The ASU News Co/Lab is gathering momentum, I’m glad to say. If you have a minute (and are interested), take a look around our website…
Yesterday we launched our new initiative at ASU’s Cronkite School, the News Co/Lab. In a post then I explained its genesis, initial funder, and first on-the-ground project, working with the McClatchy news group and three of the communities it serves.
Today I’m thrilled to say that the News Integrity Initiative (NII) at City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism has awarded us a $300,000 grant to help build out News Co/Lab and support that pilot project.
Like the launch funding, this has emerged in part from the “News Literacy Working Group” meeting last March in Phoenix. Over the past few months, we’ve had long and detailed conversations with NII’s Jeff Jarvis and Molly DeAguiar about what we intend to do and how we plan to make it happen. Their questions sharpened our thinking and will make our projects better, and I thank them for that.
Please note the remarkably diverse grantees and projects NII is funding (they will be doing much more in coming months and beyond). I know many of the people involved in those efforts, and share their commitment — like NII’s — to a better information ecosystem. As I said yesterday, none of us, individually, has the answer or answers. Together, collectively, we will make a difference.
Some news: Arizona State University’s Cronkite School has launched News Co/Lab, a collaborative lab aimed at creating, testing, and promoting innovations that will help make the news ecosystem more robust and valuable for all participants.
Before I tell you more about what we’ll be doing, and who are initial partners will be, some background:</span>Last March, I asked this question: Could we find ways to make media/news literacy universal?
The question, which sounded simple, contained a universe of complexity. But the issues that sparked it went to the heart of what it means to be a Digital Age participant in civic, economic, and cultural life.
By the end of 2016 it became clear to anyone paying attention that misinformation, a perpetual problem in our media ecosystem, had become a crisis. The rise of social media and its split-second posting/sharing culture had given malicious actors their most powerful platform in history. With a few notable exceptions, traditional journalism was eroding. Fierce competition, especially from online platforms boasting enormous scale and efficiency, was undermining the business model. The journalism craft’s longstanding flaws (including, far too often, institutional arrogance) had undermined the public’s trust. Ambitious and already powerful people around the world were doing their best to poison the public even more against journalism and the whole idea of truth; their power and ambitions were best served through spreading confusion or outright lies, no matter what damage that did to our ability to make decisions based on reality.
No one disagrees that a key response to this barrage of badness must be to improve our information supply. But in recent times, in my view, we’ve paid too little attention to the demand side of the equation.
Supply and demand were never entirely separate before the Internet arrived. Now, given the ubiquity of creative tools and access to information–combined with “Big Data,” algorithmic targeting, AI, filter bubbles, and sharing–they are more deeply intertwined.
In this environment, even as we upgrade our information sources, we have to upgrade ourselves–as users of media who consume, create, share, and collaborate in our endlessly complex ecosystem. And we have to find ways to do this at scale–reaching as many people as possible to help them, above all, to be critical thinkers who would use media with integrity.
In that context last March, Facebook and Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication convened a “News Literacy Working Group.” Over a long weekend, we gathered an amazing group from around the world — experts in news/media literacy, journalists, technologists, researchers, funders, and more. My challenge to them was to think of ways we could make news literacy scale, and I suggested that we needed, in particular, a commitment to do this from educators, journalists, and technology platforms. One participant, my friend Jeff Jarvis from City University of New York, thought we should frame the issue in a much wider way than viewing it through the lens of that subset of media literacy we call news literacy. Others had their own ideas on a) what was wrong; and b) how we might address it. We thrashed through some of the issues and came up with a long list of ideas. It was an amazing three days.
Since then, the emergency hasn’t abated. On some levels, it’s vastly worse. But a lot is happening in the media world to at least begin to understand what’s happening, what’s at stake, and how we can collectively work to counteract the worst effects of the misinformation poison.
We’ve been doing what we can at ASU, with courses, training, and more. With News Co/Lab (we’re pronouncing it “collab”), we hope to go much deeper, but in targeted ways. I’ll be shifting my time to focus on the lab as its founding director. Facebook is our initial sponsor; more on that below.
