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Media Literacy

A Pro Baseball Player Promotes Reading and Media Literacy

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At 6 feet, 4 inches tall and weighing 255 pounds, the Washington Nationals’ switch-hitting first baseman Josh Bell is an imposing figure. When he steps up to the plate, it isn’t hard to imagine that he can hit the ball a loooong way. And in the 2021 MLB season, Bell sent balls flying out of the ballpark more than 25 times. What isn’t apparent when looking at this 29-year-old native of Irving, Texas, is how much he is committed to sharing his love of reading and libraries and helping people recognize the importance of literacy—especially media literacy. (Photo courtesy of the Washington Nationals Baseball Club)

In July 2016, Bell made his major-league debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He soon became involved in Pittsburgh-area programs that addressed the need for social justice. In 2020, he was nominated by the team for the prestigious Roberto Clemente Award, which recognizes a player for his character, community involvement, philanthropy, and contributions inside and outside of baseball. In this past offseason, he was part of the Players Alliance’s Pull Up Neighbor tour, which helped Black communities throughout the country by providing food, COVID-19 resources, and baseball equipment to families impacted by the pandemic. With this background, it was not surprising that when Bell was traded to the Nationals in December 2020, he wasted no time getting involved in his new community.

In April 2021, the Nationals announced the start of the Josh Bell Book Club. Designed for adults, its emphasis is on reading to spur self-improvement. Monthly meetings started in May and ran through September. In each hour-long virtual meeting, Bell led a discussion on one of the books he selected and had read himself. The goal of the book club, as Bell expresses in the April 22 press release, is to provide, through his chosen books, “concepts, mindsets, and inspiration for being and becoming better people.” This aim is also reflected in the book club’s tagline: Books. Betterment. Progress. Bell posits that “we can learn through books, we can become better and we can achieve progress.”

In May, Bell was named the player ambassador to the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy. By accepting this position, he made commitment to visit the facility throughout the year and to serve as a role model for the academy’s scholar athletes. In the press release, Bell expresses how humble he is to serve in this capacity and “to have the opportunity to share my love of baseball with the kids and all it has taught me.” The Book Club and the Youth Baseball Academy seem to fit hand-in-(baseball)glove with Bell’s commitment to reading and education.  

Periodically this past baseball season, via the Nationals’ website and during broadcasts of their games, a promo would come up for the book club. In a mid-inning break during an Aug. 17 Nationals game, Bell was interviewed about the book club, and as I listened, I began to understand just how important books and reading are to him. As he spoke, he touted how reading can be foundational in people’s lives. He also mentioned how he was looking forward to being able to return in person to libraries and to do kids’ reading programs. Once the game resumed, I was still thinking about Bell’s comments and how he is trying to make as much of an impact off the field as on.

DIGGING IN

On the Nationals’ website, the book club has its own page that includes a short clip of Bell answering some basic questions, such as, “Who inspired you to read?” For Bell, it was “the girls” in his life: “My mom, my aunt, my sister, my grandmothers—they were always reading.” As a boy, Bell was more apt to be running around the house with a baseball or basketball in his hands, but once the women collectively got him to sit down and read a bit, he says, “it started to blossom as a hobby of my own over the years.”

Bell started the book club last year as a Pittsburgh Pirate, but wanted to continue on with it in his new MLB home. While noting that the first book would have a baseball slant, Bell emphasized that he also wanted topics to be centered on different aspects of life so each book “helps everyone dive inside themselves and allows them to reflect on their own habits and upbringings,” and gives all participants “the opportunity to grow through reading.” Other books, such as the July pick, After the Rain: Gentle Reminders for Healing, Courage, and Self-Love, and the August selection, Grit Factor: 15 Attributes to Doing Life Better, underscored his desire that all participants would step up to the plate and do some serious self-evaluation. The September title—Master the Media: How Teaching Media Literacy Can Save Our Plugged-In World—hammered home that his book club was something worth looking into.

I was able to sign up for the September book club meeting and quickly procured a copy of Master the Media. Since her email address was included in the back of this 2015 book, I reached out to author Julie Smith and got some feedback on how she would have written her chapter on politics differently if it had been published after the 2016 election (see the following sidebar; the article continues below it). According to her website, Smith “has been teaching media literacy and media-related classes at the university level since 1997 [and] is currently on the faculty at Webster University in St Louis.”

