As the delta variant of COVID-19 sweeps across the country, cases and hospitalizations are on the rise, especially in places with relatively low vaccination rates. And there’s real and growing concern that misinformation flourishing in some of those places is having a direct effect on people’s health care decisions.
But one tool that could help cut through that misinformation is media literacy. Yvonnes Chen, who researches media literacy and health at the University of Kansas, told Texas Standard that giving people the tools to better discern fact from fiction in the media they consume could help them make better decisions about their health.
“I think it’s important to understand the purpose of each media messages and the motives behind each media producer. And it’s also important to recognize that each media message has its own values and viewpoint,” Chen said.
Knowing your own level of media literacy is the first step toward being a smarter consumer of health news and information. Chen says everyone should ask themselves whether they feel confident determining facts from falsehoods. And they should also be mindful about what they are reading, watching, listening to and engaging with online.
“When everyone reads a piece of news story, it’s important to think about, hmm, who writes that? What is the media organization behind it? What could be the potential media organization’s motives and, perhaps, viewpoints? What about the author: does the author have enough knowledge and background information to be informed enough to tell me more about what I need to know about this piece?” Chen said.
These are all crucial questions to ask, especially during the pandemic. Chen says while many factors, like religious beliefs and education, can contribute to a person’s health care decisions, the media one consumes can also play an important role.
“We certainly see that the consumption of misinformation, especially staying in a siloed media environment, does have an impact on people’s hesitancy toward vaccination as well as their general understanding of the mask mandate,” Chen said.
Anyone can improve their media literacy, at any age, Chen says. But there are programs aimed at teaching media literacy to high schoolers in English classes. The approach is similar to literary criticism, she says, in which a student is taught to take into account an author’s background and the place and time in which they wrote a particular piece to more fully understand its message.
Chen says developing media literacy, including a healthy dose of skepticism, is important for people’s overall health during the pandemic and beyond.
“Media literacy can be applied to a number of contexts, including substance-use prevention, sugar-sweetened beverages … obesity, nutrition education,” she said. “The thing is, when we feel like we have known enough, we actually do not know much at all. And I think media literacy embodies this attitude that everyone has the capacity to develop.”