Warren Wilson College course examines the media and its message

Accomplished speakers provide insight into the inner-workings of the news business

Fred McCormick

In the age of social media and fake news, the ability to sift through a nonstop stream of information while deciphering fact from fiction is imperative. That makes Warren Wilson College’s new course, The Message & The Media, especially timely.

A list of accomplished guest speakers from local and national media sharing their insights with the intimate group is what makes the course on media literacy engaging, as a recent visit to the class revealed.

Chris Brook, the legal director for the N.C. chapter of the ACLU, talks to The Message and The Media class at Warren Wilson College about free speech and why it's important.

An engaged, media literate society is a crucial component to a healthy democracy, according to Kyle McCurry, the college's media relations director whose own career in media gave him the idea for the class.

“I thought this would be a good chance to offer some of my own insight,” he said. “To bring in people who are currently doing some of the work that I used to do and talk to my students about what their life is like and what the media is really all about.”

Kyle McCurry, director of media relations at Warren Wilson College, talks to his media literacy class about  the Hustler Magazine v. Jerry Falwell U.S. Supreme Court case in 1988.

McCurry is instructing the class, a first for a man who spent over a decade working in various media platforms. A college class he took at Western Carolina University that brought in guest speakers gave him the idea for how best to structure his course.

He gathered a list of speakers, a list composed of names in local media markets, such as Casey Blake, The Asheville Citizen-Times opinion editor; and Kim King and Justin Hinton of WLOS. Emmy Award-winning journalist and CNN anchor Don Lemon facilitated a class on March 29.

“He spent an hour with my students talking over Skype. About everything,” McCurry said. “The biggest highlight for me was that he specifically addressed media literacy and told the students what he thought they should do to get more media literate.”

Students are evaluated based on four class requirements: attendance, questions, op-eds and discussion. McCurry asks that discussions in the class remain civil among the diverse group of 10 students, which he believes is an optimal size for this particular class.

“I want them all to feel that they have the right to discuss whatever they want to discuss, whether or not the majority of the classmates agree with it or not," McCurry said. "The liberal arts are based specifically on that - the opportunity to engage with people you may not agree with and be uncomfortable.”

To that end, McCurry asks that his students consume media from “outside of their echo chamber.”

“To be media-literate, you have to read things from all different sources and points of views,” he said. “At that point you can decide what the truth is. The purpose of the media is to help us have an informed electorate and when you’re reading something fake and taking it at face value that doesn’t lead to an informed electorate.”

Guest speakers for the class, like Chris Brook, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, discuss specific topics such as free speech.

“First Amendment work is really some of the bread and butter ACLU work,” Brook told the class April 12. “It’s centrally important to our organization and to its founding.”

Chris Brook, the legal director of the N.C. chapter of the ACLU, explains how the organization was formed during World War I, in part to protect free speech against the war.

Among other topics, Brook talked about specific cases taken up by the ACLU in recent years, the evolution of free speech and why the First Amendment is vital

“Some pretty good questions came out of that discussion,” McCurry said. “That’s the long-term goal of this class. I want (students) questioning stuff. At Warren Wilson we ask everyone question everything.”

To demonstrate how news can be influenced, McCurry brought in Carol Ross, McCurry’s mentor and the publicist who helped the rock band KISS skyrocket to fame in the 1970s.

“We did a lesson on what I do, which is what public relations is and how it ties into the news,” McCurry said. “The relationship between public relations people and news reporters is very real and has been real for a long time.”

The Message and The Media, open to all Warren Wilson students, was designed to appeal to more that just those students interested in a future in the media.

Sophomore Jacob Huff is a psychology major who signed up for the class because “media literacy is a big issue in the United States,” he said.

“We have to hold ourselves to a high standard,” Huff, the Nashville native, said. “We can’t just rely on the news to feed us totally objective information. We have to have the critical thinking skills to decipher what is what.”