Media literacy encourages people to ask questions about what they watch, see, and read, as to provide you with the tools to evaluate, analyze, consume and create credible, trusted, verifiable information.
Photo credit: Yurok Aleksandrovich
In Part 2 (Part 1) of this in-depth guide, new media journalism researcher and online publisher Dan Gillmor outlines the core principles and ethical guidelines for what should be called a new media literacy.
Don't take anything for granted. Don't be afraid to ask more questions.
Research, explore, and be eternally curious. Adopt a critical stance but be equally open to try and explore all available roads.
Questions your sources, verify their claims.
"Media literacy aims to enable people to be skillful creators and producers of media messages, both to facilitate an understanding as to the strengths and limitations of each medium, as well as to create independent media. Media literacy is an expanded conceptualization of literacy.
By transforming the process of media consumption into an active and critical process, people gain greater awareness of the potential for misrepresentation and manipulation, and understand the role of mass media and participatory media in constructing views of reality."
Therefore, if you're into creating knowledge, rather than just becoming smarter at filtering the news you get, your approach will have to be humble, open-minded and transparent just as much you would expect your credible media sources to be. Model what you are after and others will follow.
Intro by Robin Good
Even those of us who are creating a variety of media are still - and always will be - more consumers than creators. For all of us in this category, the principles come mostly from common sense. Call them skepticism, judgment, understanding, and reporting. More specifically:
1. Be Skeptical of Absolutely Everything
We can never take entirely for granted the absolute trustworthiness of what we read, see or hear from media of any kind. This is the case for information from traditional news organizations, blogs, online videos and every other form.
As noted previously, even the best journalists make factual mistakes, sometimes serious ones, and we don’t always see the corrections. When small errors are endemic, rational people learn to have a small element of doubt about every assertion not backed up by unassailable evidence.
More worrisome in some ways are errors of omission, where journalists fail to ask the hard but necessary questions of people in power. Stenography for the powers-that-be, and the unfortunate tendency of assigning apparently equal weight to opposing viewpoints when one is right and the other is wrong, are not adequate substitutes for actual journalism; you don’t need a quote from Hitler when you’re doing a story about the Holocaust. The reader / listener / viewer needs to keep an eye out for such behavior.
2. Don’t Be Equally Skeptical of Everything
We all have an internal “trust meter” of sorts, largely based on education and experience. We need to bring to digital media the same kinds of parsing we learned in a less complex time when there were only a few primary sources of information.
We know, for example, that the tabloid newspaper next to the checkout stand at the supermarket is suspect. We have come to learn that the tabloid’s front-page headline about Barack Obama’s alien love child via a Martian mate is almost certainly false, despite the fact that the publication sells millions of copies each week.
We know that popularity in the traditional media world is not a proxy for quality.
When we venture outside the market and pump some quarters into the vending machine that holds today’s New York Times, we have a different expectation. Although we know that not everything in the Times is true, we have good reason to trust it more often than not–considerably more.
Online, any website can look as professional as any other (another obviously flawed metric for quality). And any person in a conversation can sound as authentic or authoritative as any other. This creates obvious problems in the trust arena if people are too credulous.
Part of our development as human beings is the creation of what we might call an internal “BS meter” - a sense of understanding when we’re seeing or hearing nonsense and when we’re hearing the truth, or something that we have reason to trust. Let’s call it, then, a “trust meter” instead of a BS meter. Either way, I imagine it ranging, say, from +30 to –30. Using that scale, a news article in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal might start out in strongly positive territory, perhaps at +26 or +27 on the trust meter. (I can think of very few journalists who start at +30 on any topic.)
An anonymous comment on a random blog, by contrast, starts with negative credibility, say –26 or –27. Why on earth should we believe anything said by someone who’s unwilling to stand behind his or her own words? In most cases, the answer is that we should not. The random, anonymous commenter on a random blog should have to work hard just to achieve zero credibility, much less move into positive territory.
