December 15, 2009

7 tips to increase your online media literacy

Is your BS detector optimized to deal with the new realities of democratic media?

WeMediaJD LasicaIt’s become a truism that we’re all media creators now, from bloggers and podcasters to the most wet-behind-the-feathers Twitterer.

Along with the new freedom to create comes more responsibility: The new media ecosystem places an increased burden on all of us to become more perceptive consumers and dissectors of media. In the age of We Media, it’s important that we be able to discern fact from fiction, to separate reportage from speculation and to not become unwitting participants in the latest spam scam.

In short, we need to sharpen our online media smarts.

A couple of years ago I was tempted to write a book called “But I Heard It on the Internet!,” but Farhad Manjoo’s book, “True Enough, Living in a Post-Fact Society” beat me to the punch. Like many of us, Manjoo bemoans a society where anything can be accepted as true if it’s said loudly enough, repeated often enough and circulated widely on the Internet. We’ve become so lacking in basic media literacy skills that an entire segment of our population believes whatever its cultural leaders tell them to, facts be damned.

Every day, when we take a ride on our favorite search engines or tune in to our favorite news sites, we seem confident that we know how to spot the good stuff and weed out the nonsense. But do we?

Here’s a guide to help you optimize your BS detector to deal with the new realities of democratic media.

1. Give your trust to sources that earn it

alexaJust as print newspapers run the gamut from tabloid sleaze to the New York Times, so too you can find any flavor of news, from celebrity sleaze to public service journalism, in the online arena.

What’s changed in recent years is that we no longer rely just on traditional media brands for our news diet. Individual bloggers, hyperlocal news sites and alternative media publications now command a good deal of our mindshare. Before you give your attention and retweets to the newcomers, ask:

• Do I know who’s behind this site, or are they hiding behind a cloak of anonymity? Use easywhois.com to find out who owns the domain if there’s no author listed.

• Has the site been around for a while? Alexa will tell you.

• Is there a way for users to leave comments on the site or communicate with the producer?

• Does the news source link to materials that authenticate his report?

• Does the source have a presence on Twitter?

• Are other users linking to the site? Check on Technorati for the site’s “link authority.”

Even generally reliable information sources on the Web aren’t wholly reliable. For instance, just because it’s on Wikipedia doesn’t make it true, as I learned first-hand from people like Forrest Sawyer, who told me his Wikipedia entry is riddled with errors. Don’t take entries at face value — follow the source material to see if it adds up.

What’s important is not whether news or information outlets occasionally slip up –- we all do –- but whether they have mechanisms in place to prevent and correct mistakes. In other words, minor blips notwithstanding, are they earning our trust?

2. Get out of your bubble

news.com.auA generation ago, Walter Cronkite said that an informed citizen needs to check multiple stories from multiple locations rather than rely on a single news source, whether it’s the New York Times or CBS News. His advice resonates even more strongly today with the rise of hyper-partisan media from the right and the left.

Avoid the media echo chamber, which exposes you to only a narrow prism of views and discourse. A good way to burst your isolation bubble: Broaden your online diet by bookmarking overseas news sites.

Good choices include BBC.co.uk, the Guardian, Finland’s Helsingin Sanomat, Israel’s Haaretz, Australia’s News.com or the Australian Broadcasting Company. Read opposing points of view. Use a news reader to subscribe to a search term like “health care reform” or “Afghanistan war” to funnel in an even more diverse range of coverage.

3. Suss out Internet hoaxes

When my relatives contact me about a chain letter in their in-box – like the purported “dry run” by Muslim terrorists on an AirTran flight or fabrications about social security taxes – I direct them to Snopes and tell them to check for themselves. More often than not, Snopes has vetted and debunked the account.

Other sites for vetting Internet rumors include:

BreakTheChain.org

About.com: Urban Legends

ScamBusters.org

HoaxKill

Don’t Spread That Hoax!

Sophos

Vmyths (computer viruses)

4. Use your social network

Crowdsource your fact-checking. If you’re on Twitter (and chances are you should be), don’t be shy about asking your followers, “Is this true?” instead of just passing along something from an unknown source. Chances are that a member of your posse will do some sleuthing and give it a thumbs up or down.

A new search engine, Aardvark, has put this formula to good use. Enter a query and Aardvark will ping your social network to find the answer to your question.

5. Judge the journalism

NewsTrustAt the nonprofit news network NewsTrust, a small team offers “an information credibility filter, news literacy tools and a civic engagement network.” A bipartisan community of news evaluators makes judgments to determine whether a news story exhibits bias, makes unverified factual claims and provides needed context and sourcing. Anyone can participate by using the site’s review tools.

Another community, Fairspin, also encourages readers to work together to reveal the bias behind today’s news. Users can vote on stories to flag opinion disguised as fact and judge the degree of political bias detected in stories from both the left and right.

6. Other vetting tools

CampaignDeskThe Internet may be a swamp of misinformation, but it’s also the most incredible fact-checking apparatus ever invented. Some tools that should be in your arsenal:

Campaign Desk from Columbia Journalism Review critiques media coverage of politics and policy each weekday, separating spin from substance.

Factchecked.org provides educators and students with a framework for analyzing information and avoiding deception in the media.

FactCheck.org, its sister site, run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, focuses on political bias in the news.

Media Matters for America is a nonprofit progressive research and information center dedicated to monitoring, analyzing and correcting conservative misinformation in the media.

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) is one of the longest-running media watch groups monitoring media bias and censorship.

Metafilter and similar community sites offer robust discussions of current events.

Author and professor Howard Rheingold, who did this wonderful short video with me on 21st century media literacies at Cambridge University in July, cited two additional tools in a series at SFGate:

Twitter Journalism (“Where News and Tweets Converge”) published a series of steps to verify a tweet, including checking the history of past tweets by a person to see what context you might find before retweeting a claim about a news event.

• Intel labs’ trippy Dispute Finder Firefox Extension “highlights disputed claims on web pages you browse and shows you evidence for alternative points of view.”

Questioning Video helps you understand the vocabulary of visual deception that can be used to distort TV news.

Media literacy, after all, is not about revealing truths. It’s about critical thinking and interpretation.

7. Commit a random act of journalism

To really understand what goes into creating a story, try it yourself. Next time you’re at a public event, < a href=”http://bethemedia.com/” target=”_blank”>be the media: Whip out your favorite mobile device, take some photos or video, add some text and zap it off to a media sharing site.

Next time you come across a similar media report, you’ll likely have a deeper understanding of what goes into the process. And maybe a more sympathetic outlook.

What are some of your favorite tools or sites for vetting news and information online?

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JD Lasica, founder of Socialmedia.biz, is now co-founder of the cruise discovery engine Cruiseable. See his About page, contact JD or follow him on Twitter or Google Plus.