A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a vibrant conference on News Literacy at the United Nations. The panel was composed of a number of journalistic big fish from the field and the academy, representatives from Facebook and other social media giants, as well as the founders of a couple of like-minded organizations that have recently sprouted and begun to mobilize in American politics with a new message.
It takes a moment to speculate on the meaning of the term News Literacy, and I have come across many people active in the issue who would opt for something different. What it means is the ability to read the news critically, and to use it exclusively for your own purposes of gathering truthful information. The word literacy evokes the idea that this ought to be a standard skill, and its proponents will sometimes say they are seeking to take literacy to the level demanded by the 21st century. More concretely, organizations like Alan Miller’s “News Literacy Project” have been developing interactive online courses targeted at adolescents and young adults. “It’s important to catch them young,” that is, before people settle too comfortably into a political stance from which they will not budge for the next six or seven decades.
Users are trained to ask the kinds of questions that a professional journalist looking at a piece of news may ask herself. Lesson 4 in the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brooks tells you to remember V.I.A: Verification, by an Individual who is Accountable. For example, if there is a problem with something you read in this blog, it should be possible to call Nonviolence International and speak to me about it, holding me accountable for my facts. Why are lessons like these particularly important in 2017?
Why is this issue important? Why is an increasing number of journalists passionately advocating the inclusion of such training in the high school syllabus? Are you really the problem here?
Misinformation is emphatically not a new phenomenon. Information has always been a source of power, and at different times has served as a sword or a shield for government and citizens alike. Adolf Hitler blamed Germany’s economic troubles on the Jewish and Gypsy populations to legitimize the Holocaust [sword]. Later generations of Germans would famously repeat “we did not know anything,” when asked about the atrocities [shield]. One could say religious information incited thousands of medieval crusaders to violence [sword]. We do not have to look much further than recent American history for examples of governmental secrecy for the purposes of self-preservation [shield]. These are firmly established notions, but the interesting question is how is that power distributed now?
For most of history it was the dominant political coalition, which through a combination of military and economic resources with a dash of consumer illiteracy, had a firm grip on information. Freedom of the press and universal education shifted some of that power to individuals who could now read and freely discuss current affairs, and to news companies, who were further strengthened by the development of radio and television in the 20th century. Becoming large news conglomerates as the century marched on, it is easy to see how these organizations came to share opinion-creating powers with governments, and, provided governments were benign, these decades of informal partnership are sometimes thought of as the golden age of journalism. The explosion of the Internet is now quickly eroding the power these companies hold, but where does their influence go instead? One answer is back to governments, and if we consider the 2016 US Presidential election, this may even mean foreign governments. The other answer is that influence may tip even further towards the individual, and this is what the News Literacy folks believe we must focus on as a culture.
We have access to more information than ever, and we even have a good amount of control over what we expose ourselves to. In our view, this is both a threat and an opportunity. The latter dimension is obvious enough, if we are better informed our political discussions and decisions will be supported by facts and therefore have more impact. But access to diverse information does not mean we will use it, nor does it mean that we are well equipped to do so.
This is where News Literacy takes centre stage. In an age where a blogger in underwear can speak to a mass audience, it is suddenly extra important to demand things like objectivity, verifiable sources, and strong journalistic reputation. News Literacy courses will teach you how to parse fact from fiction, but more importantly, to navigate the huge gray area within which most media actually falls. If fake news were only about false facts, the challenge would not be as great. There are degrees of reliability, levels of certainty, logical coherence, and many other standards by which a piece of news can be disqualified by an astute reader. Finally, the consumer can do plenty to make things worse. The Pew Center reports that 23% of Americans admit to having shared fake news stories, and well over half of them have done so knowing full well that the stories were untrue.
If the News Literacy crowd is right, it means that you are more powerful than you think. It means that the fight against misinformation starts and ends with you, but it implies a fairly serious responsibility. Thankfully, you can accept this responsibility by pursuing one of three easy actions:
- Take a free News Literacy course: http://drc.centerfornewsliteracy.org/node/17871 - They are easy, interesting, and will give you actual intellectual tools to interpret media.
- Get out of your bubble once a week: Read an article from the other side of the political spectrum, with your fingertips on your forehead. When you feel yourself frown, remember that most people you disagree with are neither evil nor ignorant, they have just absorbed different information.
- Pay for one source of news: Donate $3 a month to the Guardian, or get an online subscription to the Times. A small monetary investment will make you feel obliged to stay informed, and being informed makes all the difference.
Do not be afraid to use the power that you already have. With all the information we have at our immediate disposal, we could be the sharpest and most educated generation of political observers to date. But we will have to do our homework.