Asked whether she is a longtime member of the Bergen County section of the National Council of Jewish Women, Ginny Wasserman of Fort Lee hesitated. While 10 years might seem like a long time to some, Ms. Wasserman said, she was one of the section’s newer members.
“Some of them have been there forever,” she said. “I know a lot of people in their 90s.”
The organization’s upcoming Timely Topics and Tasty Treats program was designed with that in mind. As part of NCJW’s effort to attract younger people, the October 20 presentation will focus on media literacy, a topic that certainly is timely, while also accommodating the need to nosh.
In the past, such NCJW programs were billed as study groups. “We felt we needed to update it and appeal to a wider range of people,” Ms. Wasserman, who is the presentation’s chair, said.
“When you hear the term ‘study group,’ you think more of academic learning,” Ms. Wasserman said. “It wouldn’t be a draw. We wanted to reframe the title in a catchier, more relevant way, to draw a more diverse population.”
Ms. Wasserman, who worked at Hackensack Medical Center for many years, said that the program came about as a result of discussions between the director of her organization and the director of the Network for Responsible Public Policy, which is co-sponsoring it. “We decided on our topic because of the upcoming elections,” she said. “We want our members to be able to distinguish between facts and fiction. How do we know when something is true? How do we evaluate what we see on Facebook? Who are the sources of real news? What is fake news?”
Joe Amditis, associate director of the Center for Cooperative Media, will be NCJW’s guest speaker. The center, housed within the school of communication at Montclair State University and funded by grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Abrams Foundation, was created to “improve and sustain local news and information in New Jersey,” Mr. Amditis said. In other words, it was created to grow and strengthen local journalism. It does this through training, workshops, and collaborative projects with news and information partners. It also holds events for New Jersey residents and members of the press.
Media literacy goes beyond understanding what is true, Mr. Amditis said. It’s also “developing a deeper understanding of how media is made. How we know what we think we know — process-related questions. Not just where one piece of media comes from, but how it is made, who benefits from it, what their interests are, and how it fits into a larger context.”
He pointed out that the term “fake news,” now associated with President Trump, originally was coined as a “response to an active attempt by people in foreign countries to undermine the credibility of our media.” The term ultimately was co-opted and “flipped back around,” Mr. Amditis said. The president “wound up winning the battle,” but by now the rallying cry has become “almost trite.”
People vilify the press when it is in their interests to do so, he said. “When a system of information and communication reveals flawed intentions, you end up with people who go against that.” And today, “anyone can be a member of the press. It’s a lot easier to produce media. Before, there was a monopoly on putting out information. Now, anyone can make a website.”
While blaming the press is easy, it is not new but can be traced back to the late 1700s, he said. “Hamilton wrote, using pseudonyms, to trash Jefferson. They had campaigns against each other, they wrote clandestine op eds.
“They had no qualms about it. People have a lot of fear about the media. There are a lot of buzzwords, of fear-mongering. But I like to read a lot and I’ve never found a better source of comfort than to know that people have been writing about the same fears for hundreds of years. These arguments have been circulating forever. In the words of Mark Twain, ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.’”
Mr. Amditis, who graduated from Rutgers University and earned a master’s degree from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, said that he is fascinated by the new technology available to teachers. “I spent two hours on a new free program, Lyrebird, which recreates someone’s voice,” he said. “One exercise I use during sessions is to create a spot showing how easy it is to fake someone’s voice. It allows advertisers to market their products in different countries” — creating ads spoken in the country’s native language but in the voice of a celebrity. “It had an innocent purpose, but now there are fake radio ads, fake audio, created for fun or to manipulate others into being more afraid.” Another exercise used in literacy training interactive workshops centers on visual media accuracy, using clues in four different images to figure out where the photos were taken.
Media literacy is an evolving skill, Ms. Amditis said, and the practice should be nonpartisan. “Just be aware. Slow things down. Don’t make decisions based on one piece of news.” His goal, he said, is to get across three major points.
First, “Who wrote it? Why would they write it? What are the stakes here? Are the stakes high?” High stakes, he said, might be upcoming elections or preparing to bomb a county that didn’t attack us. “It doesn’t matter after the first bomb,” he said. “Apologies can’t catch up.” As for elections, we need to be “more on guard. There’s a deadline for that information. They need to get it out before the deadline.”
Second,” Who is the source? The closer it aligns with your preconceived notions, the more you should check it. People are fed confirming information that aligns with their notions to solidify the base.”
Next, “What is the source of that reporting? You need to get it from multiple sources. Is it being reported by more than one news outlet? If not, sit on it, then check again.”
Asked how someone might verify a particular piece of news, Mr. Amditis said that it might be necessary to spend most of the day doing so, “veering into becoming a journalist. There’s too much information out there to spend too much time verifying it. Find people with a consistent track record, who have been proven right after the fact. Use discretion in who you follow. Choose the people to follow based on their record.”
Mr. Amditis, who grew up in the South, “used to be very conservative,” he said. “We didn’t believe in climate change, and when I was deployed to Iraq, I was fully onboard. I’m familiar with that mode of thinking, so I’m uniquely able to address it.” While he does not live in Bergen County — although he has lived in both Passaic and Essex counties — “my parents went to Indian Hills in Oakland, and my grandmother is in Hawthorne,” he said. He served in the New Jersey National Guard and was deployed to Iraq from 2008 to 2009. He narrates, edits, and produces a podcast on national politics; it’s called “WTF Just Happened Today?”
Who: Joe Amditis
What: Will deliver a talk on “Media Literacy in Today’s World”
When: On October 30 at 2:30 p.m.
Where: At the Senior Source, The Shops at Riverside, second floor, Hackensack
Cost: The program is free for members and $10 for nonmembers, applicable toward membership if you join that day.
Information: Email firstname.lastname@example.org,
call (201) 385-4847, or go to www.ncjwbcs.org.