On June 17, 2009, Mashable made a mistake. In a report about the volume of Twitter activity surrounding the #IranElection movement, we accidentally used a “b” instead of an “m,” inflating the number of total tweets one thousand-fold. This, on its own, is not spectacular. Though we certainly try to avoid it, every organization makes mistakes like this. The great thing about the web is that we were able to fix the error within minutes of the article going out. “Billion” became “million,” our readers had the correct information. No big deal.
Except that also within minutes, Ann Curry of NBC News, a very highly respected journalist with an international following, had tweeted our original, incorrect version to her followers. Her repetition of our mistake lent legitimacy to an incorrect stat.
That episode reveals the best and worst of the state of news media today. On one hand, speed allows for flexibility. We were able to correct a mistake almost immediately, instead of having to wait until the next day’s edition. If “Dewey Defeats Truman” happened today, a correction could be made with much greater ease.
On the other hand, the speed at which the real-time web operates also allows false information to spread quickly. The Chicago Tribune only printed about 150,000 copies of their infamous headline gaffe; how many millions of people can see a mistaken tweet? That widespread perception is more difficult to correct.
The Speed of the Web Both Empowers and Undermines the Media
As my Curry anecdote illustrates, there are reasons to be both excited and fearful for the state of the fourth estate.
There is a case to be made that now is the greatest time in history to be a journalist. There is more access to all media, meaning a larger section of the populace has the chance to stay informed. In places where people have lived under oppressive regimes — like Egypt — the democratization of media has given hope for a freer society. Digital tools now exist that encourage reporting with greater depth. Journalism can be undertaken by crowds working in unison, allowing vast amounts of information to be pored over in ways never before possible. Mistakes can be corrected in real-time and stories can be updated as they unfold.
There is also a case to be made that journalism is in trouble. The rise of blogging and social media means that journalism is now firmly in the domain of the people, and there is a risk that all those voices will drown each other out; that sorting fact from fiction has become too difficult; that the established standards of journalistic ethics and integrity have fallen by the wayside; that information spreads too fast to be properly vetted and investigated.
A recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 94% of American Internet users have turned to the web for news, yet 70% agreed with the statement, “The amount of news and information available from different sources today is overwhelming.” And that’s only going to get worse.
Ray Kurzweil’s law of accelerating rate of change, which certainly seems to apply here (just think of how you got your news 20 years ago vs. 10 years ago vs. today), indicates that information is only going to keep increasing. The news cycle is going to keep shortening. The stream is going to get more saturated.
For that reason, media literacy has become at once more important and more complex.
What It Means to be Literate in the Digital Age
Are you illiterate if you don’t know how to interpret a tweet? If you can’t tell the difference between fact and fiction on Twitter, does that mean you are lacking media literacy skills?
In 2009, while a debate raged in the halls of the U.S. Congress about a federal stimulus bill to jump start the nation’s fading economy, one curious Twitter user decided to conduct a social experiment. He started seeding Twitter with false information about the stimulus bill. Using the Twitter account “@InTheStimulus,” the user started spreading falsities around Twitter with a surprising effect — the the information was picked up and retweeted so much that people began to believe it. In fact, a large number of members of Congress actually began to recite the “facts” on the floors of the House and Senate.
So, were all those Congresspeople illiterate? Maybe.
“Literacy has always been defined by the technology,” said Nichole Pinkard, founder of Chicago’s Digital Youth Network in a PBS special on 21st century learning that aired in February. “Before the printing press, your ability to orally recite something meant [you were] literate.”
In today’s media-saturated world, the concept of literacy is again changing. According to Pinkard, kids in school today may not be considered literate in the future if they don’t fundamentally understand new forms of media — things like blogs, Twitter and streaming video. To be truly literate, though, you also need to be able to think critically about media, discern fact from fiction, news from opinion, trusted from untrustworthy. These issues have always been thorny, but the explosion of self-publishing has only made media literacy more vital to the preservation of our democratic society.
Social Tools Are Not Enough; Literacy Must be Taught
Of course, one could also argue that the “@InTheStumulus” story is really just an example of sloppy reporting. Any journalist worth his or her salt wouldn’t use tweets as a source without first vetting that information. But there’s the rub — much of the information we consume today doesn’t come from trained journalists. Think of it as back-fence gossip amplified a million-fold.
Don’t get me wrong — a lot of so-called citizen journalism is great. Twitter, Facebook, Google+, YouTube — these are invaluable tools for getting information out quickly. It is for that reason that journalists are starting to rely on them to source stories, and to great effect. There’s nothing like having a network of first responders armed with pocket-sized computers that stretches around the globe and includes a billion people.
But for every Jakarta bombing account or Osama bin Laden raid, there is a celebrity death rumor or a misquoted fact. For now, most trained journalists understand how to vet sources — whether digital or analog. But that’s because journalists have a strong background in media literacy. Somewhere along the line, someone taught us the skills necessary to think critically about the information we consume, how to recognize a trusted source, and how to sniff out bias and ulterior motives.
What happens if media literacy training doesn’t keep up with the acceleration of the information stream? What happens as the line between trained and citizen journalism continues to blur? What happens if our kids can’t pick out fact from fiction?
According to the News Literacy Project, “because the focus on standardized testing in schools has tended to push civics or current events courses out of classrooms, schools today frequently do not address” media literacy.
And that’s what has people worried. Journalism is alive and well, but only if we continue to teach our kids to be discerning consumers of media. That’s why projects like the News Literacy Project, Center for Media Literacy and 21st Century Literacy are so important. It’s not enough to just make sure today’s youth know how to use digital media tools, we also need to make sure they know how to truly understand the information they find.
Continue the Discussion
Many of the top minds in new media will convene in New York City on November 4th for the Mashable Media Summit to discuss the very issues affecting 21st century journalism. Media literacy is just one of those issues. As always, we also invite you to add your thoughts in the comments section below.
A Look Back at Last Year’s Mashable Media Summit
Mashable Media Summit