Conversely, someone who uses his or her real name, and is verifiably that person, earns positive credibility from the start, though not as much as someone who’s known to be an expert in a particular domain. A singular innovation at Amazon.com is the “Real Name” designation on reviews or books and other products; Amazon can verify because it has the user’s credit card information, a major advantage for that company (disclosure: I own some Amazon stock). Almost invariably, people who use their real names in these reviews are more credible than those who use pseudonyms.
Pseudonyms are becoming an online staple, and they can have great value. But they need to have several characteristics, all pointing toward greater accountability. Content management systems have mechanisms designed to
- (a) require some light-touch registration, even if it’s merely having a working email address;
- and (b) prevent more than one person from using the same pseudonym on a given site.
This isn’t as useful as a real name, but it does encourage somewhat better behavior, in part because it’s easier to police.
Ultimately, conveners of online conversations need to provide better tools for the people having the conversations. These would include moderation systems that help bring the best commentary to the surface, ways for readers to avoid the postings of people they found offensive, and community-driven methods of identifying and banning abusers.
For all this, anonymity is essential to preserve. It protects whistleblowers and others for whom speech can be unfairly dangerous. But when people don’t stand behind their words, a reader should always wonder why and make appropriate adjustments.
3. Go Outside Your Personal Comfort Zone
The “echo chamber” effect - our tendency as human beings to seek information that we’re likely to agree with - is well known.
To be well informed, we need to seek out and pay attention to sources of information that will offer new perspectives and challenge our own assumptions. This is easier than ever before, due to the enormous amount of news and analysis available on the Internet.
The easiest way to move outside your comfort zone is simply to range widely.
- If you’re an American, read Global Voices Online (I am an advisor), a project that aggregates blogging and other material from outside the North America.
- If you are a white American, stop by Black Planet and other sites offering news and community resources for and by African Americans.
- Follow links in blogs you normally read, especially when they take you to sources that disagree with the author.
Whatever your worldview, you can find educated, articulate people who see things differently based on the same general facts. Sometimes they’ll have new facts that will persuade you that they were right; more often, no doubt, you’ll hold to the view you started with–but you may have more nuance on the matter.
I engage in a semi-annual exercise that started more than a decade ago, when I was writing for the San Jose Mercury News, Silicon Valley’s daily newspaper. I kept a list in the back of a desk drawer, entitled, “Things I Believe” - a 10-point list of topics about which I’d come to previous conclusions. They weren’t moral or ethical in nature. Rather, they were issue-oriented, and about my job as a business and technology columnist.
Every six months or so, I’d go down the list and systematically attack every proposition, looking for flaws in what I’d previously taken for granted.
For example, one longstanding item on my list was this: “Microsoft is an abusive monopoly that threatens innovation, and government antitrust scrutiny is essential.” From 1994 until I left the San Jose Mercury News in 2005, I continued to believe this was true, though a shade less so by the end of that period than at the beginning and during the software company’s most brutal, predatory era. Conditions have changed. Given the rise of Google and other Web-based enterprises, I’m not as sure as I used to be.
Consider creating just such a list of “givens” that you will challenge on a regular basis. This is especially vital when it comes to political beliefs. My basic political grounding combines elements of liberal, conservative, and libertarian doctrine, and I vote according to a collection of issues, not by party. But I’m constantly reassessing.
Rush Limbaugh and other “conservatives” who believe in dictatorial government when it comes to security and personal liberty but have no patience for equal opportunities in life infuriate me. Yet I regularly read and listen to their arguments, and occasionally learn something useful.
Going outside your comfort zone has many benefits. One of the best is knowing that you can hold your own in a conversation with people who disagree with you. But the real value is being intellectually honest with yourself, through relentless curiosity and self-challenge. That’s what learning is all about.
You can’t understand the world, or even a small part of it, if you don’t stretch your mind.
4. Ask More Questions
This principle goes by many names: research, reporting, homework, and many others. The more personal or important you consider the topic at hand, the more essential it becomes to follow up on the media that cover the topic.
The Web has already sparked a revolution in commerce, as potential buyers of products and services discover relatively easy ways to learn more before the sale. No one with common sense buys a car today based solely on an advertisement. We research on the Web and in other media, and arm ourselves for the confrontation with the dealer.
