Journalism education is vital at this moment in history — a time when the industry is under attack, right when it is most needed to counter extremism fueled by disinformation packaged for the masses.
Fake News: A Misunderstood Phrase
Over the past two decades, the rise of social media coupled with the decline in local community reporting created a perfect storm: an unbalanced media ecosystem where disinformation could flourish. In response, journalists and journalism educators are trying to highlight the need for high-quality, responsible, and responsive reporting work.
Journalists must work on behalf of citizens to shed light on the actions of the powerful and convey the difference between misinformation, disinformation, and the tenets of journalism, which include fact-checking and truth-seeking.
The problem with the term "fake news" is that if something truly is "news," as understood through the tenets of journalism — accurate, methodically objective, and truthful — it can't be "fake."
Still, the phrase "fake news" is used widely, often by politicians and other powerful people to discredit factual journalism they don't like. This cynical practice must be countered by trained journalists. It must also be repudiated by educators teaching a new generation of digitally native student journalists.
What is a digital native?
People who were born into a world in which digital technology was already ubiquitous.
The Social Media Problem
Social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat provide users the opportunity for instant gratification. Research finds that when a social media user gets a "like" — a positive response to a posting — it releases a signal to the brain that moves them to action.
The problem, as it pertains to journalism, is that that signal doesn't always prompt us to the right actions. Users tend to share, click, and gravitate toward provocative content, often in ways that reinforce rather than challenge our beliefs. In this space, misinformation and disinformation run rampant.
It's a difficult problem to evade because, as a society, we are fully in the grasp of a social media world. We're constantly peppered with notifications, and these light up the signals in our brains that at once exhaust and exhilarate us.
Student Journalists and Social Media
In the midst of this complex discussion about social media's addictive qualities and usefulness in spreading disinformation comes a paradox for journalists: For all of the problems, social media's beneficial attributes can't be ignored.
These platforms have spurred powerful social change, from the Arab Spring uprising to the Black Lives Matter movement. And when journalists use social media to crowdsource their research — the way David Farenthold of the Washington Post did in his Pulitzer-winning stories covering former President Donald J. Trump's claims of charitable giving — it can garner powerful results.
Student journalists are learning about mobile technology and social media to research, report, and engage with the audience and hone their craft. Yet they must be taught this new way of reporting ethically, so their work counters the harm done by the constant influx of content, some of which is at best false and at worst dangerous.
The Diminishing Public Square
With an increase in corporate ownership of traditional media outlets, the focus on local news for profit — often regionalized networks that promote sensational stories to increase clicks and pageviews — leaves people without access to the stories in their neighborhoods and communities.
Instead, they are fed a one-size-fits-all regional news product that is usually substantially less informative than news from previous generations. This is a departure from the mid- to late-20th century, when our local news sources brought us together through stories of local government, education, health, sports, and other issues embedded in the fabric of our communities.
The dearth of local news and rise of social media has also sparked a hyper focus on national news. National outlets are primarily driven by profits, not communal harmony, and many look to excite consumers with slanted or salacious coverage. The process of informing and connecting citizens is often a secondary consideration in many for-profit newsrooms.
It is important to remember that the social media business model relies on attention for its profits. No matter if the consumers are spending hours learning local history or hours reading extremist propaganda, the business flourishes.
Social media platforms, such as Facebook, fill the void. Sometimes, the result is positive. During the COVID-19 pandemic, local health departments have provided community statistics on Facebook to inform their neighbors about local cases and vaccine clinics. Social media also creates spaces for celebrating local students' academic and athletic achievements, and it's often a venue for providing historical information and general local nostalgia — something the local newspaper once did.
However, it's also a space where political divisions can develop and amplify. It is important to remember that the social media business model relies on attention for its profits. No matter if the consumers are spending hours learning local history or hours reading extremist propaganda, the business flourishes. Until recently, these companies hadn't made a distinction in this regard. To them, stickiness — users being drawn in for hours at a time — is profitable.
Media Literacy: the Springboard to Journalism Education
Given the state of disinformation and extremism in the United States, educators must teach media literacy from the time students become grade schoolers. When children consume age-appropriate, high-quality journalism on a consistent basis, they become familiar with the engaging nature of news and information, particularly if it resonates with them personally.
The proliferation of books, educational resources for children and teachers, and recognition of the need for media literacy as early as grade school has begun to take hold in the United States. The term "media literacy" feels a bit dull and institutional, but in reality, it's a crucial component to raising young people with the tools to recognize and reject disinformation.
Misinformation and disinformation are all over the internet, but there are a few websites that are particularly renowned for their shady content. If you read information through one of these sources, you'll want to double-check it with a more reputable source.
Due to the insidious nature of disinformation campaigns, it's important for secondary school and college students to recognize it in all of its many forms: social media "influencer" campaigns, video games, and websites that may seem innocuous but are meant to capture the attention of young people and capitalize on the physiological nature of technology addiction.
These offerings sit alongside journalism on the platform, confusing readers and making all content appear equal in value.
Building on a Foundation: Teaching the Tenets
Unrelenting research and reporting that seeks truth above all — above the biases of preconception and special interest — are the only way to counter mis- and disinformation on the internet.
Looking for Nonprofit News Sources?
The good news is that there are many examples of non-corporate media outlets doing vital journalistic work. A few examples include:
While journalists are inherently biased because they are human, their methods must be objective. That means prioritizing factual accuracy, independent research methodology, and the highest standards in delivering truth on behalf of their communities, no matter the potential consequences.
These tenets are often widely unfamiliar to first-year journalism students. Increasingly, these digital natives come to journalism education with a vague (at best) understanding of the foundational principles of journalism and how they differ from the flood of information they have been exposed to, primarily through social media.
What's hopeful, however, is how quickly student journalists take up the call to fight disinformation and work for a greater public good. Having had their attention captured by technology, they are often open to rethinking the big national and global picture of newsertainment in favor of a more local brand of journalism meant to foster community connection and offer citizens something more substantive to contemplate.
What is Newsertainment?
Media marketed as news but produced in a manner designed to entertain the reader or confirm their biases rather than inform them.
Journalism Education for the Future
Words like "innovation" and "entrepreneurship" may seem to run counter to an education in journalism. However, we must explore ideas around delivering and funding quality journalism if we are to shore up local and regional news in the service of a stronger democracy.
At the college level, students are often inspired by learning that corporate news is not the only avenue for them once they receive their journalism degrees. This is not to suggest all corporately owned and for-profit news is to be avoided: Journalists deserve to be paid commensurate with the important work they are doing, and there are a number of for-profit newsrooms doing inspiring and important work while still paying their journalists well.
However, a comprehensive journalism education offers a number of options that students may not have considered prior to attending J-school. Beyond the important tenets of journalism, including fact-checking, ethics, law, and history, students now study new ways of storytelling. That includes using social media and mobile technology to reach and engage with audiences like never before.
Students also learn about funding quality journalism through options like subscriptions, membership models, non-profit news, live events and community forums, micropayment models — or any combination of the above.
If we are to counter the flood of disinformation that threatens to upend the social and political fabric of our country, journalism education and evolution is vital.
Header Image Credit: Deagreez | Getty Images