We’ll be working mostly in and around the place where supply meets demand. We want to collaborate with anyone–teachers, journalists, librarians, technologists, civic leaders, among others–who shares our goals and wants to work on this. We have no intention of duplicating what others are already doing well. We want to help them do more of it.
To that end, our collaborative lab will start off with a scan of the emerging best practices from the many organizations already doing great work in the areas where we’ll focus. One thing we’re certain to learn: There’s much more work ahead. The nation’s (and the world’s) struggles with literacies of all kinds–civic, digital, media, news, and more–are well documented.
Our first on-the-ground project goes to the foundation of journalism: local news and information. We’ll be working with newsrooms and the communities they serve, to collaborate on experiments that increase transparency, engagement, mutual understanding, and respect.
Our media industry launch partner for that project is McClatchy. This makes me happy for several reasons. While McClatchy has suffered as much as any company in the local news business as it tries to make the wrenching transition from print to digital, its leadership and its journalists haven’t lost sight of the service component of what they do. The first McClatchy community where we’ll work will be Kansas City, where I worked for the Kansas City Star* early in my journalism career.
We also have an in-house partner, of course: Cronkite News. It’s the news arm of Arizona Public Broadcasting, and is part of the Cronkite School. It produces news for a variety of platforms, including a superb evening newscast for Arizona residents, and has bureaus in Washington and California. The students and faculty of Cronkite News are constantly experimenting, and we’ll be working with them to broaden their (and our) horizons even more, again aimed at creating deeper connections with the community.
There’s more coming from the lab, and we’ll be telling you about it in the days and weeks ahead. We’re beyond jazzed to be getting this initiative off the ground.
Which brings me back to our launch sponsor: Facebook. The News Co/Lab emerged from that March weekend and the subsequent conversations with people at the company and elsewhere. Facebook faces challenges for all kinds of reasons, but I’m convinced that the people I’ve worked with there are sincere in their wish to help solve the hugely difficult information-ecosystem problems we face individually, in our communities, in our companies and other institutions, and in nations around the world.
A special word of thanks to Áine Kerr, whose unbounded energy, commitment, and goodwill made her a joy to work with over these months. I wish her the absolute best as she heads back to her home in Dublin to co-found a news startup called Neva Labs. She’s earned the goodwill of news people, who will miss her in the post she’s so ably filled at Facebook. She has been part of a collaborative team there. I’m confident that her Facebook Journalism Project colleagues intend to push these kinds of projects forward, and more than hopeful that the people they work for share that commitment.
I also need to say, and this seems like the right place, that my relationship with Facebook over the years has been…complicated. As I said in March, I have longstanding and deep misgivings about Facebook’s (and Google’s and other giant platforms) overwhelming dominance in the media world–not to mention the troubling issues that stem from centralization in general. I don’t plan to stop talking about that, nor offering advice to journalists and Internet users in general on how to navigate toward a future where they, not the people running highly centralized technology platforms, control their own destinies. I’ll keep pushing the platforms to use their reach to help “upgrade us.”
But for all the disagreements, we agree on some vital goals. And to achieve those, I’m glad to collaborate. My participation may not sit well with some people, and I respect that. But I’m comfortable with this decision.
Finally, none of this would be happening were it not for my ASU colleagues. Eric Newton, the Cronkite School’s head of innovation, is the lab’s co-founder; we’ve collaborated on putting it together, and he’ll be working with me, staff, and partners as we proceed. The behind-the-scenes folks at the school, in development, legal, and other areas, routinely handle things that are out of my depth. And Dean Chris Callahan has been, as always, consistently strong and helpful along the way.
So much is happening now in the news ecosystem. Our lab will be among a host of new and existing efforts to make things better. None of us, individually, has the answer or answers. But we have ideas and energy, and an abiding belief in the value of reliable information in a world that so desperately needs it.
Individually, we will make some dents in the problem. Together, we will make a difference.
*I worked for the Kansas City Times, which was the Star‘s sister paper and was later folded into the Star.)
