An ‘informed’ public

Increasingly I have been taking steps back from social media and news outlets.  The past year of political turmoil and increasing agitation have proven to me that there are members of our public that consistently rely on whatever information is given to them, regardless of the medium, sources or facts.

While many university classes were canceled nationwide following the election, I sent out reminders to my students, encouraging them to attend my class. In my classroom, my students are focused on creating advocacy projects: Using their immediate experience at certain service sites, they are currently creating proposals suited to persuade a particular audience of the need to become responsible to others and create a detailed plan for change.

Obviously, this assignment is in line with the Catholic Church’s teachings on service to others, which makes sense since I teach at a Jesuit university. Instead of workshopping my students’ proposals and focusing on the importance of revision, I decided to revisit a topic from early in the semester: the importance of analysis.

Rather than shying away from the election, I embraced it. We began class with my informing the students that, in the days to come, they would be bombarded by news stories and information on all sides of the political spectrum. They would be hearing contradictory stories, conflicting statistics and emotional appeals from individuals.

It’s easy to be persuaded with each story we hear: the election was rigged; there’s a loophole that would allow certain candidates to become president based on the electoral votes in January; and all manner of propaganda spouted in the days to come. My message was clear: they need to be prepared to do their own research in order to form their own opinions.

In class on Wednesday, Nov. 9, I asked them to pull up a “source” that was covering some aspect of the election. And then, I asked my students to guide me through a detailed analysis of that “source.” These were questions we’ve been discussing for the majority of the semester: How do we know whether our sources are credible? Where do we find specific types of information within a variety of source forms? What sources do our authors cite for evidence to support their claims?

As my students guided me through a process that has hopefully become something like an automatic response, they began to see my point. Many of the “sources” they had found consistently lacked evidence or credible sources for their evidence, were false sites of information, or – even worse – appeared to make sense until more research was done on the topic. Googling the authors revealed no background knowledge on the topic they were purportedly an expert on; researching the topic in more detail revealed gaps and inaccuracies in a source’s analysis or argument.

The point to my students was simple, and is a point recently made evident in a Huffington Post article on the importance of a well-informed public: the public is eager to read what they want to believe. As Matt Masur wrote in his article, “The most important thing in a functional society is a well-informed public. What we have now is not only uninformed but misinformed masses.” We can no longer rely on the media or the government to provide us with the information we need; we need to begin conducting our own research and analyzing the messages we receive to truly educate ourselves in order to serve others and create a well-informed public.

Heather Bozant Witcher can be reached

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