Not everything we read off our favorite news sites and blogs makes us think — most sites give us bits and pieces of things that are meant to be taken as they are.
How many “OMG!” Yahoo articles, snarky opinion pieces and arresting news stories actually make you smarter? Aren’t we often more inclined to just pause and say, “This writer’s right,” than to question her?
Then we go around carrying our day’s fix of info, parroting the written facts as if they’re all that’s true. And therein lies the danger, especially now that information is more accessible than ever – now that it’s social, mobile, dirt cheap and democratic.
Some would even say we Millennials are “the smartest generation” because of this access, and teachers are already asking how they can adapt instruction to our unique learning skills. But the trouble comes when we fail to draw the line between information and education.
While it’s easy to agree we have too much of the former, the latter is inarguably more valuable. Education, after all, is a fundamental right and key to full human progress. If we call for quality, accessible education from our social institutions (government, schools, church, family), I don’t think we should demand anything less than that same quality and accessibility from the media, the so-called “Fourth Estate,” as providers of information.
I asked a professor in the university I work for a question I thought was crucial: “Can you say that if media make people think critically and education does not, media are better than education?”
“Definitely,” she answered. “But if education doesn’t make you think critically, it’s not education, it’s just information.”
ABC News can teach ABCs?
The idea of having media products to educate and not just inform, however, poses questions for those like me who studied journalism. Do we have to reformat the way we’re supposed to write news, cover events and research?
The answer is no. We stick to what we know, only while keeping in mind the real needs of the public. And education (fostering inquiries and higher-order thinking, discovering truths) is a grave need, is it not?
Covering opposing sides of the story for the sake of informing the reader should not be enough. Journalists mustn’t “validate fools (politicians, leaders) by always going back to them (because) in that way new people and new ideas and new thinking are shut out,” said British journalist Alan Davis.
Being balanced in reporting is good, but if we want to educate, news stories shouldn’t just voice the opinions of various stakeholders. Journalists must package first-hand statistics and data, integrate and simplify pedantic trails of information and trace scattered facts.
And my enumeration goes on. Great journalism, such as the Watergate series, goes in-depth and is untainted by popular opinion (and expectation, for that matter), sober in choosing angles and includes the possible effects of an issue in a wider perspective. In short, great journalism applies the standards of well-thought out reporting and lets audiences infer a stance instead of shoving it down their throat.
A counter example is the recent coverage of Pope Benedict XVI’s so-called “revolutionary” views on condom use, based on some quotes in a newly released book taken out of context. Starting from the Vatican’s own L’Osservatore Romano, then given undue highlight by the Associated Press and the BBC, it spread like fire to local news stations, which made it a banner story for the day. Worse was that people who read such stories foolishly took it further and used it to justify political motives. See what I mean by uncritical journalism that spawns uncritical readers?
So, while given the truth that the Pope – and the Catholic Church – has no approval for it whatsoever, the media picked this up only afterward and buried it on page 10.
Watching the watchdog
Media products like the news, in many ways, are cheaper than formal schooling and are the only continuing source of knowledge for those no longer enrolled. The press must do its part to contribute to their audiences’ intellectual and cultural growth. But first, we as audiences have to tell them when they’re wrong.
I sent a tweet to our daily national broadsheet to slap them for sensationalizing a story, and they sent back a tweet defending themselves the day after. And many times, they acknowledge compliments.
Today’s tools make this feedback mechanism way easier. We can choose several channels to get our message to the press. We Millennials should know.