Redefine News Literacy

One of the treatments prescribed for the apparent epidemic of fake news, falsity, fraud, and foolishness sweeping the globe is “news literacy.” This weekend I’m joining a summit on news and media literacy convened by ASU and the Facebook Journalism Project. Good.

But I hope we redefine “news literacy” or throw the term out entirely.

The definition of news literacy has been: Read our news and you are literate; don’t and you are not. It is a media-centric worldview. It starts and ends with the content we make and our obsolete roles as gatekeepers and agenda-setters. Yes, it is also about teaching reasoning and critical judgment, but that is limited when news and media are the standards.

We need a definition that is public-centric. Our aim in journalism is to inform the public conversation and to be informed by it. Actually, reverse that. I love how Jay Rosen summarizes James Carey’s view of the journalistic imperative: “The press does not ‘inform’ the public. It is ‘the public’ that ought to inform the press. The true subject matter of journalism is the conversation the public is having with itself.”

For the public’s part, we must recognize — no, embrace — the fact that the public is at the center of informing itself. The public is not an audience made up of passive consumers of our product, news, at the end of the process of its manufacture.

With every link, like, share, and screenshot, the public is a — no, the — distributor of news. That is why it is critical that we in journalism learn how to inform their conversations where and when they occur, on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, and Reddit, in forms appropriate to each context and use. This means training journalists in new skills before we presume to train the public.

But even this view still condescends to the public and minimizes its role as merely the distributors of the news we make. News starts not with news organizations but with the public and its conversations.

Journalism must learn to listen to the public conversation — communities’ conversations — to understand, empathize with, reflect, inform, and thus serve their needs and goals as prerequisite to gaining their trust. We in media are awful at that. This election is only the latest evidence of our failing.

So our first goal is not to make the public more news-literate but to make journalism more public-literate.

I envision a journalism that listens to the public using all the many new ways we have to do so, starting with Facebook and social media but extending also to sophisticated means to analyze the broader conversation occurring, from Reddit to The New York Times, from Huffington Post to Breitbart. Thus we can map what people are talking about and also how others try to manipulate that conversation. Journalism has always been reductive: We turn any complexity into a simple narrative, a story. The net and its connections together with learning systems enable us to draw a more complex picture of the world, a truer picture.

Once the press is more literate about the public, it will do a better job in helping the public in its quest to be informed. I don’t like framing this as “literacy,” for that can be a paternalistic, top-down, and judgmental way to look at the people we serve. Our job is not to make the public less dumb about the news we prescribe. Our job is to arm the public with facts, tools, and means to better inform each other so they may deliberate the fate of their communities and democracy.

We have so many new ways to help do that. We can listen in new ways. We can change the form of journalism. We can bring journalism — reporting, confirming, explaining news — to people where they are. We can give people social tokens — memes with facts, context, and journalism inside — that they can spread to counteract the fake news factories: truth bullets to fire at will. We can work with platforms to highlight authoritative sources and expertise over dross and paranoia. We can get the platforms to do a better job of labeling and tracking sources of information, for good or bad. We can map the manipulation that is aimed at the platforms and thus at the public. We can give people tools to learn the tricks of the manipulators, propagandists, and fraudsters to help them and us nip lies in the bud. We can give people new resources — in addition to the never-ending stream of news — where they can more readily find the state of public knowledge. We can work on new methods to bring greater civility to the public conversation so it is about intelligence over emotion, facts over fear. We can expand citizens’ worldviews not by constantly correcting or belittling them and not just by introducing them to new ideas but also by introducing them to new people who can tell their stories and share their worldviews. We can reinvent journalism in collaboration with the public we serve.

Thus I want to widen the umbrella that used to be called “news literacy” and call it something else. Any ideas?