I’m on KCUR-FM in Kansas City this morning to talk about…blogging.
I should blog more!
I’m happy to say I’ve signed a contract with MIT Press for my next book, tentatively entitled Permission Taken: Recapturing Control of Our Own Technology and Communication. This has been bubbling up in my mind, though not enough from my word processor, for a long time. Now it’s on, and there’s a deadline. It’ll be part of a series edited by my longtime friend and colleague David Weinberger.
I’m especially glad that the book will be done in an open-access format, meaning that it will be available much more widely than traditional publishing normally permits. More details on that to come…
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” that aims to give everyone kids and adults — 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.
- 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 at Medium.)
A few days after the 2016 national election, viewing what I believe was (and remains) an emergency situation, I urged the major technology companies to make media and news literacy part of their missions. We’d just emerged from the most rancid campaign in my memory, marked in part by an avalanche of misinformation.
Social media platforms, especially Facebook, were getting a lot of heat—some of it deserved—for their role in making it easy for completely fabricated “news” reports to spread like a fast-moving pandemic. There were calls for the tech companies to remove the malicious hoaxes—what people called “fake news”—from their sites. (One appropriate response was to make it more difficult for hoaxers to profit from their deceit.)
I don’t want Facebook, or Google, or Twitter or any of these huge companies being arbiters of truth, as I wrote in November. The dangers in that struck me as obvious, given their enormous sway over public conversation and information search.
But they could help the public in big ways, I thought, if they’d help us—the audience for and users of information—to upgrade ourselves. Not long after, Facebook’s Áine Kerr, manager of journalism partnerships, asked my colleagues and me for some ideas what the company could do, and had some suggestions of her own. One result of those conversations, I’m glad to report, is a “News Literacy Working Group” this weekend at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
We’ve assembled a superb, cross-disciplinary group of people from around the U.S. and several other countries. They understand the emergency, and they’re coming to Phoenix to go deep on this question: How can we make media/news literacy, which now seems so vital, a core part of everyday life?
What we’re doing isn’t a “summit,” though the people joining us are some of the best we know in a number of fields—media literacy and its critically important subset, news literacy; journalism, technology, academia, NGOs, philanthropies, and more. Rather, it’s a working group of folks who all understand that this problem demands not just a redoubling the valuable work already being done, but also a batch of fresh, ambitious ideas on how to make news literacy scale.
When people in technology talk about “scale” they mean using modern tools and techniques to extend the reach of a product or service with exponential growth. You’ve seen charts that look like a hockey stick, where the initial growth is modest but turns up in a dramatic way, almost becoming a vertical line over time. That’s what scale means, and one of my goals is to make media/news literacy do that—via schools, libraries and other community institutions; via media; and tech platforms themselves.
In recent weeks, the Cronkite School has been working closely with Facebook to put this meeting together. A key colleague in this has been Eric Newton, now head of innovation at the school, who helped kick-start many of the nation’s pioneering news literacy initiatives when he was head of the journalism program at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which has pumped countless millions of dollars into improving public knowledge.
Facebook’s sponsorship of our meeting falls under its recently announced “Facebook Journalism Project,” a three-pronged initiative that includes “Training & Tools for Everyone,” specifically including a wish to promote news literacy. Áine Kerr and her Facebook colleagues have much of the heavy lifting to make this working group happen. Their professionalism has been evident at every step, and it’s been gratifying to work with them.
To answer a question that several people who know about the ASU-Facebook collaboration have already asked me: My longstanding and deep misgivings about Facebook’s overwhelming dominance in the media world have not changed at all. I don’t plan to stop talking about that, nor offering advice to journalists on how to navigate toward a future where they, not the people running highly centralized technology platforms, control their own destinies.
But I gladly work with people with whom I disagree on some matters when we have common interests in other ways. I’m convinced that Facebook is serious about promoting media and news literacy—helping all of us upgrade ourselves to be active users of media and not just passive consumers.
We—all people who understand the need to make civics and critical thinking universal—have a lot of work ahead. I hope that this weekend will be one step in a long and vital journey.
