News Literacy Working Group; Initial Thoughts

Can we make it un-cool to spread other people’s lies on social media? Should Facebook, Google, SnapChat, and Twitter embed tools of truth in their users’ feeds? Should journalists be vastly more transparent about how they operate? Should every public school be required to help kids learn how to be critical thinkers, and use media with integrity?

I’d answer Yes to all of those questions. And I suspect the same would be true for many if not most of the people who came to a remarkable meeting last weekend in Phoenix.

The occasion was a “News Literacy Working Group” at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The meeting, co-convened by Facebook and ASU, brought together about 50 people from education, technology, philanthropy, and journalism. Our goal, as the group’s name suggests, was to look hard at media/news literacy’s role in the digital age — and come up with serious ideas on how to deal with an emergency situation.

What’s the emergency? It stems from the realities of democratized media and communications. As media consumers and creators, we’re blessed with a staggering array of information sources. We can know more about things we care about than ever before. But some of what we see, and what too many of us share, is bogus — often deliberately so by people whose motives are profits or ideology, or both. And we’ve seen in recent months the poisonous effect the deceitful minority are having on public discourse and knowledge.

How can we respond? One way, in the fabled marketplace of ideas, is to upgrade our supply of journalism — a never-ending need.

But this is, in my mind, at least as much a demand problem: upgrading ourselves as active users of media, not just passive consumers. While supply and demand were both on our weekend agenda — and are intertwined in an age of social media — we were there to focus primarily on the latter.

I’m somewhat constrained by “Chatham House Rules” in what I can say here. These rules, which are widely used at meetings, basically prohibit me from saying who was there (without specific permission) or attributing what they said (also unless I have specific permission). But I can give you a flavor of what happened, and some details.

For me, the linchpin was to get people from the different sectors (e.g. education, tech, journalism, etc.) into the same room. This extended to some of the breakout groups, and it gave people an opportunity to look beyond their own specialties for cross-disciplinary approaches.

All kinds of ideas and recommendations emerged. We sorted them out in several overlapping categories, including a) educational needs; b) journalists’ role; c) technology’s role; d) what research needs to be done; and e) how to put this more firmly in the policy agenda and public consciousness.

I won’t go into detail on each of those, though I plan to expand on key thoughts in subsequent posts. Rather, after comparing notes with my colleague Eric Newton, here’s a short list of ideas that struck me as most immediately intriguing (again, among many others, and not in any particular order):

  • Get state legislatures to require media/news literacy in school curricula. (One suggestion was for the tech platforms to use a small part of their already-massive lobbying budgets to push for this.)
  • Come up with tools that help media users instantly get a much better idea of the context of what they’re looking at: metadata and more to be clearer on whether this or that piece of content deserves trust. A lot is already going on in this arena, but I heard several fascinating new approaches that I’ll talk more about later on.
  • Get the platforms to embed information about how things work. An example was auto-complete, which is a mystery to most people. The platform companies shouldn’t do this entirely on their own, several people said (and I agree); it should be a collaboration to give it more credibility.
  • Find ways to help media organizations embed media/news literacy into their own work. I’m still baffled, and beyond disappointed, that the journalism industry has abjectly failed to do this despite the obvious evidence that being leaders in media/news literacy would have engendered more trust from their audiences. One approach to begin to repair the damage, which I strongly favor, is to be much more transparent about what, how, and why they do their work.
  • Take a page from the anti-smoking campaign that has led to major improvement in public health, at least related to tobacco-caused illnesses, and create a campaign to make it un-cool to spread BS. We have tons of data from that campaign on what works, and what doesn’t. If we can enlist Hollywood, hip-hop stars, and other notables in this, we can do it.
  • Do much more research. We need to know better how deceit starts and spreads in all kinds of media, especially online; how what works and what doesn’t work in news literacy; how people actually use media (as opposed to how they say they do); and much more. A recurring theme, especially among researchers and journalists, was leaning on the platforms — especially Facebook — to open up their all-important data sets to researchers. (This will be a major challenge, to put it mildly, because for the big tech companies the data sets are pretty much the keys to the kingdoms. Without their help, however, research will be at best incomplete.)
  • Embed news literacy tools and training directly into the platforms. As I’ve said before, this is the one I think could have the greatest impact since we need scale. But it’s also a significant product change, more than a tweak, and I doubt it’ll happen soon in any major way.
  • Launch a “moonshot” (proposed by Stony Brook University’s Howard Schneider, who started an early news-literacy program) that aims to give kids the tools and skills they need to navigate our increasingly complex information ecosystem. This would be great, but only if there are serious resources involved. (UPDATE: Schneider’s moonshot would aim first at 12-year-olds, not everyone as I initially wrote.)
  • We don’t only need to come up with new ideas. We should help the people who’ve been in the trenches in the media/news literacy fields to do more of it, and learn from their experiences.
  • Look outside the U.S., because this is a global problem. (The tech companies may know this better than anyone.)
  • In general, collaborate like crazy. I think we did some last weekend, and we can do way, way more.

Mea culpa regarding important one element of the gathering: We didn’t have remotely enough cultural and political diversity among the attendees. If and when we do something like this again (I trust we will), fixing that will be at the top of my to-do list.

As to outcomes, that’s TBD. We had people in the room whose organizations can write big checks, or do things with their products that could make a difference in a hurry, or both. (One of the philanthropies that sent a representative — Josh Stearns, a friend and great ally in all this — was the Democracy Fund. Craig Newmark, another friend who has started putting serious money into supporting quality information, was also there.)

None of this would have happened without the support of Facebook’s Áine Kerr and her colleagues. Their professionalism, hard work, and commitment to the ideas made this collaboration a pleasure. As I said in a pre-gathering post, I continue to have strong differences with the company on some issues. But on this — the need to help users of media be vastly more savvy about what they’re consuming and creating, and to understand the importance of doing things ethically — we are allies.

“Grateful” is too small a word to describe my thanks to the invited participants. They were the working group. They worked effectively and collaboratively. They taught me all kinds of things I didn’t know, which for me is the best kind of meeting. And they made me even more eager to move forward.

My overwhelming takeaway from the meeting: Our society (and others) could be the verge of getting much more serious about media/news literacy as an essential element of creating a sustainable and honorable information ecosystem. That’s good news indeed.

I don’t know anyone who assumes that our society’s bogus-information problem will be easily or quickly solved. But I do think everyone who came to the Cronkite School for this meeting agreed that we’re in something of an emergency situation — and that the time to move on it is right now.

(Cross-posted to my personal blog.)