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Webster scholars push for move from 'media nihilism' to media literacy amid digital pitfalls, silos

Undergraduate Deja Lawson (at left), adjunct instructor Jessica Bellomo (center) and emeritus communications professor Art Silverblatt shared strategies for navigating an age of information overload and polarization.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

Jessica Bellomo has long made a point to instruct her Webster University students on the importance of media literacy. But in recent semesters, she’s found it necessary to flip the emphasis of those lessons.

“A few years ago … they’d start off believing everything – believing too much, and I’d have to teach them not to do that,” the adjunct instructor and Gateway Media Literacy Partners treasurer said on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air. “Now it’s kind of the reverse … my students start off like, ‘Nothing is real. I believe in nothing. All of it’s fake. Everything’s fake news.’ And each one is equally dangerous.”

Bellomo joined host Don Marsh for the conversation just a few days before the start of Media Literacy Week 2018, which coincides with election week. Also participating in the discussion were Webster student Deja Lawson and emeritus communications professor Art Silverblatt.

Silverblatt noted that the levels of information overload seen today – with the vast majority of the world’s data having been created in just the last couple years – have people “really waking up to how inundated we are.”

He’s hopeful that people will also “become more vigilant” about the ways their attitudes are shaped by the sources of information they are reading, hearing and viewing.

“We occupy these information silos, and they stand next to each other,” Silverblatt said. “They never cross over, so people know more and more about less and less … the polarization that we have seen since the Civil War is still going on.”

Bellomo added that addressing such issues requires “a very careful, thoughtful, sometimes painful dialogue,” one she sometimes strikes up online.

“[I will] really delve deep with somebody who thinks very differently from me, who comes and posts on my [Facebook] page and thinks I’m very, very wrong,” she said. “And I have had very positive experiences with people … it takes a lot of work, a lot of emotional effort. It feels uncomfortable for me too because I feel cognitive dissonance too while I’m doing it. But I’ve seen progress.”

Lawson, a digital native who is majoring in media communications, said that online spaces still feel challenging to navigate even having grown up in the digital age.

“Things are easily manipulated now, and it will spread like wildfire,” she said in answer to a question about whether she shares the “media nihilism” kind of perspective that Bellomo has observed in many of her own students of late.

But Lawson also has the tools now to gauge how credible most information is and said she tries to encourage her peers to use such tools as well.

“I think about who created it, what their goal of it is, whether it’s advertising or informative, persuasive, whatever the message behind it is,” she said, “[and also] what it makes me feel, because that is a key component of that as well. And what I’m going to do with the information, whether it’s useful or not.”

Related Events

What: E.S.C.A.P.E. Junk News by Newseum
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, November 1, 2018
Where: St. Louis Public Library, Schlafly branch (225 N. Euclid Ave., St. Louis, MO 63108)

What: Fighting Fake: The Case for News Literacy (part of Media Literacy Week 2018)
When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday, November 8, 2018
Where: Kranzberg Arts Center (501 N. Grand Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63103)

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie HemphillLara Hamdan and Xandra Ellin give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.