Discernment: What is it and am I able to do it? A guide into the murky waters of media literacy

What is Discernment and can you do it?

The word ‘Discernment’ and the term ‘discerning’ are tossed around constantly when it comes to media literacy, but what does it mean? Why do we use it? and why is it so important? Well folks, this blog plans the bust down the door on discernment and shed light on what is one of the greatest tools you can have in ‘post-truth’ world.

If you Google the word ‘discernment’ it will give you the most simplistic, yet useful definitions of the word “the ability to judge well.”. So when asked if you are able to discern information within the media, what is simply being asked is can you make a clear judgement about the legitimacy of the information being presented to you? Now if you are reading this then you are probably saying “yeah of course I can!” or “this is easy, anyone can do it”. My reply to you is, if you think it is so easy then take this short test below and see if you can get 5 out of 5…

Lets start off easy – Which of these images is photoshopped?maxresdefault

If you answered the picture on the right then congratulations! You passed the first test.

Second one isn’t so easy…


As you can see from the fineprint, five of these Tweets are real and five are fake! If you got all five right, then well done. You are ready for the next test…

Number 3 (It’s getting difficult)


If you said the image on the right, then you would be correct! Well done if you are sitting on 3 out of 3. If you aren’t then you may be beginning to understand that despite the simplistic nature and meaning of the word ‘discernment’ isn’t as simple as you first thought. If you indeed got this question correct then you indeed are abnormally good at discerning information, as a recent Stanford History Education Group (2016) study found that 83% of middle school students were unable to pick the difference between real news and fake news!

Number 4: Watch this video and see if you can tell the difference between which is which…


and our final test… Can you tell the difference between a fake product and a real product? Lets see… These are the infamous YEEZY BOOSTS:




Could you spot the difference?


To summarise this small test, discernment can be harder than we think and this brings to light the necessity of such a skill in what is now known as a ‘post-truth’ era of media. Despite being what is known as a ‘digital native’ we don’t always have all the answers (Maton and Bennett, 2010). Even though we have a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips, we need to able to know which knowledge is valuable and what is simply there to skew perception.

The importance of discernment in a ‘post-truth’ era

The internet is the greatest modern innovation and invention in our history. We cannot deny that the internet has enabled us to do things that were once thought to be impossible. As stated, we now have the ability to access all the knowledge we need at anytime with the touch of a button, but is all information good information? The simple answer is no and the quiz above shows just how hard it can be to understand what is real and what is fake. This is where discernment comes into play!

Reflecting upon the term we used earlier of ‘digital native’, we define your generation as a generation who has grown up immersed within a digital age and thus the theory is that all members of your generation should be able to discern information because you were born into the age of the internet, but this is simply not true (Hargittai, 2010). From the  Stanford History Education Group (2016) study we know that despite ‘digital nativity’ the middle school students mentioned in this study are still not able to discern information and choose which news story is real and which is fake.

Video: Stanford Study

How many times have you seen someone post a story on Facebook about a celebrity dying, or a Tupac being found on an island in Central America, or the many other examples of fake news stories that end up on our newsfeeds (Mirror, 2016).

http://www.mirror.co.uk/3am/celebrity-news/tupac-still-alive-new-selfie-8715699 (Tupac Article retrieved from the Mirror).

There are also more pressing examples that you might not know exist. screen-shot-2017-02-10-at-11-42-03-pm

(Image retrieved from http://www.nzherald.co.nz/university-of-auckland/news/article.cfm?c_id=1503679&objectid=11703745)

This is a paid article by the University of Auckland. This article looks and sounds like any other article on the New Zealand except it is actually an advert for the University of Auckland Business School. If the tagline for the university was taken away would you be able to tell the difference?

This begs the question, did you do any media studies today at school? If the answer is no then you are certainly not alone, but you can see that without proper training in the art of discernment you are missing out on a basic human right to be able to make informed decisions (Hall, 1997).

Video: Kony 2012
Wikilink: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kony_2012

My final example of the need to discern information is in reference to the video above. KONY 2012 according to Wikipedia was a campaign to stop Joseph Kony who is a Ugandan War Lord. If you wish to have any further information on this the Wikipedia link is above, but simply it was a thirty minute documentary about what you could do to stop Joseph Kony and all the bad things he was doing in Uganda. Without question it became a worldwide phenomena and people from all over to world pledged millions of dollars in the pursuit of justice to stop this evil man. Now here comes the importance of discernment…

Basic media literacy principles would state that you should research the background of the information and make a critical discernment about the information provided (UNESCO, 2006). Unfortunately in this case the millions who pledged and supported the cause from around the world didn’t. I remember myself being swept up in the KONY 2012 activism, but when I stepped back and analysed the situation I found that something just didn’t add up. Invisible Children, the people behind the video, were creators of web based content and were directors who used viral video to fund certain causes they believed in. Money donated also was going to this ‘charity’ organisation who benefited a great deal from this video. Another key piece of information left out was that at the time of the video Joseph Kony had not been seen for a number of years and the video enabled him to once again gain prominence and in some cases caused more harm than good.

To conclude, discernment is a basic human right and you should be diligent in the pursuit of truth (Hall, 1997). Although you may come from an age of technology, you cannot always make clear judgement about what is real and what isn’t and in these cases I urge you to take the time to check all the information is correct (Hoeschmann & Poyntz, 2012). I leave you with yet another video showing just how hard it is to guess which is which!

Stay diligent and remember “Discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It is knowing the difference between right and almost right” (C.H. Spurgeon, Unknown).


Bennett, S., and Maton, K. (2010). Beyond the ‘digital natives’ debate: Towards a more nuanced understanding of students’ technology experiences. Journal of Computer assisted learning, DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2729.2010.00360.x

Hall, S. (1997). Representation; cultural representations and signifying practices. London: Open University

Hargittai, E. (2010). Digital Na(t)ives? Variation in Internet Skills and Uses among Members of the  “Net Generation”. Sociological Inquiry. DOI:10.1111/j.1475-682X.2009.00317.x

Hoechsmann, M., & Poyntz, S. (2012). Media literacies: A critical introduction. London, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell

McKnight, Jenny. (2016). Is Tupac still alive? New selfie claims to ‘prove’ murdered rap icon is not dead. Retrieved from http://www.mirror.co.uk/3am/celebrity-news/tupac-still-alive-new-selfie-8715699


UNESCO. (2006) Media education: a kit for teachers, students, parents and professionals | United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Retrieved January 12th, 2017 from http://www.unesco.org/new/en/communication-and-information/resources/publications- and-communication-materials/publications/full-list/media-education-a-kit-for-teachers- students-parents-and-professionals/


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