I first learned about muckrakers and yellow journalism when I read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle in middle school. The book, about the exploited lives of immigrants in Chicago, exposed horrifying working conditions in the meat-packing industry. I was taught that his book was a form of muckraking; a term used in the Progressive Era to characterize reform-minded American journalists who attacked established institutions and leaders as corrupt (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muckraker). Though, some at the time sought to classify Sinclair’s novel as yellow journalism for sensationalizing the disgusting industry conditions, his narrative influence led to new federal food safety and labor laws. I remember that in analyzing the book and its impact on society, I decided that there was integrity in telling the truth and exposing abuse and corruption. It was then that I began to look at news stories through a critical lens.
In the digital age, people are less likely to use terms like muckraking or yellow journalism. However, the concepts correspond to fake news and click bait. It is easy to be manipulated and misinformed with sensational photos and headlines claiming to be news. Heck, click bait tempts you with headline to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a web page—it doesn’t even offer real news! And it seems that institutions and prominent figures accuse media outlets of being “fake news” when journalists, and private citizens, seek to expose corruption or other nefarious dealings. But with so much information from news agencies and social media, what is newsworthy? What is click bait on my media feed and what is real? How should we examine new stories and information?
Recently, I discovered the critical process approach to media literacy. This five-step process asks for us to first pay close attention to the subject matter being covered. This includes considering the subject and the source. Analyzing the story outside of what is being covered and searching for patterns and context. Then we must interpret the information for ourselves, asking, “so what?” Only then, should we evaluate the information and decide whether it is good or bad. And finally, we must exercise our role as citizens and examine media institutions, adding our voices to the meaning of the information shared.
Thinking critically feels exhausting! But it’s a responsibility we should take more seriously because exposing corruption, sharing information, and understanding what is happening socially and economically around the world affects us all. Just as Sinclair’s novel shed light on exploitation and safety issues during a time of rapid industrialization, journalists and media institutions are uncovering corruption and breakthroughs with light speed. What we do with that information can make our society better, but it requires us to think critically.