We’ve lost one of our best, a terrific journalist, teacher, and — most of all — human being.
I first knew Steve when we worked together in Kansas City in the mid to late 1980s. I was the newsroom nerd. Steve was anything but a nerd back then, but he was a great colleague and friend. He was my editor for a time, patient and encouraging and skillful at his craft.
Later, when the information ecosystem changed, so did he. Steve re-made himself as a journalist for the Digital Age. He saw amazing new potential for the craft if we used these new tools in smart ways, and was tireless in promoting the possibilities.
What never changed, and what will always be more important, was his essential kindness and integrity. He was a consummate family man, and a dear friend to so many. That’s truly what matters most in the end. Rest in peace, Steve.
Sorry, but I don’t want Facebook to be the arbiter of what’s true. Nor do I want Google — or Twitter or any other hyper-centralized technology platform — to be the arbiter of what’s true.
But I’m glad to see platform companies at least acknowledging their role in helping spread a colossal amount of misinformation and lying propaganda. Facebook and Google have intervened in small ways, including a vow not let fake news sites make money using their advertising systems.
While I strongly believe Facebok needs to hire some human editors—the algorithm-only approach has visibly failed—I’m very leery of pushing them a lot further down a path we may all regret. But there are specific, positive steps they can take that don’t put them in the dangerous — for us as well as them — position of being the editors of the Internet, which too many people seem to be demanding right now.
What are those positive steps? In a nutshell, help their users upgrade themselves.
They can help their users develop skills that are absolutely essential: namely how to be critical thinkers in an age of nearly infinite information sources — how to evaluate and act on information when so much of what we see is wrong, deceitful, or even dangerous. Critical thinking means, in this context, media literacy.
What is media literacy? From my perspective, it’s the idea that people should not be passive consumers of media, but active users who understand and rely on key principles and tactics.
Among them: When we are reading (in the broadest sense of the work, to include listening, watching, etc.) we have to be relentlessly skeptical of everything. But not equally skeptical of everything; we have to use judgment. We have to ask our own questions, and range widely in our reading — especially to places where are biases will be challenged. We have to understand how media work, and how others use media to persuade and manipulate us. And we have to learn to adopt what I call a “slow news” approach to everything — to wait before we believe any so-called “breaking news” that crosses our screens.
But even active consumption is not enough in a world of democratized media. We aren’t literate unless we’re also creators. And when we’re doing that — whether it’s by sharing a post on Facebook, writing in a blog, or starting a website or podcast or video series — we have to bring the consumer principles to the table and add some more. They add up to being honorable.
The flood of fake online news — augmenting the long-established river of fake news from outlets like Fox — has some of its roots in people sharing not what they know to be false, but what they believe to be true. Or, more often and perniciously, what they want to be true. If everyone did as CNN’s Brian Stelter advises, “triple-check before you share,” that would be a big help.
Why don’t Facebook and Google and Twitter and LinkedIn, among others, offer this advice themselves, and prominently? This is an opportunity the platform companies should seize. They could do more than almost anyone else to help us escape the new-media traps we’ve laid for ourselves.
The people working hardest on media literacy (and “news literacy” among other variants on the topic) are academics, activists, and ex-journalists. They’ve amply demonstrated that it makes a difference. For example, one study showed, logically enough, that exposure to media-literacy training increased students’ “ability to comprehend, evaluate, and analyze media messages in print, video, and audio formats.” Another associated it with increased “civic participation.” I could cite a long list of other studies that show media literacy’s genuine value.
I have a horse in this race; I’ve written a book about it, and have been teaching it at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication. In the summer of 2015 I led a “massive open online course” (MOOC) called “Overcoming Information Overload.” A colleague in that project, Kristy Roschke, has analyzed the MOOC data and says it conforms with published research. (Note: my book is published under a Creative Commons license, and so are the MOOC course materials, which means they’re available for download, re-use, and remixing.)
