It was one of those stories that grabs attention. The claim: A former U.S. Agriculture Department employee, an African-American named Shirley Sherrod, had misused her government position in racist ways. If you believed it when you first heard it, you had plenty of company—and you may also believe you have a plausible excuse. After all, you were told by Big Media, the Obama administration and the NAACP that it was true.
Except, as we’ve all learned since the initial media blast in July 2010, it wasn’t true. It was a brazen lie, pushed initially by Andrew Breitbart, a right-wing blogger and self-described provocateur, and his allies at Fox News and other conservative outlets. Breitbart’s blog post—which included a video snippet that gave an absolutely false impression of what Sherrod actually believed and had done—didn’t spread only because of right-wing activities, however. It was given widespread credence thanks to the cravenness of many other media organizations, President Obama’s secretary of agriculture and America’s most prominent civil rights organization—a collective fact-checking failure.
I was lucky, in a way. I first heard about the story and Breitbart’s role in it at the same time, so I instantly had doubts. I didn’t doubt that an African-American could express racist ideas. What I doubted was that Breitbart could be taken at face value, based on his record of engaging in or assisting misrepresentations of his political adversaries’ views and activities. From my perspective, that record constitutes evidence, beyond a reasonable suspicion, that the only smart way to approach his work is to wait for absolute proof—and not trust anything he says until seeing the proof.
Welcome to 21st century media. Welcome to the era of radically democratized and decentralized creation and distribution, where almost anyone can publish and find almost anything that others have published. Welcome to the age of information abundance.
And welcome to the age of information confusion: For many of us, that abundance feels more like a deluge, drowning us in a torrent of data, much of whose trustworthiness we can’t easily judge. You’re hardly alone if you don’t know what you can trust anymore.
But we aren’t helpless, either. In fact, we’ve never had more ways to sort out the good from the bad: A variety of tools and techniques are emerging from the same collision of technology and media that has created the confusion. And don’t forget the most important tools of all—your brain and curiosity.
Many people who know me and my work may find what I just said ironic. After all, I’ve spent the past decade or more telling anyone who’d listen about the great promise of citizen media—democratized digital media tools and increasingly ubiquitous digital networks.
Make no mistake: I believe in the potential of citizen media more than ever, partly because I’ve seen some wonderful experiments that prove out the potential.
But the more thoughtful critics of citizen media aren’t wrong about their main point: All information isn’t equal, not in quality or reliability.
I care, as you probably do if you’ve picked up this book, about an undeniable reality: As media become more atomized, more and more unreliable information, or worse, makes its way into what we read, listen to and watch.
Still, I can’t contain my growing excitement about the opportunities for participation that digital media have given us. I suspect you share some of that energy, too. Whether you realize it or not, you’re almost certainly a media creator yourself to at least a tiny extent—and creative activity is intimately linked to the process of sorting out the good from the bad, the useful from the useless, the trustworthy from the untrustworthy.
Does this sound daunting? Relax. In reality, this is a much more natural and logical—and fun—process than you might be imagining.
At the risk of being too cute, I’ve mashed together two words—media and active—that describe my goal in this book, website and accompanying materials: I want to help you become mediactive.
At the very least, the payoff is that you’ll be able to navigate the rapids, to better sort what you read (view, hear, etc.). If you’re like most people, you’ve been mostly a passive consumer of media, and I want to help you to become comfortable as an active user. I want to help you minimize the chances that you’ll get bamboozled, or worse, by the incorrect or misleading material that’s all over the Internet (and, all too often, in what people call “mainstream media”), and to help you find trustworthy material instead.
When you become an active user of media, you can do much more than gain confidence that you know what you’re talking about. Millions of people already are taking it further, engaging in the emergent global conversations that help us and our communities every day. You can dabble or go as deep as you want, giving flight to your own creative and collaborative instincts. The online culture is inherently participatory and collaborative, which makes this easy. And if you own a computer you almost certainly already have the tools, or free (or close to free) access to them. The advantages of using these tools are enormous.
Why participate in media, beyond becoming a more nuanced reader? Because your communities of geography and interest can benefit from what you know, and because being part of the deeper conversation can deliver so much satisfaction with so little effort.
Lots of new media conversations are entirely casual, or designed to provide nothing more than simple entertainment. But when we publish information we expect others to see and possibly use—whether it’s text, video, points in a map or pretty much anything else—it’s always best to do so in honorable ways that will engender trust in what we say. That trust has to be earned.
Please don’t think of this as a chore. We’re not talking about an “eat your (insert vegetable you loathe) because it’s good for you” exercise. We are talking about doing something that’s often fun or gratifying, and downright useful the rest of the time: useful for you, useful for all of us. But please consider this as well: In a participatory culture, none of us is fully literate unless we are creating, not just consuming.
