US News and World Report, Media Literacy, and Social Media

Surprise! I’ve been “featured” in an article from US News and World Report about the student loan industry!

Click here and read the article for yourself before reading my commentary. Be sure to take some time and analyze it. I never want to impose my opinions on anyone and I’d like your honest feedback. I think the article raises concerns about marketing, media literacy, and social media.

Some Thoughts

The article you just read involved my Internet-based quest to find information about financial aid and my relationship with the Financial Aid Podcast and its parents company, the Student Loan Network.

I’ll be forthright with you; I’m not disturbed by the article, but I’m not pleased with it either. I think it paints me as a typical student, taken advantage of by clever marketing. It juxtaposes a positive story of me getting a serious question answered with the threat of biased information. Luckily, we live in an age where any individual can share his or her side of a story with a blog; that’s my goal for this post.

The story I shared with Kimberly Palmer, the article’s author, is approaching its happy ending. Although I myself am biased, I strongly believe this isn’t an instance of me getting taken advantage of. After my Dad lost his job last year, I needed to communicate this change of income to my colleges. I felt that the CSS/Profile application didn’t go far enough in this regard, and wanted to make sure I did this properly. Being a loyal listener to the Financial Aid Podcast, I sent Christopher Penn an email to see if he could help me out.

Within hours of the next morning, I had dozens of emails sent to me by financial aid professionals. For me, a student panicked about the entire financial aid process, this was tremendous. For that, I was and am very grateful. Thanks to my academic rigor, some preparation, and information from the Financial Aid Podcast, I’ve been accepted to some great colleges with some stellar financial aid packages.

As Kimberly wrote in the US News article, I would turn to the Student Loan Network for a private student loan. Here’s the ultimate irony; it appears unlikely that I’ll even need a private student loan for college.

Where I Take Issue

The forth paragraph of the US News article is what I consider the offending paragraph.

But consumer advocates are concerned that students may not realize or consider that these educational messages are coming from people who want their business, not unbiased sources. “It looks a little bit too much like disinterested information when in fact it is a student loan company…. There’s a conflict there,” says Robert Shireman, executive director of the Project on Student Debt, of the Student Loan Network’s website and podcast. (Penn says the company affiliation is always clearly displayed.)

Conflicts of interests are always a problem. In my own high school career, I’ve had to step back from situations involving different parties I’m affiliated with for ethical reasons. A student loan company putting out information on financial aid and painting it as pro bono would most certainly raise concerns. However, in the case of the Financial Aid Podcast, there is a clear disclaimer at the beginning of every episode.

The Financial Aid Podcast is a publication of the Student Loan Network.

As a result of that disclaimer, I take everything from the podcast with a grain of salt – as should every other listener. Fortunately, Christopher’s style of marketing in the podcast revolves around plugging (or mentioning) other properties of the Student Loan Network, often prefaced with, “I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one of our services, X.”

These are clear and upfront disclaimers. In my opinion, marketers will always be marketers. It’s their job to manipulate you into purchasing their product or service, and this isn’t arguable. This may or may not be a problem depending on one’s personal philosophy, but I’ve grown to accept it. If I ever felt that the helpful content of the Financial Aid Podcast was compromised by slanted information, I’d refuse to listen to it.

This notion of marketers masking their intentions is sidestepping the real issue.

Media Literacy

Wikipedia claims that media literacy uses “an inquiry-based instructional model that encourages people to ask questions about what they watch, see and read.” Media literacy is a fundamental skill in a functioning democracy, one that students evidentially aren’t taught these days. Al Gore speaks about this at length in one of my favorite books, The Assault on Reason. He argues that democracy can only exist in a country with a healthy marketplace of ideas, where the citizenry can discern the media’s intent.

The fact that an article like this even needed to be written is a sad statement on the current affairs in our nation. One must always be critical of someone trying to sell them something. The very motivational Randy Pausch claims that the same reasoning applies to something as complicated as a romantic relationship. He gives simple advice for women dealing with men who they suspect are romantically interested in them.

Don’t listen to a word they say. Observe their actions.

It’s actions that build trust, not words. If we’re on the Internet, what constitutes as an action?

Building Trust with Social Media

Again, quoting Wikipedia.

Social media is an umbrella term that defines the various activities that integrate technology, social interaction, and the construction of words and pictures. This interaction, and the manner in which information is presented, depends on the varied perspectives and “building” of shared meaning, as people share their stories, and understandings. … Social media can take many different forms, including Internet forums, message boards, weblogs, wikis, podcasts, pictures and video.

I wrote earlier that I’d turn to the Student Loan Network for a private student loan, if necessary. I trust them because I trust the CTO of the company, Christopher Penn. Why is it that I’d trust a man that I’ve never met?

Like other social media pioneers, Christopher is transparent. Much like myself, he has two very important things, a personal blog and a twitter account. Personal blogs let people express their thoughts, long-form; it’s exactly what I’m doing right now! This pales in importance, however, to feedback and responding to feedback, usually in the form of comments. Responses and gestures are actions, and these are clear-as-day on twitter.


There are those who get twitter and those who don’t. If you don’t get it, watch Twitter in Plain English.

If you read someone’s quasi-stream of consciousness for long enough, I think you can confidently judge his or her character. There are twitterers out there who I wouldn’t want to come close to and there are others who I’d pay to have lunch with. I’ve read the tweets of dozens of different people and I’ve followed and unfollowed them depending on their usefulness to me and their personal values.

It’s this transparency that lets me confidentially put my trust into a person, and thus, his or her company. If all students could learn to discern who is worthy of their trust and who isn’t, the problem addressed in Kimberly’s article would disappear.

The Takeaway

The ultimate lesson from this all is different depending on whether you’re the content creator or the content consumer. Creators should strive for transparency using social media tools and networks while consumers should always keep a critical eye on these creators. If both sides make a decent effort to do these things, our world would be a better place.

This is what I wish the US News article had discussed.

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