For all its obvious value, media literacy hasn’t penetrated nearly as deeply as it should, and isn’t being taught enough where it matters most: in our K-12 schools. In most districts it’s an afterthought, at best. And let’s be clear: In many parts of the United States, teaching real critical thinking would be considered by reality-denying ideologues to be dangerously radical act.
Another vital cultural institution could, and should, have taken this on decades ago. I’m talking about the journalism trade.
Brian Stelter’s recent CNN commentaries have been a heartening demonstration of what media organizations could be doing. But it’s tragic and damaging — to journalists themselves as well as society — that they haven’t made this a core mission. Since they haven’t, what’s the next useful point of leverage?
The tech platforms are leverage to the nth power. That worries me. It is deeply unhealthy that a few giant companies — Facebook in particular — have become the epicenter of national and even global conversation. Their dominance is part of a re-centralization of communications that is already having dangerous consequences for freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and much more. I’d much rather see a combination of broad media literacy and a re-decentralized Internet.
But their dominance exists, today. So I’m asking them to become the champions for a culture that values truth over lies; can tell the difference; and can act to help assure that truth has a fighting chance against the manipulators who are so efficiently poisoning our public discourse.
What specifically can they do? Among other things:
They can put media literacy front and center on their services. They can draw on the best work in the field — and ask for advice from super-experts like Renee Hobbs and Howard Rheingold (compared with them, I’m barely a dilettante in the field). The goal should be to help the rest of us understand why this matters so much and, more importantly, what we can do about it, individually and as members of communities.
They can give third parties ways to help users manage the information flow, not just to avoid bogus information but, crucially also ensure that they see competing ideas challenging their own biases.
They can offer better tools to users who a) don’t want to see fake news and other lies; b) want to help online communities police themselves; c) be better organized in their own consumption of media.
Those are just a few of the many useful ways the platforms could bring media literacy to a vastly broader public.
Will this solve the problem that’s been getting worse for a long time? Of course not. But it will help. That’s a lot better than giving up and sinking further into a swamp that at some point becomes impossible to escape.
This is an emergency. Truth and context need powerful allies, and need them right now.
I was honored to keynote the Congrés de Periodistes de Catalunya in Barcelona last week, and this is an edited version of what I said:
I’m glad to be here with you today in Barcelona. This is one of my favorites cities and regions, for many reasons that go far beyond the great people and food and remarkable things to see. There’s a spirit of political and economic innovation here that inspires me – and many others around the world.
It is a special honor to be at this Congress of Catalonian journalists. Journalists are among the people who inspire me the most – most of all when they’re doing their work with persistence and integrity.
I was planning to show you some slides. I was planning to talk about how far we’ve come in digital journalism, and how far we have to go to make it the thriving ecosystem our societies – and our journalists – need it to be.
But something happened this week.
America’s election has – and for once this is not an exaggeration – changed everything.
I am an American, and I love my country. I am hoping for the best. I am an optimist in the long run. But I have to be realistic. I do not expect the best, or anything even close to it, not for journalism or my country. The next few years will be, at the very least, difficult for people who believe in progressive ideals and social justice.
So I’m not going to show slides. I hope we can have a conversation about our future as journalists, and as citizens of countries we want to succeed as free and open societies.
I have three goals this morning.
First, to give you my impressions of how journalism performed during this election campaign. The short answer is that journalism failed, with some exceptions.
My second goal is to help you understand why I believe the Trump presidency could well be a turning point – a negative one – for free speech and other fundamental liberties in my country. That would have impact far beyond our shores.
Finally, I want to ask journalists – here and in America and everywhere – to be activists.
Activists for freedom of expression, among the liberties that are at the core of societies where freedom is an institution, not just a word.
Activists for media literacy, the foundation of which is critical thinking.
Activists, because if we don’t do this we’ll be helping the authoritarians and failing to serve our fellow citizens.
So how did American journalism fail in the current situation?
Our media organizations helped create the climate for someone like Trump to succeed. They’ve been selling fear for decades. For example, in America, at a time the lowest crime rates in many decades, our media have persuaded the public that the risk of being a victim is higher than ever. The risk of any individual person in America becoming a victim is terrorism is exceedingly low, but our media have persuaded the public that the opposite is true.