Thoughts on the political climate since 2016 from Julie Smith, author of Master the Media: How Teaching Media Literacy Can Save Our Plugged-In World

In my position, I try to be as politically neutral as possible (I tell my students that if they can tell how I voted, I’ve done my job badly), but let’s see if I can expand a bit on what my chapter on politics would look like if I wrote it today. I think so much of it goes back to the fact that our “news” is commercially based. And whether you loved Trump or hated Trump, he made for compelling news—meaning, he was never boring. So the stations covered his campaign like crazy, which validated his campaign. And all of that coverage equaled millions of dollars of essentially free advertising. So the mainstream media made unbelievable amounts of money on his antics, and he got legitimized. The algorithms on the social media platforms played an enormous role as well, by giving people material that the platforms knew they would like (because remember, the goal of these platforms is to keep us on their sites as long as possible). If you’re a liberal, the sites led you to anti-Trump messages. If you’re a conservative, the sites led you to pro-Trump messages. And everyone ate those messages happily, because they affirmed what we already felt. So now we’re totally polarized, with members of each party disliking each other more than ever. These platforms are not legally considered “publishers,” so they’re not legally liable for what is posted on them. And with digital tools readily available, anyone can create something that looks like news. This all happened while trust in the traditional news media was at an all-time low. These platforms were rife with misinformation (mistakes) and disinformation (created deliberately), which only exacerbated the polarization. We now live in a post-truth society, where people are more interested in what they believe rather than what is true. We also have thousands of options for our “news,” so we can pick and choose stories that we like, stories that affirm our already-held beliefs, and stories that do not challenge what we think or feel. The solution is to get our news from a variety of sources, to do “lateral reading” (double-check what we’re consuming), and to ask the basic media literacy questions: Who’s the sender of the message? What’s their motive or intent? How is the message designed to get my attention? What information is left out? How can I know this is true? Who profits from this message?

THE BOOK CLUB BEGINS

On Sept. 17, I logged on a few minutes ahead of the assigned noon time, and right on schedule, the meeting launched. Joining Bell were Nationals broadcaster Dan Kolko, who served as the moderator; James Cullen, an assistant branch manager in the Fairfax (Va.) County Public Library system; and Julie Smith.

Master the Media’s chapters each deal with different segments of the media: television, music and the radio, film, news, books and magazines, advertising, the internet, and politics. Bell chose TV as his first topic and asked Smith how much TV has changed. She replied that it has gone from three channels to a few more (if you had cable in the late ’70s) to now, when media through our TV screens impacts us 24/7. At this point, technical issues knocked Smith out of the meeting temporarily, so Kolko invited Cullen to jump in.

Cullen wanted to know how accurate the media has been about Bell over the years. Bell said he doesn’t pay too much attention to it, but was annoyed when reporters got facts wrong about his mother or the college he was going to attend. At the same time, he recognizes that after 10 years, what gets out there about him can’t be right all of the time. Interestingly, Bell added that he often watches sports with the sound muted, but still notices that the types of ads shown during pro sporting events are for Rolex, Mercedes-Benz, and other high-end products—the inference being, if you want to be like elite athletes, you want top-dollar watches, cars, etc.

Smith’s connection was re-established, and Bell asked her how to assess what we watch on TV, be it programs or ads. Her response, which is repeated in each media segment she writes about in the book, is to ask questions. Who is creating the program or ad? Who is profiting from it? She also noted another point emphasized in the book: Being media-literate does not mean you are anti-media; it means you are educated about it. School libraries and teachers have been promoting media literacy for quite a while, and Smith says it is now starting to catch on with the general public.

Cullen wanted to know what movies had influenced or affected Bell as he was growing up. Bell said he first watched The Matrix when he was 12 or 13, admitting that he only was able to because he was visiting an older cousin. In reading the Master the Media chapter on sex and violence, he realized how entertaining this kind of movie can be for a kid, but also how it can impact them. And Star Wars gave him the message to know you can do it, not just to try. (Proud of Bell, Yoda would be.)

Cullen then wanted to know if Bell ever thought a movie version of a book was better than the book. His short answer was, “No, books are always better.” He gave the example of reading the Harry Potter series and “feeling like you were there.” Kolko suggested that being able to create images in your head from a book rather than having them created for you expands your imagination because you are filling in your ideas. Bell compared books to watching a sitcom on TV, noting how the shows “disrespect your intelligence” by using a laugh track to tell you what is supposed to be funny. “You never have that problem with books, even comic books,” Bell remarked.

DISCUSSING SOCIAL MEDIA

Kolko asked the next question, wanting to know how Master the Media “spoke” to Bell. It turns out that Bell was talking to his sister about needing to take a break from social media platforms such as Instagram. That gave his sister the perfect opening to recommend Smith’s book, which specifically addressed what Bell was dealing with.

What does Bell do, Kolko wanted to know, to protect himself from media scrutiny? Ultimately, Bell has come to this understanding: “It’s just a game. You’re wearing a jersey. While that changes from time to time, the love of the game doesn’t.”

Next, Smith cited a Sept. 14 Wall Street Journal article claiming that while Facebook downplays it publicly, the company is very aware of how Instagram is negatively impacting the mental health of teenage girls but is not doing anything about it. Anger-based posts also get more shares, which exacerbates the situation. Pre-social media, there was still the popular clique at school, but if you had a bad day, you could go home. Now, the internet causes a huge amount of stress.

