Twenty-five years ago (I had to look at the dates on the yellowing newspapers twice to make certain so much time had passed), the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a series of stories on the state of race relations in the St. Louis region.
We called the project “A Community Divided,” and the words and photographs offered a raw and often unsettling look at the deep chasm that continued to separate whites and blacks in the Bi-state area long after the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. Some of the content – especially the unapologetically racist comments from several whites quoted in the story – suddenly were drilling into old and still very sensitive nerves that many would have preferred to be left covered and protected.
The stories (I wrote them with Andre Jackson, a longtime friend and African-American reporter who is now an editor with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution) looked at how virtually every aspect of our lives were separated: high school lunchrooms where whites and blacks sat isolated from one another at cafeteria tables; churches (one white, one black) just a block apart, two Illinois nightclubs that shared a single parking lot but whose clientele was racially distinct and divided.
It was a story reported from historical data, census information, observations and one-on-one interviews – and pieced together into a set of materials we hoped would give readers a clearer view of an important community issue at that time. For more than 30 years in newspaper work and now, as an investigator with the St. Louis Better Business Bureau, that is what I have seen as my life’s work, and my responsibility – searching out the truth and reporting it.
Whether it is researching a project on race relations, or developing a news alert on the latest contracting scheme (as part of our work with consumers and businesses with the BBB), our role is to provide information to the public that both educates and empowers. The idea of media literacy is necessarily broad and wide-ranging, but to me, as a journalist, investigator and a consumer – it means taking information from a scattered variety of sources and carefully piecing it together like a jigsaw puzzle into a finished picture. That picture, in essence, is what we ultimately view as the truth or, at least as close to the truth as we can come to the truth with the information available to us.
As information providers, we are responsible for assembling the puzzle pieces as quickly and accurately as we can in an effort to present as clear and complete a picture as possible. As information consumers, we are responsible for searching out resources that will help us put together our own pictures in order to make better life decisions. I understand that the Post-Dispatch, or the BBB for that matter, is not the be-all and end-all when it comes to providing information on a given topic. Nor should they be.Media literacy means separating good information from bad, recognizing the jewels from the junk, the gold from the fool’s gold. It means knowing who has earned your
trust and who deserves your skepticism.
At the BBB, we offer consumers a rating system (A+ to F) for businesses within our region. The top ratings go to those businesses that behave ethically — who believe in honest advertising and treat their customers with dignity and respect. The lower grades are reserved for businesses that have proven to be either outright scams, or which have demonstrated either a pattern of complaints or an unwillingness to work with consumers to resolve outstanding issues.
While I believe we are an extremely valuable resource for business information, we are not perfect. Test us as you would test any informational source. Challenge us. Make us prove ourselves as you would anyone who is so bold as to say: “Trust me; I am here to make your life better.”
Media literacy is our ability to take control of the media, not let the media control us. We need to build our own puzzles, find our own truths.Just last month, our BBB office received a call from a St. Louis area family who had lost $10,000 to a caller claiming to be an Internal Revenue Service agent. He was collecting back taxes, he told the wife, and unless she paid off the debt immediately, police would be at her home to arrest her.
Based on a single, completely unsolicited phone call, the woman removed the cash from her bank account and, over the next several hours, put the money onto pre-loaded cards and gave a complete stranger personal identification numbers allowing him to strip the cash from the accounts.
Gold or fool’s gold? Media literacy or media illiteracy? Ultimately, of course, it is our choice.
Bill Smith, BBB investigator, former reporter St. Louis Post-Dispatch and St. Louis Globe-Democrat. He is also the president of the Press Club of Metropolitan St. Louis.