They’ve been selling mistrust for years, too–mistrust of institutions, some of which have indeed behaved badly, and in the end mistrust of themselves as well. That’s a climate made to order for demagogues.
Then, having helped make that corrosive climate, our media directly helped Trump capitalize on it. In the months before and he became an official candidate for president, he received unprecedented amounts of free publicity from a medium that had already helped make him one of the most famous people in America. But now the help was coming not from TV entertainment shows, but from so-called “news” organizations. CNN and the other TV news shows gave Trump free, unedited airtime worth, according to one credible estimate, more than $2 billion.
And as a candidate, Trump dominated the screen and newspaper columns. His competitors got very little coverage by comparison. The coverage they did get – Hillary Clinton’s in particular – was consistently negative.
Why did TV news give Trump so much free publicity to spout his be-afraid slogans, and to lie constantly with very few corrections from the journalists until late in the campaign?
Journalists, real journalists, always know to follow the money.
Trump drew audiences, which boosted ratings, and advertisers sent money. The head of CBS, one of the US media companies that profited wildly from Trump, will be infamous forever for what he said at a business conference early this year: “The money’s rolling in and this is fun. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
This leader of business said, most infamously, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
If American journalism dies in the next few years, those words should be carved on the tombstone marking the grave.
No other candidate in recent memory understood journalism’s flaws and blind spots as well as Trump, and he took total advantage of the opening. He relied on journalists to stick with their insane system of false balance, which often takes the form of giving roughly equal weight to truth and lies, in the name of so-called fairness. And he knew they would give up easily if he kept vital information from them. When journalists asked for his tax returns – made public by every other major candidate for the past 50 years – he said no, and most journalists meekly accepted this stonewalling.
American political journalists, especially the ones from newspapers and magazines, did eventually realize that Trump was something entirely new—that as media scholar Jay Rosen put it, he was “crashing the system.” But with too few honorable exceptions, major traditional media organizations and journalists failed to respond soon and persistently enough with the only possible fix: tough journalism.
I emphasize that there was some great work. In fact, if you compiled all the excellent campaign journalism, you’d have a long list–including some work from newer online outlets–that would make you proud as a journalist. But the good stuff was swamped by the flood of mediocrity and awfulness that dominated.
I want to praise one journalist in particular. David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post gave a one-man demonstration of how journalism should work. He deserves and will win a 2017 Pulitzer Prize, unless the Pulitzer judges are sound asleep when they look at his work.
The press, as a whole, was definitely asleep for the duration of an election-related scandal that was in plain sight the whole time. In American states controlled by Republicans, laws and regulations — some plainly illegal — were writtento make it more difficult for certain groups – minorities in particular – to vote. This was a systematic campaign that plainly made a difference in the election (though how big a difference is not yet known). It deserved systematic, relentless coverage for years. Newspapers did some journalism along the way, but TV basically ignored it – and there was no sustained coverage except by several smaller outlets.
Think about it: a nationwide scheme by one party, designed to suppress that fundamental right and duty of citizenship – voting – and most in the media couldn’t be bothered to pay attention until the last few days.
The media’s self-destructive obsession with polls was not new. As a rule, journalists love what we call “horse race” coverage – who’s ahead, who’s behind, who’s making progress, who’s not – and find coverage of actual issues too much of a bother.
Then there’s the very real failure of political journalists to venture outside their bubble and ask Trump voters why they were doing this. Yes, Trump had, and has, major support from outright racists, anti-semites, mysoginists who treat women as little more than property, and others whose views I consider shameful. But he also had support from millions of men and women in parts of the country the coastal elites hadn’t just forgotten – the elites barely knew they existed, and didn’t especially care.
For the record, I was a supporter of Clinton – this was the first time I’ve ever sent money to a presidential campaign – in part because her policies were vastly better than Trumps, but more because I believed Trump represented such a threat.
Clinton has many flaws, and ran a poor campaign. But it seems obvious to me that journalists treated Clinton much worse than Trump until the debates, with negative story after story, mostly about the emails.
