It’s not surprising that more and more of us are giving in to the temptation to be cynical. Institutions we once trusted have proven unworthy, in an era when greed and zealotry have prompted lies and manipulation to further personal and political goals, and when the people who should have been pushing back the hardest—including journalists—have failed us in so many ways.
Unfortunately, generalized cynicism feeds the problem. If we lazily assume that everyone is pushing lies rather than trying to figure out who’s telling the truth and who isn’t, we give the worst people even more leeway to make things worse for the rest of us.
That’s why it’s insane to generalize about our information sources, and why I want to tear out what’s left of my hair when I hear Big Media advocates talking about “those bloggers” as if bloggers were all the same—or, for that matter, when I hear bloggers talking about “the evil MSM” (mainstream media) as if there were no differences among journalism organizations.
I’ll discuss more in the next chapter some of the ways we can sort out what’s true and what’s false. The vital point here is that we have to give some level of trust to people who earn it. That doesn’t mean we should turn over our brains to, say, the New York Times or The Economist, but it does mean that we should give them more credence than, say, the celebrity-driven tabloids that exist not to help us make good decisions, but rather to entertain us. Nor does it mean that we should rely entirely on what a single blogger, however talented, tells us about a narrow niche topic. It means exercising judgment.
According to danah boyd, a researcher at Microsoft (and friend) who’s become perhaps the preeminent expert on young people and social media, our kids have embedded this thinking into pretty much all the media they use. They assume, she told me, that “somebody’s trying to tell them a story and trying to manipulate them.”
To an extent, I share this attitude. When I see a commercial product in a movie, I take it for granted that the company selling the product has paid the film production company to place that product in the movie. I think of it as an advertisement embedded in the entertainment, no more or less.
But if adults tend to separate news media from mainstream entertainment media, boyd says teens have a naturally media-critical sense that they’re being given a story for some particular reason and they know people are making money off of it. “But it’s not a level of in-depth media criticism,” she says, “and so there’s just this sort of—’Hmm, do I trust this? I trust my friends and what they tell me much more than I’ll trust what these entities are telling me.’”
Is that good or bad, or something in between? boyd worries that young people, for all their skepticism, aren’t thinking things through in a truly critical way:
We don’t live in an environment where teachers or parents or the people that are part of your adult world are actually helping you make sense of it and figure out how to be critically aware, but also to read between the lines to get something out of it. So as a result we end up throwing away the baby with the bathwater. Or we throw away all of it. We say—all of it must be irrelevant to us. When in fact there is a lot that is relevant. And this is where we need to get media literacy actually at a baseline into everyday conversations, where it’s not saying that everything should be just consumed or rejected, but something where you consume critically.
We’ll come back to this later, in a broader discussion of what has been called “media literacy.” Clearly, we need to ask ourselves what kind of society our kids will inherit if they don’t trust or believe anyone but their friends, regardless of whether those friends are well informed.