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A Bradley University professor wants to help Peorians develop better media habits through a partnership with Peoria Public Library

Dr. Cory Barker, Assistant Communications Professor at Bradley University
Cory Barker
Dr. Cory Barker is an assistant communications professor at Bradley University in Peoria.

In an age of misinformation, biases, and an endless number of websites and media, it’s hard to distinguish fact from fiction, or even know where to start.

That’s why Dr. Cory Barker, an assistant Bradley University communications professor, has partnered with the Peoria Public Library North Branch to teach a yearlong series of programs for adults on how to build better media habits, as well as overall media literacy.

Barker is excited to open up this conversation locally and wants to emphasize that while the traditional way of thinking about these media habits is “good” versus “bad,” that’s not the point of his sessions.

“I think one of the things I’m trying to do is make sure that people don’t feel like their habits are bad, or when they come to these sessions I’m saying, 'You’re doing this wrong.' Because generally these are things that we’re all doing in one way or another,” he said.

For example, Barker said a common daily habit is picking up the phone the second people wake up in the morning. These routine-oriented tasks can make people more likely to fall down the rabbit hole of not just misinformation, but information overload. This poses an important question to consider:

“When is too much information, or when is too much consumption of a particular realm of information, and how much knowledge is too much knowledge? How do we find those moments where when we can say, 'OK, this is enough, I need to be in the moment?” asks Barker.

That’s just the beginning of a conversation that continues over the next year in monthly sessions, and there’s a lot to dive into. With the emergence of the pandemic and a grueling political scene over the past few years, it’s impossible not to touch on the amount of distrust people have developed in the media through all the discourse.

This shift in mindset has made becoming media literate even more difficult. Barker said this mistrust is a result of a lot of things, the main one being institutions — media outlets, experts, public health and the government — simply making mistakes.

“It’s a result of those institutions making mistakes, very clearly not doing things particularly well over the course of the last 40 or 50 years … a lot of the conversation of fake news is misguided, but that’s not to say that journalists don’t mess up, and that journalists at the highest level don’t make mistakes, or don’t have a clear perspective that maybe is not in the best interest of the general public at times,” explains Barker.

However, the distrust is heightened when the media as well as politicians play up the mistakes and errors of these institutions in political discourse and targeted ads. Having the ability to access all of this information at once has led many people to do their own research on certain topics, which has both positive and negative consequences.

“It’s easy to fall down those proverbial rabbit holes and feel like you’re getting information that some institution, whether that's the 'mainstream news' or the government or whomever, has hid from you. And I think all of those factors together, along with broader shifts and the economy and capitalism and things like that, has made people alienated, distrustful of the people around them,” said Barker.

He said he has noticed this trend of distrust specifically in people under 30, as many younger people feel people present themselves completely differently behind a screen. This is becoming a harsh reality of what an immense amount of screen time can do to one’s perception of the people around them.

So what’s the solution? How do we know if something is true or not? Well, unfortunately it’s much more complicated than simply finding a “reliable” source. Barker says there are certain institutions that have been credible over a long period of time historically, such as NPR, The New York Times, and The Associated Press, but these sources can't always guarantee that there isn’t a certain bias present, or that every single puzzle piece of the story is told. He offers a couple alternative tactics for those looking to seek out factual information, and build their media literacy.

“Doing as much research as you can … if you’re reading a story, clicking the links that are in that story and seeing how you can cross-check that information … go beyond the headline and actually read it. There’s value in reading sources or news from publications that are outside your bubble … politically, ideologically … the challenge with all that is it’s hard to convince people that’s a reasonable or valuable way to do this,” said Barker.

The reason is because while we can acknowledge that looking at sources we don’t necessarily support or agree with is a good practice to enhance our media literacy, the reality is many won’t do it. Even Barker admits to having his tried-and- true sources that he isn’t likely to stray from on a daily basis. However, even if you’re not looking at publications outside your bubble often, it’s still a valuable practice to try and incorporate into your life when trying to understand and process information on a deeper level.

These practices, as well as many more, reflect what Barker wants to educate people about during his sessions

“Being able to give people not only the tools to deal with information in the moment but also giving them that much larger context. If they can walk out of these sessions feeling better about that and being able to know how to apply that in their everyday lives, that would be awesome,” said Barker.

The second program takes place at 6 p.m. Feb. 3 at the Peoria Public Library North Branch. This session will focus on the challenges facing the news industry and how to become a more informed news consumer regardless of platform. No signup is needed, everybody is welcome, and the session will also be available via this Zoom link.

Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant program and development director, All Things Considered host, as well as the producer of WCBU’s arts and culture podcast Out and About.