In a time when so much of our news is fake, false, shallow, and out of context, there’s no question of the need to upgrade the supply. At every journalism conference I attended in the past several years, the primary goals were to make journalism better as well as financially sustainable.
Tackling the supply side is always useful. But we haven’t done nearly enough to address the demand. We can’t just upgrade journalists. We, the people who use media mostly as consumers and sharers, have to upgrade ourselves, too. We have to make principles of media literacy, the core of which is critical thinking in our consumption and creation, part of our everyday lives.
Who can do media literacy at scale? Among others, journalists themselves — though, for the most part, they’ve inexplicably failed to try.
Suppose journalists and news organizations had made it a priority in recent decades to help their audiences know the difference between truth and lies. Suppose, more recently, they’d been actively helping the communities they serve deploy critical thinking more widely. And suppose they’d embraced the reality that social media means, among other things, media creation by all of us — and why we all need to navigate that new world with integrity. We might well be fighting a “fake news” epidemic even if they had. But I’d bet anything it would be less virulent.
Optimist that I am, I predict 2017 will be the year when journalists realize what an extraordinary opportunity they’ve foregone, and decide makes these things a part of their mission. They won’t just be doing better by their communities. They’ll also boost their own standing at a time when the general public has so little trust in the craft.
How can media organizations seize the opportunity? The first of many steps is to be more transparent. Among other ways to do this: explain why they’re doing what they do, and how; ask their audiences to be more involved in the journalism, via crowdsourcing and other techniques; have real conversations with the community, beyond troll-infested comments the journalists (and others with common sense) ignore; and fully disclose errors with explanations of what happened and what steps they’ll take to prevent further occurrences. (As I wrote in a media-literacy book a few years ago, journalists who practice greater transparency may be believed a bit less, but they’ll be trusted more.)
Transparency isn’t the only way journalists could help bring media literacy to the public. It doesn’t require big new investments, however, which in the current financial climate should appeal to management.
One of the few people in Big Media who’s even trying to promote media literacy is CNN’s Brian Stelter. On a recent program, for example, he pushed his audience to triple-check the validity of things they’ve seen before sharing them via social networks. His increasingly urgent admonitions in his commentaries have been exactly what journalists should be doing at every organization.
If journalism organizations continue, in general, to ignore what I consider an obligation, there’s another group of players that could take on the mission: the tech platforms like Facebook, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, among others. Talk about scale: They could make a huge difference in a hurry.
But who better to do the job than journalists? It’s still their duty, if they think about it. And it’s not too late to start now.
Dan Gillmor is professor of practice at Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.