Where media literacy is the only solution to the compromise of truth
Journalism used to be an institutional structure of social existence — journalists were the sieve through which accurate information passed before it was relayed to the public.
Journalists’ loyalty to Fact and Truth went unquestioned, which made news outlets trustworthy (for the most part), and access to an objective reality (more or less) simple. That’s not to say that biases in news media didn’t exist decades ago, but now, as “journalism” is redefined, our realities are becoming more subjective than ever.
The other day, I had a conversation about post-normal science (PNS) communication with a friend who is studying in the realm of scientific disciplines. I don’t claim to know much about normal or post-normal science, but after reading an article she sent my way, I found myself pondering the future of journalism through the lens of science communication.
Post-normal science communication, according to the article, is communication of scientific research “where facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent.” This means scientific information is increasingly accessible for those outside the professional sphere of scientific research. However, PNS communication often requires scientists to share their research at intermediate stages, rather than when it’s fully realized, and this increased level of transparency is leading to debates about the authority of some scientists since portions of their research are unproven or in progress at the time of publication.
I would argue that journalism is also evolving into a post-normal iteration of itself, but in a slightly different way. Objectivity and Truth seem to be on uncertain ground in “journalism” now, while the stakes for urgent decision making remain high — in terms of policy-making, yes, but also in terms of the public’s understanding of timely issues.
If media consumers can’t trust journalists to be bearers of objective Truth anymore, journalism itself is existing within a sort of post-normal situation. However, where scientists retain a degree of professional recognition as possessors of exclusive knowledge, even in the age of post-normal science communication, journalists have lost traction on the slippery ground of credibility in “journalism.”
My understanding of pedestrian “journalism” is this: it refers to non accredited people who are publishing information, usually on social media, under the guise of “journalism.” This poses a threat to true, fact-checked, by-trade journalism because the consumer of that media isn’t necessarily critical of the pedestrian “journalist’s” credentials (and why should they be? They have never had to be before).
We are also living in an age where, on their personal social media accounts, trusted journalists share their own social or political beliefs, which compromises their reputation as an unbiased third party, able to report and reflect on current events with uninvolved objectivity.
Both of these things put the historical sanctity of journalistic Truth in jeopardy, pointing toward a post-normality.
The last point I will raise to illustrate journalism’s evolution into post-normalism is the temptation of partisan politics due to their digestibility.
Brevity doesn’t just apply to headlines anymore — short summaries of current events on social media are more alluring than longer-form news stories because they are bite-sized, and take almost no time to read.
Not only that, but news stories that appeal to partisan politics can often be summed up in a few words, while a more nuanced understanding of a given issue requires a more generous time commitment, which is unfavourable compared to the alternative.
Nuance can’t exist in an infographic, so the digestibility of information in various forms of media is taking precedence over accuracy.
As a journalist, this all makes me very nervous.
Not because I think that journalism is pointless and Truth is doomed. Not by any means. Truth transcends the politics of news media, and honest journalism still exists. It makes me nervous because there is a problem in our ability to separate journalism from “journalism.”
The survival kit for the post-normal situation that I am suggesting is simple: a decent grasp on media literacy — a set of critical thinking skills that can be applied to the comprehension of information.
Pedestrian “journalism,” biased “journalists,” and partisan news are always going to exist, as are Truth and journalism.
The problem is that the way we filter information can’t reflect our decades-old attitudes toward journalism anymore, nor should our attitudes bend in favour of distrusting media altogether.
Instead, the way we approach information comprehension (in our own experiences, in the way we teach our children, and in our discussions with friends) has to transcend the level of filtration we have historically deemed normal, because we are living in an age of journalism that is anything but.