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Principles for a New Media Literacy

We’ve got so many new lessons to teach.

As the information and communications landscapes shift and grow, we are responsible for shifting ourselves as we guide learners and help them develop strategies for selecting, using, and creating media.

Dan Gillmor, Professor of Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University, recently published a provocative essay for Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.  The essay serves as a springboard for discussion for high school communities–both students and faculty, as we revise strategies for effectively and ethically navigating new information/media landscapes.  Though Gillmor’s primary audience is students of journalism, young researchers would certainly benefit from his wisdom.

At our school, young researchers share the results of their research with the world.  The line between research and journalism is getting kinda fuzzy.

Gillmor argues that the term media literacy itself may be antiquated and that our traditional notion of that concept has all but missed the emerging methods of participation that are becoming such a key element of digital media.  He urges a more active approach to media and presents two sets of principles–for media consumption and for media creation.

Here are some highlights:

Principles of Media Consumption 
Gillmor sums these up as skepticism, judgment, understanding, and reporting.

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.  Journalists make mistakes and the worst of those errors may be errors of omission.

2. Although skepticism is essential, 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.  Gillmor advocates for use of our own internal BS (or perhaps, trust) meters. For instance, an article from the New York Times or Wall Street Journal may start out high on our meters.  As for evaluating blog content, readers might be less suspicious of blog comments that include the commenter’s real name than those that are those posted by anonymous commenters or commenters using pseudonyms. On the other hand, anonymity may be valuable.  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. We tend to seek information from those with whom we agree.  Gillmor notes: 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.

For many of our students, this may mean exposure to non-Western news sources. Gillmor suggests sources like Global Voices Online, Black Planet, and following links in blogs you normally read, especially when they take you to sources that disagree with the author.

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. To make good choices, we need to be more active than ever in digging for answers. Gillmor suggests that in examining information, we adopt President Reagan’s Cold War advice to trust but verify, in his dealings with the Soviet Union.  I ask students to interview their sources and to triangulate their evidence.

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.

Gillmor notes: 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. Nope, they’re not assessed on standardized tests. And blogs are currently blocked at many of our schools. Nevertheless, media creation skills are essential for students of all ages. Students need to know how to effectively use the best of the available tools to tell and share their digital stories. They also need to understand the way others use media to persuade and manipulate. . .  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. And because of its enormous influence on our lives, we all need to better understand how journalism works and learn to scrutinize its strategies.

Principles of Media Creation

Our students create media as well as consumer it.  Gillmor advises:

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. . . Shoddy research,. . .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.

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. . . . Know where to look to verify claims or to separate fact from fiction. And never, ever, spell someone’s name wrong.

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. The Golden Rule applies in 21st Century writing.  It may extend to offering people an opportunity to reply to what you post, as well as using hyperlinks to point to other sources and perspectives. 

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.. . 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. . . 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.

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Joyce Valenza About Joyce Valenza

Joyce is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, a technology writer, speaker, blogger and learner. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza

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