On Skepticism, News Literacy, and Transparency: An Interview with Dan Gillmor (Part One)

“We’re in an age of information overload, and too much of what we watch, hear and read is mistaken, deceitful and dangerous. Yet you and I can take control and make media serve us — all of us — by being active consumers and participants.”

This language appears at the top of the website Dan Gillmor, long time advocate for citizen journalism, has constructed around his most recent project, Mediactive, and beautifully captures his particular contribution to the media literacy movement. Gillmor’s approach acknowledges the challenges and opportunities the new media landscape presents us in a way which is at once pragmatic and empowering. He certainly knows the risks to democracy posed by waves of misinformation and disinformation being spread across an array of media channels and the challenges of a context where we do not always know who created the media we are consuming. He also recognizes the value of expanding who has access to the channels of communication and thus the democratization which occurs when a broader range of citizens are producing and sharing media with each other. What he demands is that we each take ownership over the information we consume and share with each other, and taking ownership for him starts with skepticism.

Gillmor’s book provides a solid foundation for anyone wanting to work with young people or adults about news literacy, one which is as invested in new forms of civic media and citizen journalism as it is concerned about the future of professional news. In this interview, we get a glimpse into Gillmor’s current thinking about what it means to be a discerning citizen in the digital age and what the obligations of journalists are to help foster core civic skills and competencies.

Your new book, Mediactive, seeks to encourage “skepticism” about news and information. What do you see as the core virtues of skepticism and how does it differ from cynicism, which some would argue is wide spread in the

current context?

Skepticism is an essential part of being well-informed. It starts us off in the right place: assuming nothing but learning to trust some sources of information more than others.

Skepticism differs from cynicism in one key way: A cynic has essentially given up any hope that an information provider can do a good enough job to ever earn trust. A skeptic recognizes that there will be flaws, but also believes that trust can be earned.

Throughout the book, you use the concept of a media or news “ecosystem.” Can

you explain this concept and suggest ways that the ecosystem we inhabit

today is different from the one which other generations confronted?

Let’s look at agriculture as an analogy for a second. American factory farming is an ecosystem, but highly non-diverse – nearly a “monoculture” in many crops where a single variety overwhelmingly dominates the market.

The news ecosystem has been something of a monoculture in recent years, at least in the newspaper business in most U.S. communities that support daily papers, where typically there’s a single surviving one. Broadcast is close to that – just a few entities with government-granted airwaves that no one else can use.

We’ve come to understand the danger of monocultures. They’re inherently unstable, because when they fail they do so with catastrophic results. (Remember Wall Street in 2008.)

A diverse ecosystem, by contrast, isn’t as threatened by individual failures, because the parts of the ecosystem are less dominant. If the dominant food variety fails, we can end up with a serious food shortage, or worse. If a few big banks can kill the global economy when they fail, similar forces are at work.

In a diverse and vibrant agricultural system or capitalist economy, the failure of a specific crop varietal or business is tragic mostly for the farmers who planted it or that business. It doesn’t cause a wider catastrophe.

That’s the kind of news/information ecosystem we need, and which is coming. It’s why I’m optimistic.

You have historically been a key advocate of citizen journalism, but here,

you are also offering some important cautions, calling for citizens (as

readers and news producers) to take greater responsibility over the

information they are exchanging. Is this a shift in position or a shift in

emphasis?

It’s much more a shift of emphasis. I was cautious about quality in my last book, which some folks misconstrued as an uncritical celebration of citizen media. I continue to celebrate the fact that so many more people are creating media, but while the quantity is surging, it would be crazy to declare victory when it comes to quality.

In the book, you advocate what you call “slow news.” Can you explain this

concept and why you think the speed of current journalism is partially to

blame for the circulation and perpetuation of myths, rumors, and other

inadequacies?

I’ve been a fan of the “slow food” movement for some time (even if I don’t adhere as well as I should to its ideas). Slow news, a term that was coined in this context by Ethan Zuckerman, is the notion that we should not hurry to assume we know what’s actually happening, certainly not when we’re getting news at the rapid pace we hear and see it today.

When you combine the amount of information pouring over us with its high velocity, the need to take things a little more slowly – as information providers but especially as info consumers – becomes obvious. And it’s not just random blog posts and tweets that can lead us astray.

We need only look to last January’s horrific shootings in Tuscon, Arizona, for evidence. NPR and a number of other news outlets (most relying on NPR as a source) reported that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had died in the supermarket parking lot. She had not died, as we learned fairly quickly.

My own approach is to force myself to consider how sensational a report is along with how soon it comes after the alleged event. And the closer it is to the event, the more I put it in a category of “interesting if true” – with emphasis on “if”.

I recognize that this goes against human nature to some degree. But if we can persuade ourselves to keep in the back of our minds that sliver of skepticism, we’ll be fooled less, at a time when the consequences of being fooled are growing.

Dan Gillmor is founding director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication. The project aims to help students understand the startup culture, and ultimately to help them invent their own jobs.

Dan’s latest book, Mediactive, aims to encourage a better media supply in part by creating better demand — to spur people to become active media users, as consumers and participants. His last book, We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People was the first to explain the rise of citizen media and why it matters. Dan also writes an online column for the Guardian and blogs regularly at Mediactive.com.

Dan has been a co-founder, investor and advisor in a number of media ventures in the for-profit and non-profit worlds. From 1994 until early 2005 he was a columnist at the San Jose Mercury News, Silicon Valley’s daily newspaper, and wrote a weblog for SiliconValley.com. He joined the Mercury News after six years with the Detroit Free Press. Before that, he was with the Kansas City Times and several newspapers in Vermont.

More about Dan at http://dangillmor.com/about

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