The email situation was a genuine issue. It demonstrated classic Clinton arrogance and occasional tendency to skirt the truth until there’s no other choice. But Clinton isn’t remotely in Trump’s league as a liar (who is?), and the email story simply did not merit the kind of saturation coverage it got. Nor did Clinton deserve the last-second intervention by the FBI director with his mysterious letter to Congress—grossly over-interpreted by journalists who didn’t ask tough questions of anyone but Clinton, but that’s another story entirely.
Let me add one more essential problem. Social media and the vast amount of “fake news” – websites posing as journalism – have given partisans easier ways to go around traditional journalism and create bogus or highly slanted alternative realities. Traditional journalists have done far too little to understand this phenomenon or to counter it. And social media organizations don’t seem to care.
So what happens now? I fear that Trump and the new radically right-wing Congress will be the biggest threat to American civil liberties and freedom of speech in my lifetime. I don’t think journalists paid nearly enough attention to this during the campaign.
Many liberties are in jeopardy, but I will focus mostly here on ones that involve freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
It is clear that Trump actually loves media – when it’s helping to promote him or his business interests. But he plainly hates actual journalism about him, and has promised to do things – and has already done some of them — that would directly and indirectly threaten what journalists do. He has sued at least one journalist not because of inaccuracies but because he wanted to punish the writer financially by forcing him and his publisher to spend money on lawyers. He’s been clear that he’ll appoint judges who might sharply restrict journalistic freedom. There is much more, but I believe it is accurate to call Trump an enemy of journalism, and now he’s in a position where he can do extraordinary damage.
Trump will control America’s intelligence services. Journalists correctly criticized the Obama administration’s misuse of surveillance (especially when directed against media people) but they haven’t thought much about what Trump will do with these mostly unaccountable powers.
The Internet and democratized technology have given us a platform for free speech that is unprecedented. But technology is also giving authoritarians some of their best tools ever to clamp down on liberty.
In the context of freedom of expression, consider the possibilities. Trump is expected to call for restrictions on strong encryption, and thereby create vast insecurity for our communications—including journalists’ communications. He’s already said he wants to end network neutrality, the idea that the telecommunications industry shouldn’t be able to pick the winners when it comes to access to online content and services.
These and other positions are all threats to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to innovate in a digital world, and more.
Which brings me to my final point. Journalists have to recognize that on some issues, they have to become activists. There is no alternative.
I recognize that in many parts of this world, journalists are activists by definition—because truth telling in repressive societies is an act designed to bring about change. I’m humbled by the people who risk their freedom, and sometimes their lives, to tell their fellow citizens and the rest of the world what is happening where they live.
In the western democracies with a more robust tradition of free speech and a free press, the idea of journalists as activists is often seen as taking sides, and violating journalistic norms. But there’s a long and honorable history of what we call “advocacy journalism” exposing injustices with the goal of of bringing about change.
Even journalists who worship objectivity should recognize that on some issues, they cannot possibly be objective. Or at least, they should not be. On some issues we have to take stands, even though those stands may put us at policy odds with the people and institutions we cover. If the president of the United States declares war on journalism, journalists are not obliged to just record his words and publish them. They are obliged to take a side – the side of freedom.
I’d argue that freedom of speech is only one of the issues where journalists who do not take activists stands aren’t doing their jobs. These issues come under larger topics at the core of our liberty, among them: freedom of expression in general, freedom to associate, freedom to collaborate, freedom to innovate.
Governments and corporations are attacking these core values in the Digital Age. They’re typically doing this in the name of protecting us or giving us more convenience, and there’s some truth in that. But in the process, these powerful entities are creating a host of choke points. They’re locking down more and more of our computing and communications, and creating a system of control over what we say and do.
This is a betrayal of the Internet’s decentralized promise, where speech and innovation and collaboration would often start at the edges of this network of networks, where no one needed permission to do those things. Choke points mean we have to ask permission.
