September 29, 2015

We Are In Desperate Need of Improved Media Literacy

Newspaper "gone to the Web."
Newspaper "gone to the Web." (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
There was a topic that came up briefly during SPJ Airplay that I found quite interesting even though it had little to do with GamerGate, gaming, feminism, or even journalistic ethics. It came up so briefly that it was easy to miss, but I have found myself thinking about it ever since. The topic was media literacy, and it involves the question of whether the average person consuming online and/or traditional news media regards news sources as roughly equivalent or draws the same sort of distinctions about their quality a professional journalist might.

During the panel, the topic came up because some of the GamerGate panelists were criticizing media outlets that the professional journalists did not seem to take seriously as legitimate media. The most notable example was probably Gawker, but there were others. The sense I had while watching was that the professional journalists were close to saying something like, "It's Gawker, what did you expect?" I found myself wondering whether the average person makes a meaningful distinction between Gawker and something like The Washington Post. I certainly hope so, but I'm not so sure.

Of course, we have all seen many examples of respected journalists employed by reputable news media outlets making mistakes. We have seen outright plagiarism and fabrication, extremely one-sided reporting, pushing ideologically-driven narratives over facts, and even attempting to pass off government propaganda as the truth (e.g., selling the American public on the war in Iraq). In some cases, the problem seems to be the individual journalists; in others, the editors were incompetent or complicit.

Clearly, even the most reputable media organizations have their share of problems. And yet, there do appear to be some meaningful differences between them and the likes of Gawker, Buzzfeed, Salon, The Huffington Post, and the rest of the clickbait/outrage media. Those of who who recognize these differences expect much more from our reputable news media and aim to hold them to a higher standard. At least, I believe we should do so. At the same time, I can't help wondering whether most people even draw such distinctions.

Media literacy, at least as I am thinking of it now, would involve some attempt to inform the public that not all news sources are equally valuable and help them critically evaluate various sources. It would help people learn about things like journalistic ethics and how the practices of outrage media often differ in some dramatic ways from those of reputable news media (e.g., use of anonymous sources vs. trying to get people on the record, aiming to inflame one's audience vs. fact-checking and verifying facts). In fact, learning about how reputable reporters work would likely be advantageous to all of us. And most of all, media literacy would strive to create more informed consumers of news media. If this sounds awfully similar to skepticism, it should. I think that adopting a skeptical attitude would be an important part of media literacy.

To be clear, I'm not advocating what some like to call "hyper-skepticism," a state of affairs where we refuse to believe anything we do not personally experience (as if our own personal experience isn't extremely prone to bias and misinterpretation). What I am advocating is some effort directed at helping people learn to distinguish between much of what they find on Jezebel, Breitbart, Salon, or Twitchy and much of what they find on more reputable news sources. Again, it isn't that the reputable sources don't make mistakes. They certainly do. And it isn't that the outrage media doesn't occasionally do some quality reporting. They certainly do. It is about the norm vs. the exceptions to the norm.

I'm afraid that if we don't pursue media literacy and an adequately funded but truly independent news media, we might someday find ourselves with nothing left other than extremely polarized and ideologically-driven "news" sources that selectively report whatever seems to advance their agenda. I cannot see any scenario where that would serve the public good. I don't think we are quite there yet, but we are much closer than I'd like.