Bell pointed out the recent mental health issues of such professional athletes as tennis player Naomi Osaka, whose every move is watched by millions. Smith said that for a person who is in the public eye, the attention is 24/7; they never get a minute off, which puts much more pressure on them. That led Kolko to ask Smith how parents can keep social media from affecting their kids’ self-image. She said it’s unrealistic to tell anyone to delete all of their accounts. Instead, users need to see how social media is making them visually focused so that their posts make them look as good as possible. Smith suggested that before any app is downloaded, parents and kids need to read the terms of service together to understand how the apps are using personal information. Most social media users don’t really comprehend the fact that they don’t own their posted content. It’s important, especially for younger users, to be aware of the economic role they are playing in helping the platforms make millions of dollars through their clicks and posts.

Bell switched the topic to Twitter and the influence that politicians, especially Donald Trump, have had on this platform. Smith’s quick response was that if it had been up to her, she would have taken away the president’s phone. (See the sidebar from earlier in this article for more of Smith’s thoughts on this topic.) Since the Fireside Chats, in which President Franklin D. Roosevelt used radio to speak directly to American citizens, Smith said the media has been part of the politician’s toolbox. Politicians have had to become very savvy social media users, and platforms such as Twitter are serving them well.

Mainstream media, Smith continued, is taking a hit, as people’s trust in it is at an all-time low. Social media is filling a void because it does not have filters and no one is editing it for accuracy. No platform is verifying if what users are posting is true, partly because there are no repercussions for the platforms if the information is actually false.

Smith used the 2016 presidential election as an example of how social media spread so much misinformation. Because social media organizations are not under the same type of regulations as a publishing company or a news organization, they do not have to adhere to the same rules. While The New York Times can be sued for libel for printing information that is untrue, Facebook cannot. Even if social media platforms want to keep information that is inaccurate from being posted, the number of new posts created on a daily basis makes it almost impossible to accomplish. Smith contends that in many ways, social media has become a monster that can no longer be contained.

Bell asked Smith to clarify the difference between misinformation and disinformation. She gave these short definitions: Misinformation is something that would be labeled a mistake; disinformation is created for the purpose of being misleading; malinformation is created with the intent of doing harm. After the 2016 election, studies found that hackers from foreign countries who post disinformation or malinformation aren’t promoting one candidate or party over the other, they are trying to cause a divide by getting people mad at each other.

PARTICIPANT QUESTIONS

Several attendees were preselected to ask Bell questions, including: Does he prefer a book or a device? How much does he read? When does he do so? While he does at times use a Kindle, Bell prefers a “tangible” book he can hold, especially since he likes to underline and make notes in the text, which helps him keep learning. Reading is one of the ways Bell unplugs. Reading for 30 minutes before going to bed helps him turn off baseball, which he thinks is good for his brain.

A particularly thoughtful questioner wanted to know how media coverage has reshaped Bell’s worldview. He replied that within the past year, with so much going on—riots, protests, conspiracy theorists, police brutality—he finds himself scrolling uninterrupted for an hour on his phone. And before he notices it, another hour has gone by. He finds that not going outside and having normal interactions puts him into a strange mental state. That was another reason he decided to take his sister’s advice and read Smith’s book.

Smith joined in with a comparison she shares with her college students. She asks them how they view social media: as a mirror or as a window. If it’s a mirror, it provides content about how we look, feel, etc., often reflecting what we want to see or what we want others to see. If it’s a window, it gives us insight into a world we might not be familiar with. “Use social media as a window,” she extolled.

Another person wanted to know if social media does more harm than good. “It depends on the day,” Smith acknowledged, noting that there are pluses and minuses to it. Right now, she tends to think it leans more toward the negative.

Bell said he remembered when Facebook first started up and how exciting it was. You could connect with “actual friends, not random people,” he said. “If I met you, I could Friend you. That’s when it was fun.”

“It was innocent,” Smith interjected.

Smith’s response was to emphasize why it’s important for users to learn as much as possible about the media world. Students, from an early age, need to understand why things are free on social media. “You are not using the phone as a tool, you are, as the customer, the tool being used,” she said.

That was the perfect statement to end the book club meeting—a message about how to get a handle on social media literacy and the role it plays in our daily lives.

FINAL THOUGHTS

From all I have discovered about Josh Bell while writing this article, he seems to have had a pretty healthy outlook on social media before he read Master the Media. The book gave him some new insights and reinforced some of his own attitudes about its pros and cons. It also appears that the book tied into some internal reckonings he had been coming to terms with during the past year. In an April 27 interview with Holly Morris on Good Day DC, Bell talks about how the social and racial unrest that came to a head in 2020 left him feeling overwhelmed because he saw so much wrong going on. He talked to his girlfriend and his parents about what his platform might be. They told him, “Be a light [by sharing] what’s been a light in your life.” With that his guidepost, it is a good bet that even after he hangs up his jersey for the last time, Bell will continue to be an engaged and informed member of society who knows the value of reading, unplugging from the distractions of social media, and tuning into what is going on in the world and his own community.

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