Digital Journalism & Media Literacy: Combating Ignorance in the Digital Age

What is Digital Journalism?

Merriam-Webster defines journalism as, “the collection and editing of news for presentation through the media.”  Therefore, we can probably define digital journalism as information that is gathered and disseminated through digital means such as the internet.

Why is Digital Journalism Important for Us?

We live in a digital age where information comes at us at an alarming rate, and arguably, the speed of information exchange has only increased exponentially within the last couple of decades.  Who knows how it will change in another decade?  Our love of convenience has only fueled the wildfire that is consumerism, and this includes the consumption of information.  Since we want everything quickly, our subsequent lack of patience has also affected our willingness to dismiss information that requires anything more than a single-sentence analysis.  We see this kind of shallow thinking all the time in advertising where products are marketed using simple descriptors and superlative adjectives and adverbs.  Sadly, this language appears to be bleeding over into our daily lives as well, both off and online.

We love to use the term “fake news” in recent years, but that’s nothing new.  Erroneous information (or even misinformation) has been around since time immemorial.  Arguably the only thing that has changed is the speed at which information disseminates.  It is important that we learn how to distinguish information that is worthwhile and that which is a waste of our time.  This identification of valuable information is nothing new either.  Historians identify and evaluate information all the time in the form of source analysis and critique.  We need to educate ourselves on the importance of source analysis given the rapid spread of information with the rise of social media giants on the internet.

Much of the issue with fake news and our need to identify it is in our approach and mindset.  If we fail to hold our scholarship to high standards, then we’re effectively endorsing only that which is shallow, purely entertaining, or catered to the lowest common denominator.  These high standards apply not just to our personal consumption of information, but also to our spreading of it.  I would argue that censorship is not necessarily the answer, rather, accountability is.  We should be accountable both as publishers and consumers of information.

Accountability as Publishers (The Importance of Citing Sources)

Your history teacher always tells you to cite your sources.  They also tell you that plagiarism is bad.  Well, stealing in general is bad, as is arson, murder, and jaywalking.  There’s always the simple ethical and legal reasons for citing your sources.  However, the idea of stealing non-tangible, intellectual property doesn’t always resonate with people, so let’s list some other reasons to cite sources.

According to Jonathan Bailey (2017), citing sources is about:

1. Giving credit where credit is due.

  • We should understand that we stand on the shoulders of others and their work.  You most likely didn’t come up with these ideas on your own and doing original research is both time-consuming and hard.  That’s why universities hire lots of snobby people with Ph.D.s to do their dirty work.
  • Citations are a small price to pay for showing a modicum of appreciation for other people’s hard work.  Others may do the same for you one day.

2. Strengthening your position

  • Ethics and legality aside, citing high-quality and respectable sources shows that you can discriminate and critically evaluate sources and “weed out the fake news.”  Even with real news, we find that the genuine facts can often contradict each other.  It’s up to the writer to determine which sources are the best and most reliable to use.  (Note: in scholarly circles, even today, Wikipedia is NOT seen as a credible source.  Easy?  Yes!  Authoritative?  No!)
  • Citing quality sources also improves the quality of your writing and provides evidence to bolster your stance.  Therefore, anyone wishing to argue against you is effectively arguing not only against you, but everyone you cited.  You’re backing yourself up with supporting evidence and bolstering your credibility, as well.  You want to be taken seriously, don’t you?

3. Showing due diligence

  • Creating good citations shows that you can do basic research.  Even if you get something wrong, it may not be entirely your fault.  However, without citations, all errors are on you and the result of your negligence.  If you didn’t cite sources, and then someone calls you out on it, saying “I didn’t know,” is no excuse.

