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

Some have argued that the criteria for evaluating news has shifted from

impartiality to transparency. How would you rank mainstream news and citizen

media in terms of their embrace of transparency as a civic virtue?

An effort to be impartial – or “objective,” to use the word most journalists revere – is not a bad thing. The problem is that it’s impossible to achieve in the real world. We all come to our jobs with life histories, world views, and sometimes outright biases.

That said, transparency is a definite virtue. It’s one of several principles – though not enough by itself – that information providers of all kinds should embrace. Add transparency to thoroughness, accuracy, fairness and independent thinking, and we’re getting somewhere.

I would rank traditional media organizations low on the transparency scale. They’re still among the most opaque institutions around. But there are glimmers of openness, here and there, that give me some hope that journalists are beginning to understand why they need to do this. Bloggers and others we might put in the “citizen journalism” sphere vary in their openness, too, though I’d say bloggers tend to be somewhat more transparent than professional journalists.

It’s about trust in the end. For people who are honorable in the way they work, transparency inspires greater trust.

What role should the news media itself play in fostering basic civic skills,

including those of critical reading and thinking? For example, how should

the news media be responding to persistent rumors about Obama, such as those

promoted by so-called Birthers? Is this a “teachable moment,” as one would

say in the Education Schools, and if so, how should teaching taking place

via the news media?

I wish the news media had made this a core mission a long time ago. They didn’t, and still haven’t. That’s a real shame; it would have helped not just their audiences but themselves – because audiences would have gotten a better idea what it takes to do quality journalism and had more respect for it.

If I ran a news organization and learned that a sizeable percentage of people in my community believed something that was false – birtherism, for example – I would make it part of my mission to help them learn the truth. That sounds easier than it would be, because people who believe lies are invested in those beliefs, but teachable moments abound in today’s world.

You also advocate in the book that in an era where many of us are playing

more active roles as citizen journalists, that the status of journalism

classes in colleges and universities shifts from training professionals to

training all citizens. Should journalism now be a required subject as part

of a newly configured liberal arts education?

The principles and skills of journalism map extremely well to every other endeavor, when you think about it. They’re part of being an engaged citizen in a variety of ways.

So, yes, I would make some kind of 21st Century media literacy – call it journalism or whatever – a part of the core curriculum. At several schools, “news literacy” is becoming a required course, though in the ones I’ve seen the emphasis (for practical reasons) is on consumption of news. The emphasis should be on critical thinking as consumers , but we are not literate unless we are also creators.

Many argue that the key difference between citizen and professional

journalism is the role of fact checking. Yet, your book describes many

different mechanisms on the grassroots level which are designed to check

facts and otherwise insure the integrity of information, while, for many

reasons, the place of fact checking in professional journalism is declining.

So, how long can we frame this as a meaningful distinction? And if this is

not the best way to think of the differences between amateur and

professional journalism, what would be productive ways of understanding

their relationship?

I don’t agree that the key difference between citizen and pro journalism is fact-checking. It can be a difference, but as you note, sloppiness is growing in traditional media and lots of bloggers are doing work that I trust a great deal.

The real issue is that we all have to take more responsibility for what we know, and what we say. Certainly we have to trust some sources more than others, but we have to be skeptical in varying degrees of everything, and the more important something is to us the more we need to look deeper. I don’t buy a car based on an advertisement, and if I see a story about some alleged medical breakthrough – especially if I am personally a candidate for that treatment – I’ll check further.

I’m trying to blur the distinctions between “pro” and “amateur” in the information world rather than highlight them, by improving the practices of both and encouraging audiences to take more responsibility.

Your book maintains a healthy faith that the current shifts in journalism

are going to not only maintain but expand diversity. As you know, many would

disagree with this claim, suggesting that core news organizations are

eroding amidst waves of consolidation of ownership and that this is going to

result in a much narrower range of information and opinion. What would you

say to those critics and skeptics of the current news ecosystem?

There’s no question that traditional journalism is in trouble as a business, and that some parts – vital parts – of what these organizations have done will go missing for a time. Consolidation of the traditional media into an ever-smaller number of corporate hands is also a reality.

At the same time, there’s never been more quality information about all kinds of things in some profitable niches, such as politics, technology, fashion, sports and a host of other things. Meanwhile, in a host of unprofitable (as media companies) niches, domain experts are telling us what matters. And new techniques for providing information, using APIs and databases among other tools, are leading to an explosion of social news gathering and dissemination.

We’re also starting to see some genuine innovation in business models, That’s key to what needs to happen.

Are we where we need to be? Not even close. But I have to stress that we’re very early in this transition. If it’s a baseball game we’re in the bottom of the second inning or top of the third.

What practices might emerge around citizen journalism which would increase

its accuracy and reliability?

The main one would be a recognition on the part of the information provider that it’s better to be trusted than distrusted – and that following some basic principles (the ones outlines above) are the road map to be trusted.

I stress principles because they don’t change much, if at all. The rest is simply tactics, which do change, but if tactics have principles as a foundation, we’ll be fine.

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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