Do you buy into everything you read, or do you analyze, research, and question what you learn? Are you willing to start reconsidering the way you read and select your trusted news sources? Is a new media literacy really needed?
Photo credit: Yurok Aleksandrovich
You live in the era of information overload. Technology is becoming increasingly cheaper, and it's not in the hands of an oligarchy anymore. But if anybody can create, publish and distribute media, how can you find the info that really matters in this jungle of data? What's the best way to separate "the news from the noise"?
New media journalism researcher and online publisher, Dan Gillmor, looks in Part 1 of this article, at what should be the guiding ethics of this emerging media literacy, such as credibility issues in new media, the problems of privacy, and those key journalistic values that the Internet revolution and those riding it may have lost track of in their rush to create commercial value.
Intro by Robin Good
Media are becoming democratized. Digital media tools, increasingly cheap and ubiquitous, have spawned a massive amount of creation at all levels, most notably from the ranks of the grassroots in contrast to traditional, one-to-many publications and broadcasts. The networks that made this possible have provided vast access to what people have created–potentially a global audience for anyone’s creation.
But the expanding and diversifying media ecosystem poses some difficult challenges alongside the unquestioned benefits. A key question: In this emergent global conversation, which has created a tsunami of information, what can we trust?
How we live, work, and govern ourselves in a digital age depends in significant ways on the answers. To get this right, we’ll have to re-think, or at least re-apply, some older cultural norms in distinctly modern ways.
These norms are principles as much as practices, and they are now essential for consumers and creators alike. They add up to a twenty-first-century notion of what we once called “media literacy,” which has traditionally all but missed the emerging methods of participation that are becoming such a key element of digital media. (This is only one reason that we should seek a replacement for the expression “media literacy” - because it connotes something that has become quaint to the point of near-irrelevance.)
Trust and credibility are not new to the Digital Age. Journalists of the past have faced these questions again and again, and the Industrial Age rise of what people called “objective journalism” - allegedly unbiased reporting - clearly did not solve the problem.
We don’t have to look very far, or very far back in history, to note some egregious cases. The New York Times’ Jayson Blair saga, in which a young reporter spun interviews and other details from whole cloth, showed that even the best news organizations are vulnerable. Fox News still maintains a slogan of “fair and balanced” - two falsehoods in three words. The Washington press corps, with dismayingly few exceptions, served as a stenographic lapdog for the government in the run-up to the Iraq War. And so on.
But the credibility problem of traditional media goes much deeper. Almost everyone who has ever been the subject of a news story can point to small and sometimes large errors of fact or nuance, or to quotes that, while accurately written down, are presented out of their original context in ways that change their intended meaning. Shallowness is a more common media failing than malice.
Traditional media boast processes, however, aimed both at preventing mistakes and - when they inevitably occur - setting the record straight.
The new media environment is rich with potential for excellence. But it is equally open to error, honest or otherwise, and persuasion morphs into manipulation more readily than ever.
Consider just five examples, two from the political world:
Craig Newmark, founder of the craigslist online advertising and community site, famously says that most people online are good and that a tiny percentage does the vast majority of the harm. He is undoubtedly correct.
In the traditional news world, even though we understood the prevalence of minor errors in stories, even by reputable journalists, we also understood that, by and large, the better media organizations get things pretty much right. The small mistakes undermine any notion of absolute trust, but we accept the overall value of the work.
In a world with seemingly infinite sources of information, this equation is harder to solve. But we can make a start by being better informed about what we read, hear and watch.
One of most serious failings of traditional journalism has been its reluctance to focus critical attention on a powerful player in our society: journalism itself. The Fourth Estate rarely gives itself the same scrutiny it sometimes applies to the other major institutions. (I say “sometimes” because, as we’ve seen in recent years, journalists’ most ardent scrutiny has been aimed at celebrities, not the governments, businesses, and other entities that have the most influence, often malignant, on our lives.)
A few small publications, notably the Columbia Journalism Review, have provided valuable coverage of the news business over the years. But these publications circulate mostly within the field, and can only look at a sliver of the pie.
To be fair, the news media do cover each other to some degree. But most of that coverage focuses on reporting related to corporate maneuvering and profiles of stars - not bad to do but not sufficient to what the public needs. Only very occasionally do journalists for major media organizations drill in on each others’ successes and failures as journalists. When they do it, they tend to do it well; it is unfortunate that they don’t try more often.
The Internet has been a boon to media criticism in several key respects. First, bloggers and Web-only publications are providing some of the toughest and best work of this kind.
Both of these writers make clear their political leanings, left for Greenwald and right for Frey; readers refract that information through their own lenses to make their own decisions.
These two writers are among legions of people who have taken up media criticism, not as their primary occupation but as a part of what they do in their daily lives. When they care about something, they care about the journalism covering that topic - and now they have a way to discuss what they’ve seen. Their work, however, is diffuse. The diffusion is a natural aspect of the Web’s distributed nature.
Several sites, including one I’m co-founding seek to generate and collect some of the criticism. There are two of note.
The word “accountability” resonates. Apart from raw market mechanisms and the legal system’s bludgeon of libel lawsuits - both, sadly, are flawed as countermeasures to poor journalism - we have had a largely unaccountable press.
New media tools are pulling down some walls and helping to create the possibility of deeper nonlegal accountability. More thorough and robust media criticism, and a conversation around it, will serve us all better.
As noted previously, the democratization of media is well under way. This takes two major forms.
This democratization gives people who have been mere consumers the ability to be creators. With few exceptions, we are all becoming the latter as well as the former, though to varying degrees.
Even more exciting, media democratization also turns creators into collaborators. We have only begun to explore the meaning, much less the potential, of this reality.
Media saturation requires us to become more active as consumers, in part to manage the flood of data pouring over us each day but also to make informed judgments about the significance of what we do see.
When we create media that serves a public interest or journalistic role, we need to understand what it means to be journalistic, as well as how we can help make it better and more useful.
This adds up to a new kind of media literacy, based on key principles for both consumers and creators. They overlap to some degree, and they require an active, not passive, approach to media.
We are doing a poor job of ensuring that consumers and producers of media in a digital age are equipped for these tasks. This is a job for parents and schools. (Of course, a teacher who teaches critical thinking in much of the United States risks being attacked as a dangerous radical.) Do they have the resources - including time - that they need?
But this much is clear: If we really believe that democracy requires an educated populace, we’re starting from a deficit. Are we ready to take the risk of being activist media users, for the right reasons? A lot rides on the answer.
End of Part 1
About the author
Dan Gillmor's principal gig these days is the Center for Citizen Media, a joint project with Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society and the University of California-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Dan Gillmor also writes articles and has published a book called We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People (2004; O'Reilly Media), and is working on a new book about media in the digital age. From 1994-2005 Dan was a columnist at the San Jose Mercury News after six years with the Detroit Free Press.Dan Gillmor -