The Factual’s media literacy scholarship was open worldwide between March-May 2020. Over 100 entries were received in the high school category. The essay prompt was: ““In the digital age, access to information has broken down countless barriers. However, it has also provided the platform for disinformation to spread, leaving it up to the audience to determine what to believe. What does it mean to you to be ‘informed’?” Ishan Shah was selected as the winner in the high school category and was awarded a $750 prize. 

Everyone’s heard of the age-old aphorism that knowledge is power. But what happens when someone else controls the knowledge that reaches us? Do they then have power over us? 

In recent years, knowledge and information at-large has been commoditized, weaponized, and warped to serve private interests and personal agendas. Foreign disinformation campaigns, domestic biases propagated by news outlets, and simple ignorance have made the notion of ‘being informed’ more important yet more difficult than ever.

However, what does it even mean to be informed? Today more than ever, it is increasingly difficult to free oneself from a seemingly never-ending onslaught of media biases and disinformation campaigns. After all, we can’t be considered ‘informed’ if the information we take in is false. The price of unlimited access to free information right at our fingertips came with a cost. A cost currently wreaking havoc on our modern-day social discourse. Long gone are the times in which all one had to do was to read a newspaper to understand the issues that are going on around them. Today, a much greater level of critical thinking is needed for us to be ‘informed.’

Being informed means that you don’t merely read the news but that you understand the news. It is imperative to understand not only what the news is talking about but also who wrote it, why they wrote it, and what their goals were when writing it. Understanding the implicit and explicit biases that both news outlets and reporters have when publishing any given article is crucial if you hope to truly be ‘informed.’ Selective omission is very real and oftentimes even the best reporters inadvertently show their implicit biases by subconsciously arguing for their position rather than simply objectively reporting issues. Therefore, only by reading multiple articles from multiple viewpoints about the same topic can we truly understand it. Nothing is ever black and white and only through the understanding that one viewpoint and one reporter can never fully encapsulate an entire situation can we hope to take a step toward being informed. 

In today’s world it is imperative that we consider opposing viewpoints and their arguments in their entirety – not choose to ignore those opinions that we deem offensive. Hot button issues such as immigration, abortion, healthcare etc. have many disparate sides, and only by understanding the opinions of multiple sides can we then come to form an educated opinion of our own. One’s viewpoint and beliefs are not debased by understanding opposing sides and only through understanding opposing slides can you form an educated opinion. If you have the full picture and understand the multifaceted nature of many of today’s social issues then your opinion is no less than anyone else’s – no matter what it is. 

Getting caught in an echo chamber – no matter if it’s liberal or conservative – is a step in the wrong direction. Today, too often do those who lean to the left watch only CNN and those who lean to the right watch only FOX news. Trying to understand the views of others is difficult, no doubt; however, only through this understanding can we form beliefs based on fact. You can never truly be informed unless you understand the other side, and the best way to do that is to simply listen and try to understand what they’re saying: you don’t have to believe in it simply just understand it. 

Yet how do we know which perspectives to listen to? As soon as we stray from our traditional news sources we’re plunged into a world filled with disinformation and with every passing click it becomes harder and harder to determine what is real. Open up any social media platform and you’re faced with millions of targeted disinformation campaigns ranging from the absurd to ones that propagate real fear. More commonly known as ‘fake news,’ disinformation campaigns have proliferated at meteoric pace throughout the entire world, wreaking havoc on the prevailing social discourse and providing fuel for both extreme left and right political pundits. Even worse, no longer is fake news easy to identify. The rise of doctored images, video manipulation, and much more have made it next to impossible for everyday people to discern whether certain images and videos are actually representative of reality.

To that extent, it is extremely important to ascertain the credibility of a source before you begin reading it. A simple rule of thumb is that if any given news outlet is filled with overly political invective leaning only to one side, it is likely not showing the full picture. Reading news from reputable, well-known outlets is much more likely to be true than reading an article that a distant family member shared on Facebook. Furthermore, by reading multiple sources from varying viewpoints about a single topic it is quite simple to discern if any given source is false. Say for example the information that source A puts forth is very different from the information that a diverse group of other news outlets is putting out, then the information from source A is likely false. Always question the credibility of the news you read and make sure that you always remain vigilant when reading the news.

It’s no secret that being well informed in today’s digital age is more difficult than ever. While the challenges we face it may make it feel impossible to be informed, it is not as difficult as it sounds. Even trying is a step in the right direction, if you’re open to your views and opinions being challenged and understand the exigence behind why a reporter wrote any given story you are ‘informed.’ It doesn’t matter that you don’t know every obscure fact about a given topic, but if you’re open to debate and are able to understand and reconcile the biases of others with those of your own then you are informed.