Erin Steuter and Alan Spinney on Media Literacy, Critical Thinking, and Their New Graphic Novel
With the world currently on fire in multiple directions, many news outlets have eschewed fair and balanced reporting in favour of ramping up the public's fear, anxiety, and rage to greater serve their own economic and political interests. With a growing penchant for scrambling facts and an increasingly-rabid viewership, mainstream media has seemingly become a minefield of spin-doctoring and bad faith actors. The question remains: who exactly are we supposed to trust with our increasingly-delicate brains?
Thankfully, with us on this journey are author/professor Erin Steuter and illustrator Alan Spinney, whose new graphic novel Won't Get Fooled Again: A Graphic Guide to Fake News (Between the Lines) endeavours to help average citizens parse out the false from the genuine in their daily dose of news. With Spinney's engaging illustrations, Steuter takes us around the world to explore how news media outlets are beholden to the demands of governments, wealthy owners, corporate advertisers, and more, making editorial decisions that profoundly affect which angle of a story we see, and how we ultimately process our reality.
We're thrilled to have Erin and Alan at Open Book today, where they discuss the value of not believing everything you consume, the ageless anthem of defiance that shares the title of their new book, and being inspired by powerful works of media skepticism that came before.
Tell us about the title of your newest book and how you came to it.
Won't Get Fooled Again: A Graphic Guide to Fake News helps readers understand what fake news is and where it comes from. The first four words are from an early 70s song by The Who which has come into our culture as an anthem to the importance of skepticism; think for yourself, and don’t accept everything you see, hear, and read.
The rest of the title, A Graphic Guide to Fake News, differentiates our graphic novel from an all-text book: we introduce the reader to characters and situations where fake news is likely to deceive someone.
Fake news can be effective because it is designed to generate an immediate emotional reaction from us. When we get emotional, we’re more likely to keep watching, click a link, or hit the share button on social media. To counteract this, we need to engage our critical thinking skills.
Our graphic novel helps readers identify the underlying purpose of the messages they receive and learn how to do basic research before accepting the validity of what’s being presented to them.
Fake news content is so realistically presented these days that it can look official. The result is that people are having a hard time seeing the difference between what’s news versus opinion and speculation. To address this, our narrative is written and drawn in a way that illustrates how people experience fake news and reflects how they talk to their families and friends about it, while also helping them evaluate what they see before believing it. It's a nonfiction visual primer.
Where is the most unexpected place you've ever found inspiration for a title?
Your CanLit News
Subscribe to Open Book’s newsletter to get local book events, literary content, writing tips, and more in your inbox
Listening to the radio and hearing the powerful vocal cry of anguish and defiance in the song Won't Get Fooled Again viscerally struck me as speaking so clearly across the generations that it inspired me to use it as the title for our graphic novel. It’s a hard realization that leaders on all sides often don’t keep their promises, yet we get fooled again and again. Our graphic novel shows readers how to take a critical look at messages we hear.
This 'be aware' mindset is what pushed me to write Won't Get Fooled Again. Fake news uses our modern media landscape against us. Today, it is being targeted at smaller groups and even the individual level. Illustrator Alan Spinney and I have presented well-researched scenarios of students, families, colleagues, and retired people encountering fake news. Learning how these characters recognize truth from fiction is the best way to outmaneuver the people behind the lies.
What, in your opinion, is most important function of a title?
There should be something familiar yet enticing about a title so people can relate to it and want to look inside the cover. People are drawn to graphic symbols, so we've gone with a cover design that shows a cell phone screen, but many readers will want to know what a 'graphic guide' is!
What is your favourite title that you've ever come up with and why? (For any kind of piece, short or long.)
I’m planning a project on monopoly news media that explores the negative effects of concentrated media ownership and the way it limits the diversity of information needed in a democracy. The title I am considering is “Picking a Fight with People Who Buy Ink by the Barrel”. It’s based on the quote from Mark Twain: “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel”, which is a comment about the power of news media owners to control the narrative against their opponents. That project focuses on the fact that mainstream media content is often motivated by commercial and political interests.
What is your favourite title as a reader, from someone else's work?
Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky wrote a book they titled Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. The phrase “manufacturing consent” is an excellent description of how people with money and political power use the media to “persuade” citizens how to act and think. There is a high degree of consent (as opposed to coercion) in Western liberal democratic societies, so economic and political elites can’t just allow what they regard as random or harmful ideas to get a foothold.
I place “persuade” in quotes because much of the news we see is really propaganda. Herman and Chomsky’s book works through the reasons why our government and special interests don’t want us to see it that way. Their book and others like it were what influenced me to write Won't Get Fooled Again.
What are you working on now?
Previous to working with Erin on Won't Get Fooled Again, my wife Helen and I co-created a four issue comic book miniseries, intended for the young adult market. Our self-published title Brittle Hill was well received, and left the door open for follow-up issues.
Won't Get Fooled Again allowed me to research and practice drawing people of all ages, cultures and walks of life. This was an extraordinary opportunity to work with a published author and to further my artistic development.
I am drawing and painting almost every day. My new work combines life drawing, figurative work and impressionist painting. I have a series of images in mind and on my easel, preparing themselves for a gallery show in the near future! Feel free to visit our art website at http://www.helenalanspinney.com.
Erin Steuter is professor of sociology with a focus on critical media studies and ideological representations in news and popular culture. She has won multiple awards for her teaching and research and is the author of three books about the media and the war on terror including Pop Culture Goes to War: Enlisting and Resisting Militarism in the War on Terror. She regularly offers workshops for schools and community groups that engage the public in contemporary media literacy issues.
Alan Spinney is a graphic designer and illustrator with a background in advertising. He is the author and illustrator of the comic book series Brittle Hill. He lives and works in Moncton, NB.