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.
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 waysto 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 along list ofideas. 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.)
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.
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.
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.
The MOOC, which has received funding from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, will be hosted at edX, one of the major–and rapidly growing–course platforms. ASU has become a member of the edX university consortium, and this is the first offering from the school. The course launches July 6, and registration is open now.
(Note: The media-literacy MOOC is not part of the ASU/edX Global Freshman Academy, which will be offering a battery of for-credit courses.)
We’re well aware that the jury is out, to put it mildly, on the ultimate value of MOOCs. Clearly they’ve been oversold in some ways. To think that they’ll take over education is absurd. Equally clearly, they have enormous potential. This course is experimental by definition, but we have two major goals: to make it a super-useful learning experience, and to learn from what happens in order to improve the next time.
One of the best parts of this project is the people involved. In the past several months we’ve recorded conversations with some of the smartest folks I know in the news and media-literacy communities. They include Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales; New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan; CNN’s Brian Stelter; media-literacy guru Renee Hobbs; and many others. We’ll be featuring these conversations in the course.
This is a team effort in every possible way. I’m incredibly fortunate to be working with the ASU Online folks, who’ve been helping me sweat the details and who know lots of things I don’t. A team of students at the Cronkite School’s Public Relations Lab has put together some great marketing ideas. PhD candidate Kristy Roschke, whose focus is media literacy, is playing a key role in the course development and will be the lead teaching assistant when the course goes live.
MOOCs are open in ways that most university courses are not. Openness is core to my work–my Mediactive book, on which the course is largely based, is free to read online and/or download, and is available under a Creative Commons copyright license (“Some Rights Reserved”). I want to apply the principle of openness, as much as possible, to the new project. So I’ll be blogging regularly about how we’re doing this between now and the July 6 launch.
You may find this interesting to watch. If so, and if you think we can improve on what we’re doing, let me know. I’m looking for the best ideas, not just my own.
Lawrence Krauss is a brilliant theoretical physicist and author of many popular books on science, and teaches at Arizona State University. I stopped by his office the other day to record a video conversation for a project I’m working on, and grabbed a quick video of the surroundings. Wish I had an office like this!