Media’s media literacy could use some work

When I saw the headline in my Facebook feed, I was intrigued:

Mark Ruffalo on the ‘I am not a feminist internet phenomenon’

The unattributed article, on the website, reprints the contents,  with additional commentary, of a post on Mark Ruffalo’s Tumblr page that takes to task people (implicitly, women) who reject feminism and the “feminist” label. Here are two relevant excerpts (emphases mine):

Dubbing the ‘I am not a feminist’ school of thought “degrading” and “insulting”, Ruffalo does not hold back on the impact he thinks this has on everything women have fought for “the past 200 years.”

The post, which written in March, has started to gain a bit of traction online thanks in part to the Reddit AMA Ruffalo hosted earlier this month.

Here’s the problem: Mark Ruffalo did not create this post. Nevertheless, the article giving him credit has been shared on Facebook over 100,000 times and tweeted over 500 times since June 1st.

As a former classroom educator, I know that media literacy is a huge problem for students. It is a huge problem for their teachers. It is a huge problem for citizens and for politicians. The one place where I would hope that media literacy would be at least above average would be in the media.

I could argue that attributing this content to Ruffalo works to obscure the woman who actually composed it, but I will let that one slide.

And I take nothing away from Ruffalo. It is great that he shared these sentiments on Tumblr and is willing to align himself with them. It is great that his celebrity status not only helps these words find a large audience but helps to “legitimize” them for skeptical readers.

Nor do I take anything away from those who see an article extolling a celebrity for taking a distinct stance on a social justice issue and share that article with others (although I counsel plenty of caution).

My argument is with a media outlet that is willing to post this story with additional commentary and context — I mean, they put at least a bit of work into it — while completely failing to (a) understand how Tumblr works, and (b) follow these words to their source.

Heck, I barely understand how Tumblr works and have never published anything on the site, but I can be of some assistance. Maybe it is just my undergraduate history training, but I like to interrogate my evidence:

(1) See how the entire post on Ruffalo’s Tumblr page is enclosed by quotes, as though to suggest these are the words of someone else? Hmm. Maybe Ruffalo likes non-standard punctuation, but still…

(2) Use the “via” and “source” links just below the post to walk it back along the chain of custody…pretty quickly, attributions to one “Libby Anne” start showing up.

(3) Or, hey, use a search engine to walk it back by publication date. I grabbed a chunk of text, entered it into Google enclosed in quotation marks, then used the search tools to limit results to only those before March 2015. Although this tool is wildly imperfect (not Google’s fault; the Web is a hot mess and Tumblr posts seem to be dated to the creation date of the blog), it can help to clear out some of the noise. On the first page of results, I found additional confirmation: a Bust article that correctly attributes the post to Libby Anne Bruce and that suggests that Ruffalo has tried to correct the record (although the March post does not seem to have been updated).

Three cheers to Bust, then, for getting the story straight (which is to say doing their jobs); no cheers for

The Bust article, attributed but undated (the Web giveth, and the Web taketh away — comments are fresh, though), has been shared on Facebook just 1.3 thousand times and on Twitter just 19 (according to the AddThis bar stats).

All politics aside, my takeaways for readers are these: media literacy is hugely important and hugely undervalued; the truth is regularly abused in small ways by smart, well-meaning people who help things go viral (microaggressions, anyone?); try to support media outlets and journalists and friends in your network who try to get the story correct; call out those who fail to perform due diligence before broadcasting a half-lie to a too-trusting audience — on the Web, the genie never can be put back in the bottle and lies live alongside truth substantially forever.

Addendum: It looks like Daily Kos initially got the story wrong but the author has thoroughly corrected the title and story, as well as issued a mea culpa in the comments.

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2 thoughts on “Media’s media literacy could use some work

  1. You do realize, no matter whose words they were. They were reblogged. They was a connect of Mark Ruffalo. Plus, that isn’t the only instance he has brought up feminism.
    You can not hold anything against the author, if the date of the post has been before the given ‘report’.
    Do your research brother before you make accusations.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I certainly don’t mean to take anything away from Ruffalo — he chose to help amplify those words by reblogging them, so good for him.

      The point I hoped to put across in my post was that the words were mistakenly attributed to Ruffalo, when a few minutes of easy research let me know that someone else was the original author. People in the media have the responsibility to do that kind of research — to make a basic effort to get their story right. The result was that a very popular article led probably over 100,000 people to believe that Ruffalo had said words that came originally from someone else. In my opinion, that is irresponsible. I take nothing away from Ruffalo’s feminism, but in a world in which women are more likely than men to be silenced, it is a reasonably serious thing to take a woman’s words and attribute them to a male celebrity, however well-intentioned everyone may have been. Respectfully, I did do my research, and I feel that my accusations stand. The exact same information available to me was also available to the author(s) of the mistaken article, but they did not make use of it.

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