This extends widely. We generally recognize the folly of making any major decision about our lives based on something we read, hear, or see. But do we also recognize why we need to be more active in digging deeply ourselves to get the right answers? We need to keep reporting - sometimes in major ways, but more often in small ones–to ensure that we make good choices.
Near the end of the Cold War, President Reagan frequently used an expression, “trust but verify,” in his dealings with the Soviet Union. He didn’t invent the saying, but it was appropriate for the times. It’s just as rational an approach when evaluating the media we use today.
5. Understand and Learn Media Techniques
In a media-saturated society, we need to know how digital media work. For one thing, we are all becoming media creators to some degree. Moreover, solid communications techniques are going to be critically important skills for social and economic participation - and this is no longer solely the reading and writing of the past.
Every journalism student I’ve taught has been required to create and operate a blog, not because blogging is the summit of media creation but because it is an ideal entry point into media creation. It can combine text, images, video, and other formats, using a variety of “plug-in” tools, and it is by nature conversational. And it is a Web-native form, natively digital media that adapts over time. This is a start, but only a start.
Over a lifetime, people will pick up many kinds of newer media forms, or adapt older ones.
Media-creation skills are becoming part of the development process for many children in the developed world, less so for children in the developing world. In America and other economically advanced nations, teenagers and even younger children are digital natives.
Younger and older audiences may be less familiar with other kinds of media techniques. Learning how to snap a photo with a mobile phone is useful. But it’s just as important to know what one might do with that picture, even more so to understand how that picture fits into a larger media ecosystem.
And it’s absolutely essential to understand the ways people use media to persuade - and manipulate - how media creators push our logical and emotional buttons. Children and adults need to know marketers’ persuasion and manipulation techniques, in part to avoid undue influence, whether the marketers are selling products, opinions, or political candidates.
In the process we all need to have a clear understanding of how journalism works. The craft and business are evolving, but they exert enormous influence over the way people live. In one sense, journalists are an example of a second-order effect of the marketers’ trade, because sellers and persuaders use journalists to amplify messages. But journalists deserve (and themselves should wish for) greater scrutiny for its own sake - to improve journalism and public understanding. Hence my earlier push for more and better media criticism.
All of the principles for consumers are part of the toolkit of every responsible journalist or information provider. So are the following. The first four are standard for journalists of all kinds, and are widely accepted inside of traditional news organizations. The fifth is somewhat new and considerably more controversial, and even more critical in a distributed media age.
1. Do Your Homework, and Then Do Some More
You can’t know everything, but good reporters try to learn as much as they can about a topic. It’s better to know much more than you publish than to leave big holes in your story. The best reporters always want to make one more call, check with one more source.
I had a rule of thumb as a reporter. I tried to tell roughly 10 percent of what I knew in any story. That is, I was so overloaded with facts and information that I had to be extremely selective, not to hide things but to illuminate what really mattered.
Although the digital world gives us more reporting tools, none of them replace old-fashioned methods such as making phone calls, digging through paper records, and, of course, in-person interviews. Shoddy research, moreover, can happen online and offline. What matters is to keep reporting until you get the information that is critical, not just what is on the surface.
Publication in the online sphere is only the first step. Then you discover what I learned as a journalist covering technology in Silicon Valley: Your readers collectively know vastly more than you do. Learn from them, and revise your work accordingly.
2. Get It Right, Every Time
Factual errors, especially ones that are easily avoidable, do more to undermine trust than almost any other failing.
Accuracy is the starting point for all solid journalism. Get your facts right, then check them again. Know where to look to verify claims or to separate fact from fiction. And never, ever, spell someone’s name wrong.
In my first daily-newspaper job I spelled the name of a company wrong through an entire article, and didn’t discover this until after publication. I abjectly apologized to the owner of the company, who took it with amazingly good humor, but the shame I felt was a longstanding lesson.
Smart journalists know there are no stupid questions. Sometimes there are lazy questions - asking someone for information that you could have easily looked up. But if you don’t understand something, you have no excuse for not asking for an explanation.
