When I first began researching social media, I picked up Howard Rheingold’s book Net Smart, which covers the skills needed in order to communicate, network, and cultivate an identity online. One of my favorite terms he uses is the word curate— essentially the act of choosing and presenting information discovered online. I’m returning to this term in order to consider how to teach news literacy in the upcoming semester. While the class could go through the usual process of evaluating credibility and verifying facts, I want to make this lesson more applicable to the ways in which we share information every day, which is not in academic research papers. I want us to become more critical curators.
Twenty years ago, trusted print and broadcast journalists curated content for us, not only at the national level, but also at the community level. Increasingly, those small papers have shrunk and merged. In Michigan, the distinct identities of many news organizations have morphed into the large networked space of Mlive. If you follow them on social media, you are as likely to see a national news story on some salacious story in another state (children in cages, gruesome murders, etc.) as a local story. We have filled this dwindling of community news with other filters we identify with, such as media personalities and particular civic and political organizations/groups.
It’s important to distinguish between media personalities and news reporters, which is one part of critical consumption. While all news stories are filtered by the sources selected, the use of quotes, and the arrangement of information, reputable reporters seek out those closest to the story and who have the highest level of expertise and work to portray those viewpoints fully and accurately. A good news story also is balanced and told without revealing the reporter’s individual stance.
One of my stronger students this past semester chose to write a paper on fake and misleading news. In one of his examples, he mentions news coverage by Nancy Grace. At this point I stumbled and questioned him, as Nancy Grace does not deliver news coverage as a journalist, but gives opinions on news events as a commentator. Commentary is not news reporting, even if it is on CNN. In newspapers, opinion pieces are easily identified in their own sections. On cable news stations, the lines between factual, impartial news and commentary are often blurred. Even more dangerous is the fact that these news stories are tailored to audiences of a particular viewpoint, who are unlikely to question information that mirrors their beliefs.
On a smaller, but perhaps more influential level, our news is also being filtered by our social media circles. Each of our friends and liked pages and groups perform curation. While we are most familiar with how individuals curate their statuses and photos to present the most attractive aspects of their life, the non-personal information they share is also a form of curation. In fact, even liking and clicking a story drives the attention information receives. We make stories go viral, we make fake news profitable, and we shape how search engines rank information sources. Maria Popova argues that we have become moderators, sifting through the heaps of information and choosing which ones to shine a spotlight on. It’s a weighty role we have all unknowingly taken on and most of us do not have the skills needed to do it well.
In the composition classroom, we spend most of our time preparing students to enter the conversations of their discipline. However, we do not spend enough time preparing them to ethically drive the attention economy and critically consume and curate information. Here are the resources I am drawing from as I move towards making a paradigm shift: