Friday, August 8, 2014

Teaching Critical Thinking and Information Literacy: John Oliver on Native Advertising

I'm a little bit behind the times on the latest Daily Show spinoff, Last Week Tonight --- partly because I liked John Oliver but didn't think he had the pull to captivate us through an entire show. But it seems that not only is he doing good stuff, his segments are often longer and more researched than actual news shows. In fact, the ones I've watched have been straight-up information-based arguments punctuated with the occasional sarcastic joke rather than really being comedy bits. While having more informative, thoughtful journalism out there is great, I'm thinking the show won't last that long for exactly the aforementioned reasons.

Here is his clip on the relatively-new phenomena dubbed "native advertising." He may think it is recent in "traditional" or "hard-hitting" journalism, but it has been present in fashion mags as the "advertorial" since Ms. magazine got co-opted by its own funders back in the 60s (early 70s?).

I would love to show this clip to my students when I move into the research paper section of my comp class, but I'm torn. I have been using Steven Colbert's wikipedia sketches for so long my students no longer get the topical references (was Gulf War II so long ago, people?), but I do so as part of explaining why wikipedia has so many problems and why they need to use academic sources. Similarly, I make a huge effort to show them how to read articles carefully and skeptically and sift out the well-researched articles from the biased and cheerleading fluff. If I show this, I bet my students are going to take the same "they're all crooks" conclusion that people use in politics to justify not voting at all, and wash their hands of even trying to find news articles with balanced and objective reporting, or decide that if everybody is going to be a corporate shill, there must not be any problems with anything they are shilling.

So, yes, my frustration is more with what's left of journalism for gutting their commitment to reporting the truth and asking all the questions people don't want asked rather than what people hope they'll be asked, but I really want to teach my students to value education and that whole belief that an independent and free press is necessary for democracy, and how can I do that and simultaneously show them evidence that the free and independent press no longer exists? My students aren't sophisticated to do a postmodern critique of the institution of journalism without defaulting to "it's all lies so who cares, shrug." It's easier to teach them that there are certain crappy, poorly-sourced, useless link aggregation or advertorial sources and there are certain other trustworthy and useful ones. Grumble grumble stupid news outlets mistaking themselves for buzzfeed.

On the other hand, the whole sketch is set up as an argument, though not one that traces out consequences of this trend. I could have them watch it and write arguments in response to how native advertising is or is not a problem, or perhaps some sort of problem/solution essay?

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