Recently an article was brought to my attention that got my goat. Without getting into details (it was education related), the piece had a headline that began with the words “Research Shows…” and indicated that the reader would be surprised to find out what the research concluded, in a “we’ve been wrong all this time” kind of manner.
But the headline was misleading, if not the research too. It purported to claim that research had disputed something that previously had been widely accepted as best practice in the education world. If one actually reads the article carefully, the opposite turns out to be true, but it’s hard to grasp it the way it is presented. The actual research was, in my opinion, unnecessary, but what really got me into a tizzy was that its conclusions were presented in a way that, if one did not read the piece carefully or fully understand the topic, entirely misled readers.
Here’s how it worked. The headline told part of the story, which made it technically true, but since it did not tell another, crucial part of the story, it was misleading. The reader could have finished the story thinking, “Well, so much for what I’ve been told all these years.” The thing is, the research did not dispute the current common practice; in fact, it affirmed it. The story was written in a manner that intentionally obfuscated the details. The obfuscation made the results of the research sound more interesting than they actually were, but did so in a way that left readers not just confused, but thinking the research concluded something it didn’t.
The writer of the piece may not have been out to mislead his or her readers, but was likely making an effort to attract the attention of as many readers as possible, and make the topic more interesting. The author did not take into account the complete meaning of the story, or its implications. Unfortunately, since this piece discussed modern teaching practices, it will leave some educators wrongfully questioning the validity of the work they do. And that, sadly, can have a large, detrimental impact on teaching practices, and ultimately, the learning that happens in our schools.
I found myself speaking out loud to the publishers. “You know not what you write.”
The piece was written and presented to attract readers, and is a vivid example of sensationalism, and we see it, and fall for it, all the time. Sensationalism is what allows our president to refer to major news media sources as “fake news,” because sensationalized news and fake news, while not the same, are related. There is a major difference between news that is made up or false, and news that is sensationalized as click bait, but both mislead their readers. They both result from a form of dishonesty, and in turn are manipulated by another dishonest source (our president), and presented as the same thing: Fake news.
Media consumers can and must, really, do something about this, and that is to be honest with ourselves as we consume media. The piece I mentioned earlier was brought to my attention by a smart friend and colleague. “What do you think about this?” I was asked. That is how to be honest with one’s self as a media consumer. If it seems surprising or odd, do some research, or at least see if you can find out the truth by discussing it with trusted friends and colleagues.
We are living in a complicated world, there is no denying that. Complicated isn’t always bad, though. Complicated things require us to be more careful, pay more attention, and I argue, to be more honest with ourselves. Do I really need this ice cream? Do I need this expensive musical instrument? Maybe. I hope so, anyway. Is it possible I am a victim of clever advertising and/or materialism? Sensationalism takes its victims the same way. If you think you might be a victim of dishonest or sensationalistic media, try to be honest with yourself and ask the important questions. Talk about it and maybe do some research before you take a firm position or spread the potentially dishonest information.