back.
I stopped talking about the president. I figured I had no business expressing an opinion that I wasn’t even sure was mine. I started to lower the defenses I had been taught to put up when listening to or about Obama.
Instead, I began reading articles from news outlets across the political spectrum. And I entered my senior year of high school with this conclusion: I had absorbed too much vitriol against Obama and his administration to have an unbiased opinion. That possibly wasn’t the right lesson to take away; in hindsight, I see that I wasn’t equipped with the educational tools to know how to sift through the immense amount of information I was reading or how to distinguish news — facts presented impartially — from opinion, which can be fact-based but also include personal views or even advocacy. However, it did lead me to have the confidence to say, “Honestly, I don’t have enough unbiased information on that issue to have an opinion that I’m comfortable sharing right now.”
I didn’t know it then, but I was taking my first steps toward news literacy.
I began to hear people with opposing views, instead of just listening for the sake of arguing against them. I wasn’t afraid to acknowledge when someone made a good point, and I learned to disagree with a degree of curiosity — wanting to hear their response, rather than to pick a fight. I began to tell the difference between news and opinion.
Those skills became increasingly important when it came time for the 2016 presidential election — the first election I could vote in.
I was in my first year at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. Between the polarized political atmosphere across the United States and the largely liberal environment on campus, I became increasingly frustrated with people simply parroting what they found on their Facebook feeds or other social media platforms. While I’m glad there are places online for everyone to share their opinion, I wish my peers wouldn’t read every Tumblr rant as if it were a Pulitzer Prize-winning news report. Amid all this chaos, I knew it was up to me to make an informed decision.
So I put two cable news outlets — CNN and Fox News — to the test. I livestreamed the Republican National Convention with friends, so there were no commercial breaks or commentary. For the Democratic National Convention, I decided to go back and forth between Fox and CNN. To avoid leaning left, I tried to watch more of the commentary on Fox. The results were not comforting.
What I found was that while CNN aired most of the speeches and the comments were generally positive, Fox didn’t even show half of the people at the podium. Instead, the Fox reporters and commentators were drowning them out — talking over them about topics that the speakers weren’t even discussing. As the first night of the convention came to an end, and more prominent figures such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Michelle Obama took the stage, Fox finally started to stick with the speakers. I found myself wondering how CNN’s coverage during the Republican convention compared with this.
I didn’t stop there. I enrolled in government and economics classes. I began reading articles from a variety of news outlets, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. I finally started to develop my own political opinions — and am finding that I’m more progressive on social issues and more conservative on fiscal ones.
News literacy is — and should be — an increasingly pressing concern in today’s world of social media and endless platforms for opinions. The lack of awareness of fake news and heavily biased news is what attracted me to accept an internship at the News Literacy Project. Being an intern at NLP has taught me how to properly sift through information and how to truly reach my own conclusion by checking facts and reading across multiple sources. Throughout this summer, I’ve seen what a difference these lessons can make.
I particularly urge high school and college students to try to make the distinction between news and opinion and begin implementing news literacy in their everyday lives. While it’s important to listen to different people and hear their points of view, it is even more important to process this information and formulate your own opinions. The News Literacy Project provides an excellent platform to begin educating yourself and others.
Wesleyan University student Amanda Muntz is studying international law and globalization at the University of Birmingham in England. This article first appeared on the website of The News Literacy Project.