“We're in an age of information overload, and too much of what we watch, hear and read is mistaken, deceitful or even dangerous. Yet you and I can take control and make media serve us --all of us--by being active consumers and participants.”
This statement appears on the cover of Dan Gillmor’s newly launched publication, Mediactive. In the book, Gillmor, director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, provides tips and tools for how citizens can (and need to) become active consumers and producers of information.
In today’s media environment, there is not exactly a deficit when it comes to opinionated news, while it’s harder to come by news based on truth and facts, or at least challenging to identify fact from fiction amongst the vast number of information sources we come across each day. Today’s information overload has caused confusion among citizens, whose opinions are based on what is read, seen and heard. While it’s easy to blame social media, and particularly bloggers, for the confusion and inaccuracy, the media overall has failed the public on many levels, and for different reasons. For example, Jay Rosen, Professor of Journalism at New York University, points out that the watchdog press in the U.S. is dead because of media’s failure to deliver its promise. Rosen says that the problem of legitimacy started when the media failed to report the reasons leading up to Iraqi war, and not dealing with the criticism they faced after the war was launched. As a consequence, Rosen says, we now have Wikileaks, as leakers themselves are in doubt and are seeking other outlets that can provide better “deals”.
At a time when access to accurate and objective information is needed more than ever, journalism is facing tough times with budget cuts and job losses. However, as famed American Journalist Walter Cronkite once said, “It's not just the journalist's job at risk here. It's American democracy. It is freedom.”
Media’s loss of credibility, however, is not only an issue in the U.S.; similar examples can be found around the world. Just recently, Soutik Biswas, an online correspondent for BBC news, discussed the current media credibility crisis in India, where there’s public outrage over leaked transcripts between senior Indian journalists and a well-known lobbyist. The transcripts revealed, among other things, the exchange of “vicious gossip,” and the “promise” to relay sensitive political information. While the journalists are trying to defend themselves, the public doesn’t buy it. Biswas refers to a recent survey showing that 86% of people “felt let down by journalists.” He points out that this latest outrage is happening a year after the general elections, when an investigation revealed that politicians paid for news that would play in their favor.
With media’s credibility problem and the stream of unfiltered information through digital media, citizens need media literacy skills to navigate a “messy” media environment, so that they can make informed choices and be able to participate actively and meaningfully in public discourse. As Gillmor says, “we need to find ways to use media to our – and our society’s – best advantage.” In the book, he provides a list of principles for consumers and producers.
Principles for Media Consumers:
- Be skeptical of absolutely everything. No matter from which source or medium, we can never take for granted that the information we read, see and hear is trustworthy.
- Although skepticism is essential, don’t be equally skeptical of everything. Activate your own “trust meter” to judge information.
- Go outside your personal comfort zone. We need to seek out information that challenges our views, and not only look for information we tend to agree with.
- Ask more questions. Dig deep and investigate, to ensure informed opinion.
- Understand and learn media techniques. If we better understand how it works and are able to contribute, we will be better equipped to identify trustworthy information.
Principles for Media Creators:
- Do your homework, and then do some more. Learn as much as possible about the topic you’re writing about.
- Get it right, every time. Make sure your information is accurate and that you get the facts right. Inaccurate information undermines trust.
- Be fair to everyone. That includes incorporating views you may disagree with. While it may strengthen an argument, or change conclusions, it will for sure instill trust with the audience.
- Think independently, especially of your own biases. Also for media creators, go beyond your comfort zone. Including opposing views are not enough. Instead, listen and question your own conclusions.
- Practice and demand transparency. Gillmor says “If you do an honest job as well as you can, greater transparency will lead your audience to trust you more even while they may believe you less. “
You can read more about these principles on the Mediactive website, or in the book. The book also includes tools and techniques for how to put these principles into practice. It’s a great source for everyone, and it will make you think twice next time you read or write something (because Gillmor suggests that in a participatory culture, we ought to do both to become fully literate). With the current state of media (and no doubt it’s going to continue to evolve and diversify), we can no longer afford to take a back-seat and be passive consumers of information. If we do, we run the risk of being misguided and form opinions that are not based on fact.
While much more needs to get done to integrate media literacy into educational programs, it is not enough. Media literacy ought to extend beyond the educational context to the broader citizenry, so that everyone can attain the necessary skills, demand quality reporting, and become active participants in the public sphere, which can only benefit the society at large.
Photo Credit: Flickr user Write from Karen