The gist: It can be tricky to navigate a media-saturated world, where a constant stream of information is carefully crafted to influence and shape beliefs and behaviors. This First-Year Seminar peels back the curtain to help students think critically about media messaging and understand psychological principles at work in advertising, entertainment, social media, and news reporting.

The prof: Sue Wenze, assistant professor of psychology, knows the benefits of (some) screen time. She studies how technology can help people with mental health concerns access support. As a media consumer, she strives for balance: “We let our kids consume some mainstream media, but not a lot, and we always process and discuss with them,” she says. “Personally, I look at a variety of news sites every day; I think it’s important to try to understand other viewpoints. But I place the most value on independent sources where there is less framing and a focus on just the facts.”

Sue Wenze teaches a psychology in the media FYS

“I look at a variety of news sources,” Sue Wenze says. “I think it’s important to get more than one world view.”

What’s framing? Information that’s presented in a particular way to impact your reaction. It happens in advertising: A dessert labeled as “80 percent fat-free” is likely more enticing than a dessert that “contains 20 percent fat.” It can happen in news reports: People might have a different impression of an “ex-con” versus someone “who served time 20 years ago for a minor offense.”

What’s the harm? Some outlets actively frame stories to have audiences draw certain conclusions. If you’re only reading, watching, or listening to that single news source with that specific viewpoint, you may not be getting the full picture. The impact goes well beyond which sweet treat you purchase: It can influence which organizations you support, how you perceive certain populations, and how you vote.

Psych majors take note: A number of psychological principles are at work here. “Group polarization” occurs when you only interact with like-minded people; doing so strengthens existing beliefs. “Confirmation bias” is the tendency to seek out information that confirms your current opinion and to classify it as more credible than information that says otherwise. “Cognitive dissonance”—having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes—might cause you to dismiss facts that are at odds with your firmly held beliefs.

It’s not all political: While news coverage of U.S. politics certainly helps to illustrate some of the concepts covered in class, Wenze’s curriculum is wide-ranging. Students discuss the impact of the media on body image, Disney’s hidden commentary on race, class, and stereotypes, the growth of internet gaming disorder, and how psychological disorders are presented in (and potentially treated by) the media.

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