Sunday, June 14, 2015

Hyperbole Tsunami in Weather Reporting:
Jon Stewart's Satire on His Own Cynical Humor
Is an Apt Media Literacy Lesson

As my seasonal allergies rage, I thought I'd revisit a Daily Show segment from late May that begins by satirizing the outrageously exaggerated descriptions in news coverage of pollen.
"Pollen Tsunami definitely sounds like a real scientific term... 
I don't even need to check it; I trust you, you're the news."
The clip (below) has all the elements of great critique and satire, using its own hyperbole to call out the news as well as historical perspective, evidence in multiple examples, appeals to authority, and all that good stuff we need to understand for our media literacy and rhetorical skills. But instead of Stewart ending with the usual media watchdog routine of chastising the news for subverting its own cause and exacerbating fear in an already legitimately fearful public, the clip turns on itself in a remarkable critique of its own cynical humor. Take a look, and I'll share some thoughts about the importance of this warning about the dangers of cynicism towards the media that we educators risk when we focus learning exclusively on demystifying messages through analysis. Without taking care to involve support for media production and civic action in our pedagogy, teaching media literacy through humorous media (the whole basis of this blog) may run the same risk of making media-smart-asses rather than media-smart-citizens.

It seems that Stewart's joke on himself shows how a cynical view, making fun of the news for always sacrificing the truth to sensationalism, can be misleading, incorrect, and unproductive. The research of Paul Mihailidis has shown that media literacy courses focused on critical analysis risk fostering cynical attitudes towards news and civic engagement in students. While this clip above makes a fantastic illustration, and discussion piece, for exercising media literacy to demystify news constructions and distortions of reality, its final messages reinforce the dubious and cynical attitude that the big ironic twist calls attention to as dangerous in Stewart's own approach. Not only does the clip call attention to the difficulties in trusting representations of scientific evidence as reflecting reality, when a positive alternative solution finally emerges from the surprise guest spokesperson for the Athsma and Allergy Foundation of America, Stewart dismisses it with a shrug, hopelessly resigned to our future of being "drown" in "oceans of snot." Stewart's job is being funny while opening eyes to some truths, and he does his job here. Our job as media educators is to do a bit more, I think, to inspire learners to act and support the notion that taking action can lead to positive change. Healthy skepticism does not slide into toxic cynicism; the health in healthy skepticism of media comes when it leads to productive choices and when it inspires informed action. So, can this sort of humor inspire healthy skepticism? What would you do to balance the cynical side of satire supporting media literacy analysis?

[After the jump, against my better judgment, I have posted a vialogues link with ideas for leading a close analysis of the clip--see if you can use it for good!]

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