In a media-saturated society, it’s important to know how digital media work. For one thing, we are all becoming media creators to some degree, as we post on Facebook, write blogs, comment, upload photos and videos, and so much more. Moreover, solid communications skills are becoming critically important for social and economic participation—and we’re not just talking about the reading and writing of the past.
Every journalism student I’ve taught has been required to create and operate a blog, because it is an ideal entry point into serious media creation. A blog can combine text, images, video and other formats, using a variety of “plug-in” tools, and it is by nature conversational. It is also a natively digital medium that adapts easily over time. Over a lifetime, most of us will pick up many kinds of newer media forms, or readapt older ones; a personal blog, for example, is a lot like an old-fashioned diary, with the major exception that most blogs are intended to be public.
Media-creation skills are becoming part of the educational process for many children in the developed world (less so for other children). In the U.S. and other economically advanced nations, teenagers and younger children are what some call “digital natives,” though some of the most savvy users of digital technology are older people who have learned how to use it and who bring other, crucial skills—most notably critical thinking and an appreciation of nuance—to the table.
Young or old, learning how to snap a photo with a mobile phone is useful, but it’s just as important to know all the possibilities of what you can do with that picture and to understand how it fits into a larger media ecosystem.
Also, it’s essential to grasp the ways people use media to persuade and manipulate—that is, how media creators push our logical and emotional buttons. Understanding this also means knowing how to distinguish a marketer from a journalist, and a non-journalistic blogger from one whose work does serve a journalistic purpose; all create media, but they have different goals.
All this is part of the broader grasp of how journalism works. The craft and business are evolving, but they still exert an enormous influence over the way people live. In one sense, some journalists are an example of a second-order effect of the marketers’ trade, because sellers and persuaders do all they can to use journalists to amplify their messages.
Happily, as the mediasphere becomes ever more diverse, it is unleashing forces that ensure greater scrutiny of journalism. This helps us become more mediactive.
Media criticism was a somewhat sleepy field until bloggers came along, with only a few publications and scholarly journals serving as the only serious watchdogs of a press that had become complacent and arrogant. Journalists themselves rarely covered each other, except in the way they covered celebrities of all kinds. This wasn’t a conspiracy of silence, but it was taken as given that only the most egregious behavior (or undeniable triumphs) were worthy of note in competitive journals or broadcasts.
Thankfully, bloggers, in particular, have become ardent examples of the new breed of media critics. Some are small-time jerks, dogs chasing cars because it’s their instinct to do so. But many are the real thing: serious, impassioned critics who deserve respect for performing the watchdog role so important to the rest of us.
We all need to help each other sort out the information we can trust from that we shouldn’t. This will be complicated, but if we get it right, the value will be immeasurable.