Speaking with "Fresh Air" radio host Terry Gross a couple of weeks ago, British singer/songwriter Billy Bragg said something that resonates with me as I listen Wednesday to an expert on "news literacy." More on that in a moment.
News literacy. The concept is more likely to get your attention via the currently popular term "fake news," though news literacy is more of a response to fake news than a reference to the phenomenon itself. It's a term that we in newspapers care a lot about these days -- and one that the expert -- whom the Daily Herald brought in to impress on our staff the responsibility that underlies all our work -- wants advanced across the entire "information landscape," to use his term.
I'm eager to do my part.
The expert is Peter Adams. He's a senior vice president for The News Literacy Project, an agency that works primarily with educators to develop programs to teach young people how to be discerning when they evaluate the information they see and hear in today's media. He demonstrates for our staffers a stunning range of online examples in which wildly inaccurate information became -- sometimes for a short time, sometimes ongoing still -- part of the national dialogue on issues.
He shows sharks supposedly swimming in the streets of hurricane-ravaged Houston. He shows tweets made to look as though they'd been written by proud looters. He shows videos of made-up events created to attract attention to legitimate causes -- domestic violence, for instance, or the horrors in Syria -- that got unmoored from their original sources and became viral misinformation about events that never really occurred. It is alarming and unnerving. It is a stark lesson in the challenges facing not sincere news agencies but sincere news consumers.
"Fake news" is a multifaceted topic far too complex to consider in the limited space of this column, but as I listen to Adams, I am reminded how much we in "traditional" media owe our audience. Adams says, "It's more on the shoulders of consumers to understand what they're looking at now," and I couldn't agree more. But that doesn't absolve those of us who would be responsible of our fundamental duty. Our stock-in-trade isn't just information; it's trust. I am worried about how one maintains any trust when confronted with the wealth of lies, mistakes and distortions Adams shows. I am not alone, but there is a kind of hope.
"A lot of people have responded to everything they see on social and everything they see in the national conversation right now with a lot of cynicism," Adams says, " ... What we try to help teachers understand is the difference between skepticism and cynicism. (We need to) really challenge cynicism and open up paths for inquiry and conversation. To be skeptical about authenticity, but not be cynical that everything is a fake, that everything is equally fake, that everything you see has some kind of manipulative agenda behind it, because that then is just a really terrifying notion. That there's no source of credible information out there ..."
Which brings me back to Billy Bragg. After telling Gross about a sort of pre-fake news-era controversy involving Woody Guthrie, Bragg says he learned, "The biggest enemy of all of us who want to make the world a better place is not capitalism or conservatism, it's actually cynicism ... And the cynicism that is our greatest enemy is our own cynicism."
Remembering that statement, I am struck by the ironic link of skepticism to trust. It occurs to me that all of us as news consumers will be better able to trust what we see, hear and read if we learn the skills of being skeptical without succumbing to cynicism. Increasing one's news literacy will build those skills.
"Our ultimate goal is to see news literacy embedded in the American educational experience," Adams tells our group.
I would go a step further and wish for an age in which news literacy is embedded in the experience of every news consumer.
Don't be a cynic, I would say. Be a skeptic -- of us at the Daily Herald and of everyone else. Be literate, and, as with every kind of literacy, we'll all be better off.
You can start at the News Literacy Project's website at http://www.thenewsliteracyproject.org/.
Jim Slusher, firstname.lastname@example.org, is a deputy managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jim.slusher1 and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.