Web Exclusive Essay
Learning to Be a Responsible Circulator
The Challenges of Departing from a Broadcast World
In Gilbert and Sullivan’s classic operetta The Gondoliers, the song “There Lived a King” tells the story of a royal who desired equality and thought to promote everyone to high office within his kingdom in order to achieve a single class of well-to-do, content subjects (Gilbert 1889). But the inherent nature of an entropic universe resulted in unforeseen consequences that provided for a very different reality than intended. For, after the process of elevation in rank, “Lord Chancellors were cheap as sprats, and Bishops in their shovel hats were plentiful as tabby cats—in point of fact, too many.” The last line of the song highlights the ultimate realization of such a world: “When everyone is somebody, then no one’s anybody.”
A spreadable media environment by its very nature fosters a more participatory society. Yet, in a culture where a majority of the audience has access to a ubiquitous communication environment, each person should hold a greater level of personal responsibility for establishing credibility of both content and sources.
In a “broadcast world,” credibility was easier to establish. If we trust “name” news brands such as the Washington Post, the New York Times, or National Public Radio, we tend to treat those who work for the “brand” as trustworthy by association. As the number of published voices grows exponentially, however, it may become exceedingly difficult to make an informed judgment about how trustworthy sources are when they do not have a recognized brand behind them.
This added requirement in a new media landscape points out one way that institutions—whether they be media properties, longstanding companies, or not-for-profit groups—continue to play a vital role, lending the trust they engender to helping vet and curate content for audiences that see their brand as a known filter for certain values or perspectives. We now regularly see major news brands pick up stories that were initially introduced from grassroots sources online and push those stories out to a wider audience through their extended reach—much as mainstream news brands and late-night talk show hosts picked up on the Susan Boyle phenomenon as her Britain’s Got Talent video circulated online and brought that content to an even wider audience. However, acting as curator is only one small part of what brand marketers, media companies, educational institutions, and government offices need to provide to their audiences. People need more than credibility of brand to tell them what material to trust. In order for a “spreadable media” environment to flourish, citizens must be taught the necessary skills to independently assess the validity of what is being shared with them and to carefully choose what they share with others.
Wikipedia by its nature has often been at the center of this controversy. Rather than utilizing a single source expert, the Wikipedia project allows for everyone to use his or her expertise in providing verified information from a variety of published sources to create a more expansive, robust, and balanced knowledge resource. Wikipedia provides more potential depth than any previous encyclopedia, but it also requires more frequent correction when erroneous information or purposeful misinformation is published.
Wikipedia thereby provides the perfect case study for teaching validation skills to students (Jenkins 2007). The site has a stated requirement of source or reference documentation for all facts offered or claims made in an entry, linked to sources that support the entry. When an article or entry is incomplete, or clearly skewed toward some position rather than recording fact, Wikipedia community members will typically tag the entry with questions of its accuracy and request that further examination or action be taken. In short, Wikipedia lays open the process of factual reporting and credibility assessment. Rather than use Wikipedia as a teaching tool for how to learn to assess credibility within a participatory culture, however, many schools have taken the unfortunate step of banning Wikipedia as a source. Such a reaction is one more unfortunate example of the way educational institutions—both secondary and postsecondary—vainly attempt to maintain a broadcast-era mentality in an age of ubiquitous access to information and rampant spreadability. These institutions of learning are ignoring a significant shift in how citizens receive information and losing an important teaching opportunity in the process.
Spreadable content presents complications for “truth” and the validation of sources. Disproving unfounded rumors, for instance, poses one challenge. These are the sort of mistruths that major news brands we trust ideally help us check, not just by providing new content but by validating the facts behind texts circulating broadly online. Our definition of misinformation is often too limited, however. We often think of misinformation as messages which are wholly false. What is given much less focus, however, is the more insidious situation where information posted might be mostly right but contains errors, omissions, or misinterpretation. In engineering, the ideal amplifier is a “straight wire with gain.” Long (analog) runs of telecommunications information historically strengthened the original signal, using multiple amplifiers every x number of miles. In an ideal world, the original signal would remain intact after transmission, but each amplifier has its own characteristics and is prone to add these often-subtle characteristics to the signal as undesirable “noise.” Each analog amplifier down the line cannot discriminate between original signal and added noise, however. By the time a long run is complete, engineers have an additional problem on their hands: how to discriminate signal from noise and separate one from the other. The result is akin to the social game of telephone, in which a message gets altered through the process of whispering it to the next person in a circle. People may remember the gist of a story, but they inevitably fill in “details” as they retell it. As the message gets passed among the group, those embellishments interfere with the main story, and it strays further and further from the original.