Accountability as Consumers (How to do basic source analysis and identify fake news)

It’s not enough for us to simply rely on media outlets to do the work for us.  As consumers of information, we need to hold our own scholarship and thinking to high standards and not expect everything to be spoon-fed to us.  Debra Jones (1996) in, “Critical thinking in an online world,” defines the critical evaluation of sources as determining the “worth, accuracy, or authenticity of various propositions, leading to a supportable decision or direction for action.”  This brings us back to the issue of source analysis.  While we can’t expect everyone to have the skills of a professional historian, the basics of source analysis and evaluation still apply.  The critical evaluation of sources is, ideally, a process that occurs throughout the entire research process.  Leslie Stebbins (2006) suggests the following method for conducting research: (note: the following is more geared towards academic research, but it could easily be applied to other sources of information)

Basic Steps in Source Analysis:

  1. Locate Sources
    • Ask a librarian.  Have you ever wondered why there’s such a thing as a Master’s of Library and Information Sciences degree?  It’s because they know how to find books, articles, use databases, archives, and catalog sources with crazy efficiency.
    • Use scholarly/academic databases such as LexisNexis, Ebsco, JSTOR, etc., to locate articles and sources that have gone through a peer-review process.  You may need access to an academic or university library for some of these.  You can track down full journal articles, newspaper/magazine articles, government/legal documents, audio recordings, photographs, video, etc.
      • You should note that thousands upon thousands of scholarly journal articles are published every year.  This is partially due to the “publish or perish” system in academia where professors are judged partly based on how much they publish (research/scholarship is one of the keys to climbing in academic rank).  If you’ve ever wondered why some of your college professors aren’t very good teachers, it’s because they don’t necessarily need training in pedagogy to teach in higher education.  Universities hire professors based on their subject expertise and research skills, not necessarily on how good they are at teaching.
    • If you have access to one, dig around in an archive!
    • Use bibliographies from authoritative sources (scholarly journals, books, subject encyclopedias, etc.).  These sources were chosen by the author for a reason.
    • Track down experts on the subject (university professors, etc.).  There’s usually a network of scholars researching a similar subject.
  2. Evaluate Sources (Understand the Context)
    • Examine the author
      • Who is the author?  What is their background & credentials?  Have they published other works on the subject?  Is their work cited in other sources?  Can you determine if the author has any definite bias?
      • The rigor of having to obtain an advanced degree aside, simply having a Master’s or Doctorate in any field isn’t necessarily an indication of the quality or appropriateness of the material.  Sure, there is crossover in the research skills required to obtain a high-level degree, but that translates to scholarship abilities, and not specific knowledge of any field.  For example, a professor of physics isn’t necessarily an expert in political science.
    • Evaluate the publisher
      • What kind of publisher is it? (university press, commercial, government, religious, political, etc.).  Based on this, you can determine what kinds of bias the publisher may have.
    • Note the date of publication
      • Research and data has a shelf-life.  In the hard sciences, the length is usually about 1 year.  Sometimes less if original research is being conducted.  In social sciences and humanities, a few years is still good, and classic works on the subject usually last much longer.
    • Determine the quality of the content (How scholarly is the work?)
      • Is the content accurate?  Do the arguments make sense or are they faulty in their logic and conclusions?  Are the arguments well-supported and consistent?
      • What is the writing level and tone of the language (formal or informal)?  Do you see grammatical, typographical, or factual errors?  Can you tell if the work has been proofread and edited?
    • Check the bibliography
      • Does the work make use of reputable sources?  Were a variety of sources used?
    • Compare and corroborate the information presented
      • Does the information presented corroborate with other external (preferably well-known and reputable) sources?  How does it compare with other information that may make contrary claims?
  3. Be Engaged with your Research
    • Knowledge isn’t gained passively, but actively.  Think about what you are learning as you do your research and try to keep the bigger picture in mind.
    • The longer you spend in a particular field, the more experience you gain, and the more developed your research skills become.  Research techniques are skills that take time to develop. They can be quite difficult to become proficient at. The more knowledgeable you become on a topic and the better you refine your research skills, then the more you’ll be able to discern good sources from bad sources.
    • Eventually, you’ll begin to pinpoint the seminal works on a particular subject.

Similar to Stebbins, John Spencer (2016) suggests a plan to identify fake news that he calls “The Five C’s of Critical Consuming.”

  1. Context
  2. Credibility
  3. Construction
  4. Corroboration
  5. Compare

If we take any of these methods and their steps into account when examining any kind of informative writing, then the issue of fake news should be easier to avoid.  The problem is that any number of these steps can be time-consuming.  However, spending more time on critical thinking and less time worrying about the convenience of something is a small price to pay for being informed.

What About Bias?

