I have signed on as a volunteer for the News Literacy Project, which is an attempt by journalists to help middle and high school students separate facts from fiction in what purports to be news these days. It’s a great idea, because much of what we read as “news” is more and more canned content designed to promote or defend a point of view. With more people than ever obtaining their news online, it’s critical that readers understand where the stuff is coming from, and who is behind it.
I know something about this subject. After spending a decade as a print journalist, I passed over to the “dark side” and became a public relations professional, first as the spokesperson in a bruising U.S. Senate campaign in North Carolina, then for a major food retailer. I also operate my own PR consulting company (where this blog originates). Along the way, I spent a year teaching undergraduates at Miami University of Ohio, where I created my own course on the symbiotic relationship between the news media and public relations.
I don’t feel a sense of urgency on the part of the project organizers, but there should be. A functioning democracy relies upon an informed electorate. John Q. Citizen ought to be able to find reliable, accurate, reasonably objective news and track who wrote and published the information. That should be the baseline. These days, however, fact, fiction, spin and propaganda have found a home online, and it’s difficult if not impossible for all but the well informed to know the difference. Fortunately, at least for now, the public is skeptical. According to a new report from the University of Southern California, a sizable majority people don’t trust the reliability of the information they access online. This is especially true of social media content, the study says.
Yet the USC report found something else that really should concern all of us, and makes the NLP even more important. Jeff Cole, author of the study and director of USC Annenberg School’s Center for the Digital Future, said Americans tend to be more trusting of government and big media (emphasis added, for emphasis).
“Other countries are better at distinguishing good information from (the) unreliable,” he said. In repressive regimes where media is closely tied to the government, citizens grow adept at filtering truth from propaganda.
Our government is not considered repressive (at least outside the Tea Party), but the ties between government and the major news media of this country is certainly a symbiotic one (there’s that word again), and a cause for growing alarm. As citizens, we must understand the nature of this relationship, and raise our voices when we come across examples of spin or propaganda posing as news. The first step in doing that is grasping the difference.