This natural effect does not mean that a more grassroots circulation of content should be feared. What it does require of us, however, is greater awareness and vigilance in our interpretation of such information. In truth, news stories have always had some degree of inherent bias and misinformation attached to them as a reflection of the person(s) responsible for gathering, vetting, writing, and reporting that story. Think of an article from a newspaper about a topic you know deeply or a time you were quoted in a story. You probably noted statements and/or generalizations that are “not quite right.” However, just as the FDA allows a certain amount of contaminants in food, people have long accepted a (small) degree of misinformation in their news, so long as the journalist “got the gist of it” right and did not try to purposefully mislead the audience. In the time of Edward R. Murrow, considered by many people to be the Golden Age of radio (and later television), journalists were expected to practice “double sourcing,” attempting to ensure journalistic accuracy by cross-checking multiple sources to uncover inaccuracies. Upholding such standards has become increasingly difficult for news departments as the industry shifts further from a public-service philosophy to a market-driven cost center. This shift—and the loss of editorial experience as news organizations have eliminated editors’ positions as part of downsizing—has contributed to exacerbating the degree of these misinterpretations.
Teaching Ethics and Law in a Spreadable Media Age
Today’s audience has the ability not only to circulate content but also to join in the dialogue about that material. For all the pitfalls mentioned previously, this new dynamic introduces a self-correcting mechanism—similar to Wikipedia—to allow a once-passive audience to challenge misinformation they previously had little choice but to accept. As Dan Gillmor emphasizes in his book We the Media (2004), journalists should embrace this new order, seeking to create the most accurate stories possible through leveraging social media. Such potential, however, can only be realized if the audience has the training and the tool set to read, hear, or watch critically, as well as to take responsibility for checking sources before passing on information. In short, as Axel Bruns (2005) has written, if every “amplifier” considers it a personal responsibility to vet information before passing it along, then such “circulators” can come to play a significant role in the information fabric as “distributed gatekeepers.”
In order for this to happen, though, audience members must better understand the responsibility that accompanies the decision to share. Grassroots online publishers and circulators have not been challenged to think critically about the larger implications of the content they create or spread. Today, we are too often hearing of unfortunate stories such as the 2010 death of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, who had an intimate homosexual encounter surreptitiously recorded and streamed online by his roommate and circulated by students on the campus. Clementi committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge days later. The two students who posted the videos and the many more who circulated them were not thinking critically about the ethics of their behavior or about their potential long-term ramifications. As a much larger percentage of the population has access to publishing and circulating content, significant efforts need to be made to provide education about the ethics or the legalities of content creation and dissemination. This is the type of training that journalism schools still emphasize for professional journalists but that has not yet pervaded curricula for learning about citizenship and communication, despite today’s information age.
Educational institutions, responsible media brands, corporations, governments, and non-profits must focus on new forms of media literacy to provide citizens of all ages with an ethical and legal framework within which they can understand their newly elevated role as both content producers and circulators (Gillmor 2011). A spreadable media environment provides greater power than ever before to everyone as both news “producers” and news “audience,” but that power can only be realized most beneficially if everyone is provided the essential tools to responsibly navigate within this new world.
Bruns, Axel. 2005. Gatewatching: Collaborative Online News Production. New York: Peter Lang.
Gilbert, William S. 1889. “There Lived a King.” The Gondoliers; or, The King of Barataria. First performed in London.
Gillmor, Dan. 2004. We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.
———. 2011. Media-Active: Creating a User’s Guide to Democratized Media. http://mediactive.com/book/table-of-contents-2/.
Jenkins, Henry. 2007. “What Wikipedia Can Teach Us about the New Media Literacies.” Confessions of an Aca-Fan (blog), June 26. http://www.henryjenkins.org/2007/06/what_wikipedia_can_teach_us_ab.html.