The choke points start with direct censorship of the Internet, a growing trend in far too many parts of the world. I trust no one here would object to journalistic activism on this front. The New York Times was an activist several years ago when it told China it wouldn’t be intimidated by the regime’s heavy-handed media control.
I mentioned Trump’s upcoming control of America’s surveillance apparatus, and how technology is also the spy’s best tool. Wholesale spying on everything that moves has become a method for government — often working with big companies — to keep track of what journalists and activists for justice are doing.
Like most people, I do not oppose all surveillance. I do oppose spying on everyone, all the time. That goes way beyond the mission of stopping terrorism and solving major crimes, and it harms everyone’s liberty, not just journalists’ privileges.
Surveillance chills freedom of expression, and no society that exists under pervasive surveillance is free. We know from history that it deadens innovation and culture. Journalists need to actively oppose the surveillance state, if we truly believe in free expression.
Another choke point among many others is the one I mentioned earlier: the telecommunications industry. In America and many other countries– and often in concert with governments– big telecoms say they should have the right to decide what bits of information get to people’s devices in what order and at what speed, or whether they get there at all.
Now you and I helped create some of the choke points — by choosing convenience over liberty in relying centralized technology and communications platforms like Facebook and Google and Apple and Twitter. I have to note that these companies do provide useful services. And they are often trying to be advocates for free speech, though not consistently.
But journalists should understand that the Internet is getting new editors, namely the people who work for some of those companies. Facebook is increasingly arbitrary in how it edits your content. And by the way, I don’t understand why journalists keep pouring their work into a platform that is the media’s biggest financial competitor.
The corporate online powers are also spying on us. It’s their business model. Journalists are waking up to this, more so in Europe than in the U.S., but we all need to be thinking harder about how companies can use and abuse big data. We need to campaign for privacy from corporations, not just governments.
What else can we do? Journalists need to understand what is happening themselves, and then tell audiences about it – and more.
The Snowden revelations have convinced some journalists to pay more attention to security and, in a few cases, deploy countermeasures for themselves. We should go further. We should help our audiences do what they can to preserve some privacy, too. And we should lobby for laws restricting surveillance.
On network control, news organizations should be screaming about the telecom industry’s power grab. They should be warning the public about what’s at stake. They should be lobbying for rules and regulations that protect speech and digital innovation.
In all kinds of ways, journalists should be working to re-decentralize the Internet—both for their own sakes and the public good. Free speech starts at the edges of the networks, and ultimately that is where it is heard.
And – this is so important – we need to be spreading the concept of media literacy to everyone who will listen. This is, above all, about developing skills for critical thinking – being skeptical, using judgment, asking questions, ranging widely for information; and more. People need a refuge from the misinformation, and context to understand what is really going on.
Journalists should the leading teachers of media literacy. The ones who do journalism with integrity will be among the biggest beneficiaries, because they’ll foster much more trust in their own work – and one of the things people pay for in this world is products and services they trust.
I’m not asking journalists to ignore nuances when ask them to be activists; life and business and policy truly are complicated. But when it comes to things that directly threaten perhaps our the most fundamental liberties—without which journalism is vastly more difficult if not impossible—there’s no excuse for failing to explain what’s at stake. There is no excuse for failing to take more activist role in preserving liberty.
Journalists, and journalism, are under attack around the world. I wasn’t happy with President Obama’s harsh attitude toward leaks that assisted essential national security journalism. But we’ll probably look back on his tenure as a time of overt support for journalism compared to the Trump regime.
Core freedoms – of expression, association, and more – should be everyone’s right. Media literacy is everyone’s duty. Journalists, and journalism educators like me, have a duty to be their active defenders, and explainers.
Otherwise we’ll live in a world of choke points and control by others – and Donald Trump surely craves control. Otherwise we’ll live in a world where lies are as plausible as truth because the public that doesn’t know how to tell the difference – and based on this campaign that’s the world Trump prefers, too.
We have to defend ourselves, and our societies, from these anti-freedom trends. We have to take stands. It’s part of our job now.
Again, I am deeply honored to be here with you. What you do matters, so very much. Journalism matters.