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Do you think of “Saturday Night Live” as propaganda? What about those commercials of sad-looking puppies in cages that can’t be helped “without your support”? 

Screenshot 2017-04-07 06.32.15.pngRecently, I talked to Emily Green about media literacy and contemporary propaganda. She’s a writer from Portland’s Street Roots, a weekly magazine that fights homelessness by creating income opportunities as catalysts for personal and social change.

At a time when the line between news and propaganda seems to be increasingly blurred, we talked about ways to recognize and combat the propaganda that seems to be coming at us from all sides. I’ve excerpted from the interview below: you can read the whole piece on the Street Roots website. 

Emily Green: First, a personal question: What is it about the pursuit of media literacy that attracted you?

Renee Hobbs: I have a complex love-hate relationship with print, sound, visual and digital media. I’ve always found that I enjoy a movie more if I get the chance to talk about it with others. That’s also true for listening to music, watching TV and especially reading a newspaper. I believe that when people use media intentionally and purposefully, they get more pleasure from it – and they have higher expectations for what they consume and create. When I come across really well-produced websites, blog posts, videos or news, I am deeply appreciative. But then there’s all that dreck that drenches us with its superficiality and sensationalism. Ultimately, we have to have higher expectations of our media system in order for it to meet our culture’s real needs.

E.G.: Earlier this month, you were the keynote speaker at a United Nations Alliance of Civilizations event titled “Media and Information Literacy: Educational Strategies for the Prevention of Violent Extremism.” This branch of the U.N. was launched in December 2015 to counter xenophobia, racism and narratives of hatred in the media. I wanted to ask you about your thoughts on media literacy worldwide, gleaned from this conference or through other channels. Are you seeing any notable trends in propaganda? Are there any major differences in the way different populations consume media, and is there anything unique about the fake news phenomenon we are seeing in the U.S.?

R.H.: Propaganda is on the rise around the world. There’s a big increase in the amount of “positive propaganda,” which is created by nonprofit organizations and governments and activists to address issues of social, political and economic concern, including issues like xenophobia, racism, poverty, homelessness, domestic violence, violent extremism, LGBTQ rights and more. Today, all over the world, people are using media on their mobile devices, and this means they are a bit more distracted and distractible. It’s challenging to read deeply if you’re using media “in between” doing other things. This practice tends to reinforce the use of media to reinforce our existing beliefs, to amuse and to entertain, rather than to learn new things or take social action. The term “fake news” has been co-opted beyond all recognition here in the U.S., but in its original formulation, the planting of false news stories as a means of disinformation has been growing all over the world, particularly in Eastern Europe where a campaign to destabilize people’s generally positive views of Western democracies is used to justify oppressive authoritarian governments. What’s unique in the U.S. is that our president has called The New York Times (arguably the best newspaper in the world) a form of fake news, even as he appears to be getting his policy briefings from “Fox and Friends.”

I respond to other great questions from Emily, including

  • E.G.: In New Mexico, lawmakers have introduced a bill to hold a hearing where they would decide how to best teach media literacy in the classroom. Are American public schools currently doing a good job of teaching children how to decipher news from propaganda?
  • E.G.: You’ve studied media literacy education in Turkey. What can the U.S. learn from Turkey’s program and other media literacy programs in other countries?
  • E.G.: “The Brainwashing of My Dad” is a documentary in which a woman explores how listening to right-wing talk radio and watching Fox News may have changed her dad’s beliefs and personality. He became angry and non-receptive to all other news sources. She met many others who had friends and relatives this had also happened to. Here at Street Roots, we were talking about this movie, as we interviewed its director a while back, and as it turned out, many of us also had an older relative who was engrossed in Fox News or right-wing talk radio and had changed, not positively, because of it.
  • Let’s say you have an older relative who exclusively watches Fox News. This person is convinced that all other forms of mainstream media news are fake or misleading, and that only Fox News “tells it like it is.” How would you help someone like this to see the error of his or her ways without putting them on the defensive?
  • E.G.: What about a Facebook friend you might have, who is always sharing bogus stories in their thread. What advice would you give this person on how to check the validity of an unfamiliar source – let’s say a website – before sharing the stories it publishes?
  • E.G.: I also wanted to ask you about what you have called “dynamic content.” Can you tell our readers what this is and how media consumers can avoid having a limited perspective because of it?

Read the full interview here. We’re thrilled to have this talented journalist be part of the Portland media literacy community! Email Street Roots staff writer Emily Green at emily@streetroots.org. Follow her on Twitter @GreenWrites.

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