And please, please don’t imagine that I’m trying to turn you into a, gasp, “journalist”—a word that most people would never use to describe themselves, for lots of good reasons. I will try to persuade you, however, that if you want what you tell other people online to be trusted, it’s worth following some bedrock journalistic principles.
There are infinite gradations of participation between sorting what you read more intelligently and being a journalist for pay; you can occupy any wavelength on that spectrum that you like at different times. Most of us will never be journalists, but any of us can—and many should—commit occasional acts of journalism, or at least contribute to what we might think of as our emerging ecosystem of knowledge and ideas.
Whether your goal is simply to sort through the information maze or to make your mark as a media creator, or anything in between, my goal in writing this book and establishing its companion website (mediactive.com) is to help. So consider what follows here as a “user’s guide” to democratized media.
Although I’ll offer lots of specific suggestions for being mediactive, the underlying message is more important: I hope to persuade folks to adopt some vital principles for being savvier consumers and creators alike.
We can expand our horizons. We can expand our knowledge. Time is the one thing we can’t expand, but we can use it more effectively. Most fundamental is to rethink basic attitudes about media. That won’t take any extra minutes or hours out of your day, and it will make the time you do devote to your media more productive.
This is an era of fast-to-market and even print-to-order production methods for physical books—that is, the versions publishers print on paper, bind between covers and ship to customers. These traditional books, which I love and still buy despite my digital habits, offer permanence and stability.
So, it makes sense to put in this bound volume the kind of material that doesn’t change very quickly. While the tactics we might use to achieve a goal might vary from year to year, based on what tools are available, the principles don’t change much, if at all.
Addressing the material that does evolve fast, including tools and techniques, makes much more sense on mediactive.com. For updates, especially, that’s the place to turn.
I’m breaking the book into three main parts. The first defines the principles and explains some of the practices you should understand to be an active consumer/user—to get the best, most useful information so you can make good life and citizenship decisions.
The second part helps you extend that activity into the more hands-on sphere of joining the conversation in a more direct way. You’ll find that being a media creator comes naturally (probably because you’re already doing it in some ways), so the principles and practices of being a creator in a trustworthy way are also relevant here.
The final part ranges more broadly, exploring some issues important to our lives—and to our society—that we’ll need to tackle collectively, not just as individuals. We’ll also look a bit ahead, to talk about where we’re going and what we need to get to the best possible mediactive future.
Darwin’s Media: The ecosystem of media and journalism is evolving rapidly, growing vastly more diverse and confusing. How did this happen? What should we do about it? It’s up to us, not just “them”—because we are the media.
Principles of Media Consumption: We start with principles because they are the foundation: Be Skeptical; Exercise Judgment; Open Your Mind; Keep Asking Questions; and Learn Media Techniques.
Tools and Tactics for an Active Consumer/User: Here, we look at some of the specific ways we can put the principles into practice.
Journalism’s Evolving Ecosystem: It took a long time to get to where we are, and it’ll take time to get where we’re going. The ecosystem is becoming more diverse, and it will be more robust.
Principles of Media Creation: Be Thorough; Get It Right; Insist on Fairness; Think Independently; and Be Transparent.
Tools and Tactics for Trusted Creators: We’ll look at tools for creating media, and techniques for becoming a trusted source of information.
Owning Your Online Presence: If you don’t define yourself in this increasingly public world, there’s a significant risk that others will define you. Moreover, you should create and maintain your own Web presence.
Entrepreneurs Will Save Journalism, and You Could Be One of Them: Experimentation is the rule now, and it’s producing some great results; but traditional and new media organizations still have an opportunity to survive, if not thrive, in a mediactive world.
Law and Norms: The law applies in cyberspace, not just the physical world. Just as important, we all need to recognize that the law can’t and shouldn’t deal with some situations. Societal norms will need to evolve, too.
Teaching Mediactivity: Parents need to understand all this, for their own sake and their childrens’. Schools and teachers will also play a key role. We’ll also look at why journalism educators, and journalists, should become leaders in this arena.
A Path to Tomorrow: What tools and techniques need to be invented, or perfected, so that we’ll have the trusted information ecosystem we need?
Epilogue: How this book came to be an experiment in mediactivity, and how I hope it will change for the next version.
Who Is This For?
I don’t really expect to persuade everyone to jump off the couch and become a mediactivist. That would be wonderful, but it’s not going to happen.
If you are still sitting back in the cushions, though, maybe I can help you imagine the results of leaning forward and demanding something better than you’re getting, so that you’ll be better informed about the things that matter to you.
If you’re already an active consumer, I hope to persuade you to take the next step and participate in the journalistic part of the mediasphere, even in a small way.
If you’re a sometime participant, maybe I can persuade you to take an even more active role in your community’s information flow.
We need one another’s help. The rewards are going to be worth the effort.