When information sources become fractured and degraded, people break into smaller polarized groups, each supporting their own group think. In many cases, people can become easily swayed by those they trust in their social networks (on and off line).
Information from “influencers” may be accurate and create great actionable results. Other times, it may be spoiled by an increasingly deplorable lack of ethics (everybody get their Klout Perks yet?), faulty opinions and hypocrisy.
The transition to the new socialized era of information consumption creates great questions about what is factual and accurate. And while some assume that digital natives will be increasingly skeptical of the information they are consuming, research demonstrates that in fact, generation Yers have superficial information-seeking and analysis skills.
A Democratic society is as strong as the education systems that serve it, and if education systems cannot help the young delineate quality information, then that skill set must come from elsewhere or reform must occur. Or society can devolve. Perhaps the correct answer is to replace the media with more distributed journalism skills, providing them to everyone as part of their upbringing or their 21st century education. Questioning information would become the norm, not the exception.
The Destruction of Quality Information
Andrew Keen was decried for blasting the blogosphere and the social web in the book Cult of the Amateur. He stated the loss of journalistic quality caused by new media coupled with the rise of opinion based information from amateurs would rend the fabric of contemporary society.
Four years and one recession later, even folks like Ted Koppel are decrying the end of news as we know it. Glenn Beck, Keith Olberman, the destruction of MSNBC as a journalist organization, the widespread shrinking of newspapers and news staffs, and the folding of other papers have greatly hurt information quality.
Not that the news was perfect, a far cry from it, actually. But now there are even less quality journalists, and worse, news outlets have become even more sensational in an effort to retain audiences. Follow Jay Rosen’s Press Think blog, and see how the media continues to deteriorate and what can be done.
Online, there are great bloggers and sources of information that have risen to fill the gap. Newspapers and national broadcast outlets don’t employ many environmental reporters anymore. Consider Dr. Joseph Rohm’s award winning Climate Progress blog a one of the blogs that have filled the gap. Also with more distributed news sources, investigative reporting has evolved. The demonstrative citizen and blogger coverage of the oil spill last spring showed a Fifth Estate in action, holding the traditional media, BP and even the Obama Administration accountable.
At the same time, there are poorer sources of “truth.” Influence measures like Klout and self-appointed blogger influencers have successfully taken a significant portion of mindshare. Social networks and entire idea markets follow their lead blindly as sources of quality information. In some cases, this has given rise to questionable leadership enforced with punitive measures and in the worst cases, flash mobs.
The new information landscape creates the need for people to better discern the information they see. Otherwise, society will deteriorate into some quality networks and in the worst cases, ignorant mobs. Polarization and increased mindlessness will be the continuing trend unless a shift in focus towards asking more skepticism occurs, in turn creating a demand for higher quality information. On to the addition of widespread journalism skills.
The Five Ws of Journalism
What journalism teaches prospective storytellers to do is gather information and provide a complete investigative report. Many reporters are taught to be inherently skeptical, and to not accept what they are told at face value. Since the degradation of quality information in the news media, increasingly reporters don’t do the complete job, but the principles are still the same.
The five Ws (and H) of journalism represent the critical core of story research. In essence, these questions ask:
- Who was involved?
- What happened (what’s the story)?
- Where did it take place?
- When did it take place?
- Why did it happen?
- How did it happen?
These questions represent the basics. While asking them wouldn’t stop people from believing false information or following those they believe because of loyalty to relationships, they represent a start.
Just teaching our internet citizens to instinctually ask questions when they consume online information would make great strides towards better comprehension of data… and freely offered opinions and the source of information. In addition, regardless of source, questioning whether or not the opinion was backed by facts and substantiated reports needs to increase.
What else can be done to help the current and next generation better delineate quality information?