When I wrote about technology, I frequently called sources back after interviews to read them a sentence or paragraph of what I planned to write, so they could tell me whether I’d explained their technical work in plain English. Usually I had it right, but sometimes a source would correct me or offer a nuance. This made the journalism better, and made my sources trust me more.
3. Be Fair to Everyone
Whether you are trying to explain something from a neutral point of view or arguing from a specific side, fairness counts. You can’t be perfectly fair, and people will see what you’ve said from their own perspectives, but making the effort is more than worth the difficulty.
- First of all, it’s the honorable approach. You want to people to deal with you in a fair way, especially when someone is criticizing what you’ve said or done. Do the same for them.
- Second, it pays back in audience trust. The people who read or hear your work will feel cheated if you slant the facts or present opposing opinions disingenuously. Your reporting will be suspect once they realize–and they eventually will–what you’ve done.
How to be fair? Beyond the Golden Rule notion of treating people as you’d want to be treated, you can ensure that you offer a place for people to reply to what you (and your commenters) have posted. You can insist on civility in your own work, and in the comment postings; my rule for hosting community is that we will be civil with each other even if we disagree on the issues. Use the Web, especially the elemental unit called the hyperlink. Point to a variety of material other than your own, to support what you’ve said and to offer varying perspectives.
Most of all, fairness requires that you’ve heard what people are saying. Journalism is evolving from a lecture to a conversation, and the first rule of good conversation is to listen.
4. Think Independently, Especially of Your Own Biases
Being independent can mean many things, but independence of thought may be most important. Creators of media, not just consumers, need to venture beyond their personal comfort zones.
Professional journalists claim independence. They are typically forbidden to have direct or indirect financial conflicts of interest. But conflicts of interest are not always so easy to define. Many prominent Washington journalists, for example, are so blatantly beholden to their sources, and to access to those sources, that they are not independent in any real way, and their journalism reflects it.
Independent thinking has many facets. Listening, of course, is the best way to start. But you can and should relentlessly question your own conclusions based on that listening. It’s not enough to incorporate the views of opponents into what you write; if what they tell you is persuasive you have to consider shifting your conclusion, too.
5. Practice and Demand Transparency
This is essential not just for citizen journalists and other new-media creators but also for those in traditional media.
The kind and extent of transparency may differ. For example, bloggers should reveal biases. Meanwhile, Big Media employees may have pledged individually not to have conflicts of interest, but that doesn’t mean they work without bias. They should help their audiences understand what they do, and why.
Transparency in the traditional ranks has scarcely existed for most of the past century. There may be more opaque industries, but it is ludicrous for a craft that seeks openness in others to be so opaque itself. When we demand answers from others, we should look in the mirror and ask some of the same questions.
Scandal, for the most part, has forced open the doors to a degree. The Jayson Blair debacle at the New York Times led the newspaper to describe in lurid detail what had happened. It also led to the creation of a “public editor” post –analogous to the position of “ombudsman.”
Bloggers, through their own relentless critiques, have made traditional-media transparency more common as well. However unfair bloggers’ criticism may often be, it has also been a valuable addition to the media-criticism sphere.
Bloggers, too, need to adopt more transparency. Some, to be sure, reveal their biases. That gives readers a way to consider the writers’ world views against the postings, and then make decisions about credibility. But a distinctly disturbing trend in some blog circles is the undisclosed or poorly disclosed conflict of interest.
Pay-per-post schemes are high on the list of activities that deserve readers’ condemnation; they also deserve a smaller audience.
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
Dan Gillmor -
Principles of Media Consumption - Ron Sumners
Be Skeptical of Absolutely Everything - O76
Don't Be Equally Skeptical of Everything - John Kounadeas
Go Outside Your Personal Comfort Zone - LetSkyDive
Ask More Questions - Antonio Nunes
Understand and Learn Media Techniques - Slonov
Principles of Media Creation - Alexandre Dvihally
Do Your Homework, and Then Do Some More - rido
Get It Right, Every Time - rido
Be Fair to Everyone - alxm
Think Independently, Especially of Your Own Biases - Gunnar Pippel
Practice and Demand Transparency - Lisa F. Young