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The Media: literacy, bias, and ethics

What is truth?  Where can we find it?  How do we recognize it?  In 2018, these questions are more difficult than ever to answer, especially when we consume the news.  These questions of truth dominate our first case study of the semester: media literacy, bias, and ethics.  Along the way, our students meet with three leading media figures from very different backgrounds, and gain tools to help them through the “fake news” era. 

The Infamous Skittles Scenario, which always begins our opening case study, is an SEGL tradition.  A hands-on state-of-nature simulation that has students scurrying after plastic bags of candy and cackling with delight or dismay at 3×5 “Chance” cards, the simulation is an engaging introduction to ethical decision making.  (What would you do, after all, if there were no rules and limited resources?  Would you use that gun you found?  Help out a suddenly-blind friend?  Lie?  Join a makeshift band of marauders?)  The conversation that followed was both high-energy and reflective.

We then gave the students an introduction to classic Western ethical theory–Aristotle, Kant, and John Stuart Mill–a 20 minute lecture punctuated by excellent student questions.  (Over the course of the semester, the students will gain ethical decision making tools from other traditions.)

On Wednesday, we turned our focus to the media.  Our first exercise helped students understand the challenge of modern news production and consumption: after asking each student to write down the news sources she or he used most, we asked all students to arrange those sources on a matrix.  On the “x axis” of that matrix was the liberal-conservative spectrum; on the y-axis how reliable each source was.  The results were fascinating and showed both assumptions and blind spots in our group’s favorite news sources; it also helped create many questions for our guest experts.

We also did specific prep work for one of our guest speakers this week, Tucker Carlson. Carlson made international headlines (and may have influenced the Trump Administration’s foreign policy) just a few days ago.  A piece he did on white South African farmers earned accusations of inaccuracy from a variety of news outlets (for example, here and here); as such, it served as a compelling mini-case for our students.  We began by showing the piece, unedited, along with President Trump’s Tweeted response and the relevant clip of the State Department briefing the following morning.  In groups representing different media outlets (pro-Trump, anti-Trump, and nonpartisan), the students then researched the Tucker Carlson piece’s accuracy and the actual South African policy, and then delivered the opening lines of their imaginary outlet’s treatment of the controversy.  Each group also displayed the sources they used to make their presentation.  Afterwards, we discussed the issues we discovered, working hard to agree on the truth.  We’re certain Mr. Carlson will receive some tough questions as a result, and that the questions the students uncovered will echo throughout the semester.

On Wednesday, we welcomed three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eric Schmitt.  Among other distinctions, Schmitt was the New York Times‘ main contact for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and once climbed into Saddam Hussein’s final hiding place (without permission!).  Schmitt has ample experience wrestling with the ethical issues our case study raised.  The students heard several intense stories, his take on the current media landscape, and his advice for news readers in the “fake news” era.

On Thursday night, we were scheduled to visit DC’s Fox News headquarters for a live taping of Tucker Carlson Tonight.  One of the only media personalities to work for all three of the major cable news networks, Carlson took over the 9pm weeknight time slot from Megyn Kelly when she left for NBC last year.  We decided to reschedule after coverage from a John McCain memorial and a Trump rally pre-empted his show; we’ll see him in a couple of weeks.

In a few weeks we will also meet with Abby Phillip, a CNN White House correspondent with direct experience covering the Trump White House.  Together, we hope these three speakers will give students a well-rounded understanding of and avenues for further exploration of media ethics in the “fake news” era.

Saturday morning brought our first “Saturday Academy” (a twice-monthly visit to a noted DC landmark): a trip to the Newseum, where students saw pieces of the Berlin Wall and World Trade Center, the famous Pulitzer Prize-winning photo exhibit, and countless other artifacts.  (The Newseum itself was recently in the news for its own ethical decision making!)

Next up: the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict!

Sep 3, 2018

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