Merriam-Webster defines bias as, “an inclination of temperament or outlook; especially : a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment : prejudice.”

Every source, whether primary, secondary, or tertiary*, has bias.  There’s no way to make something completely objective.  Bias doesn’t invalidate a source, but it is something to always be considered.  With unpublished primary sources, it is the responsibility of the researcher to determine its value.

*I’ll discuss the pros and cons of primary, secondary, and tertiary sources in another post.

Two Types of Bias (of many)

Creator Bias (every creator has a particular lens or point-of-view, nobody sees the entire picture)

  • What was the creator’s relationship to the event?
  • Did the creator have a view or purpose to express in their work?  Did they create the work for personal or public use?
  • Is the creator neutral or did they have some special interest in the event?
  • Was the source created in the spur of the moment or the result of careful consideration?
  • What information or facts were omitted from their work?
  • Did the creator see the event firsthand or was it reported to them by others?
  • What is the creator’s language and tone they use?
  • What sort of social, political, economic, etc. contexts are apparent?
  • An oral history is effectively an interpretation of an event.  The narrator is compressing a lot of time into a few hours of talking.  They’re mentally selecting what they include and leave out of their account.

Hindsight Bias AKA Historian’s Fallacy (Applying retrospective knowledge to past events)

  • It is unfair to assume or make judgements on participants’ actions based on what the historian/researcher now knows.
  • The participant in an event (first-hand accounts) has a unique perspective that no historian has, but we cannot expect the people at that time to have an informed awareness on par with that of an expert many years later.
  • Therefore, be aware of perspective when studying primary sources and first-hand accounts.
    • Who was this person, where were they, and what were they doing at the time?

Consider the following when examining the bias of a work:

  • The closer in time and place a source was to its event, the more valid it is considered.
  • Is the account internally consistent?  Does it stick to the same story?  Would the creator have reasons for falsifying their account?
  • Is the account externally consistent?  Does the information corroborate with other primary and secondary sources?
    • For example, the famous Japanese naval aviator, Mitsuo Fuchida, claims to have been present at the signing of the instrument of surrender aboard the USS Missouri in 1945.  However, historians such as Jonathan Parshall, have been unable to corroborate this claim with any other documentation.
  • Beware of your own bias and don’t read into sources what isn’t there.  Don’t succumb to confirmation bias, where you blindly accept anything that appears to agree with your interpretation.  Ask yourself: How do your values differ with the creator’s values?  Don’t interpret the creator’s writing in light of your own values, but rather with knowledge of the creator’s value system.  Think of alternate interpretations and explore the cultural or psychological undertones of the text.  Check with other literature on the topic and see what other researchers concluded.
  • Use multiple sources.  I’ve already mentioned the need to corroborate the information in sources.  Take the time to do some basic research rather than being lazy.

Conclusion

Regardless of the medium through which we get our information, the basics of source analysis still hold.  Fake news is nothing new, but the speed and quantity of information that comes our way has significantly changed over the years.  We need to be aware of bias and maintain a healthy skepticism of the ideas and facts that we consume, lest we begin to fall down the slippery slope that is willful ignorance.  We need to be responsible as publishers of information by ensuring the use of reputable sources.  We need to also be responsible as consumers of information by setting aside our compulsive need for instant gratification and be willing to look deeper into the subjects that draw our attention and examine the finer points of an argument from multiple perspectives.

References:

Bailey, J. (2017, May 16). Why Cite? Three Reasons to Cite Your Sources. Retrieved from https://www.plagiarismtoday.com/2017/05/16/why-cite/.

Bias [Def. 1a]. (n.d.). In Merriam Webster Online, Retrieved October 4, 2018, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bias

Fischer, D.H. (1970). Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought. New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers.

Jones, D. (1996). Critical Thinking in an Online World. Retrieved from http://misc.library.ucsb.edu/untangle/jones.html

Journalism [Def. 1a]. (n.d.). In Merriam Webster Online, Retrieved October 4, 2018, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/journalism

Spencer, J. (2016, December 6). Helping Students Identify Fake News with the Five C’s of Critical Consuming [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xf8mjbVRqao&t=3s

Stebbins, L.F. (2006). Student Guide to Research in the Digital Age. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

2 comments

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s