What do you do?
Currently, I’m serving as a graduate director and assistant professor of journalism at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. Most of my teaching is focused on media theory, media analytics, and media law/ethics. Especially in my media law and ethics courses, there is much emphasis on media and information literacy to encourage student journalists to avoid repeating misinformation from personal sources, media competitors, and social media in their own news coverage.
Before my career in academia I was a newspaper reporter in The Netherlands, covering local events, crime, and politics in Rotterdam and the surrounding communities. I was also a member of the now-defunct Innocence Institute at Point Park University, researching claims by prisoners that they did not commit the crime for which they were incarcerated. Some of that work was published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as a series of stories about eyewitness misidentification.
Tell me about your latest work or project in media literacy.
With my research, I try to better understand why people believe things that are false and why they do not believe things that are true. In many of my studies, the participants are exposed to a news headline attributed to a news source, without them knowing that there may be multiple-opposing—headline conditions and different news sources. This sometimes leads to unexpected, yet interesting results. For instance, Democrats believed a headline attributed to Fox News to a higher extent than Republicans when it was suggesting that the number of illegal immigrants decreased during the presidency of Barack Obama. Normally, Democrats do not want anything to do with Fox News. Yet, suddenly the distrusted source was very believable.
The most important aspect of that study (as well as three related studies) was that news believability was predicted mainly by an interaction between news source trust and the extent to which the headline was considered surprising or unsurprising to come from that particular news source. An expectancy violation between news source and message expectancy often led to higher believability of sources that were initially not trusted, and vice versa.
The next step in this research process is to find ways to educate people about their own cognitive biases with examples from those studies. Democrats do not automatically reject all news from Fox News or Breitbart, and Republicans do not automatically reject all news from CNN and MSNBC—but none would likely tell you that when asked. Providing examples of expectancy violations will hopefully help them to acknowledge the value of using a range of news sources. Ideally, that will lead them to better scrutinize news reports rather than rejecting them by default because of a source they do not like.
Why is media literacy important to you?
The large amounts of misinformation spread through news media and social media are simply destructive to a democratic society. The consequences are just too stark for not acting on global warming or avoiding vaccinations for children because of intentional and malicious disinformation campaigns, which continue to be more sophisticated and reach larger audiences through digital technology. Therefore, it has increasingly become important for people to differentiate between facts and falsities. Media literacy education is essential to keep people from making wrong decisions in everyday life and during elections that take much resources to negate harmful consequences.
What are you most excited about in the media literacy field?
The current political climate has demonstrated the strong need for media literacy education at all levels of society. There have been a lot of studies about fake news since the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, but there also has been a tremendous amount of research on misinformation, persuasion, and knowledge acquisition long before from scholars representing a wide variety of fields and disciplines, such as mass communication, media studies, political science, education, social-psychology, criminology, and many more. The media literacy field could provide interdisciplinary approaches to thoroughly synthesize all these findings to create more effective and efficient messages that help people to recognize and reject misinformation, and even to reevaluate their misperceptions.
Why did you become a NAMLE member, what benefits do you see to membership, and how will it support your work?
My first experience with NAMLE was in 2017 during the main conference in downtown Chicago, and I received a lot of support and feedback for my presentation about a classroom exercise to demonstrate to students that their own cognitive biases lead them to accept misinformation. The conference also showed how diverse the field is in approaches to better understand needs for effective strategies to teach media literacy. The organization does a great job to engage members in between conferences with news about the latest research and educational efforts to strengthen media literacy education. I look forward to attending the joint-conference with the Broadcast Education Association (BEA) in Las Vegas and the national conference in Washington, D.C. next year.