THE Newseum (it’s a museum about news, get it?) in Washington DC is a beautiful modern complex, with an array of impressive displays about how news media has shaped the world over the past few centuries.
There’s an incredibly moving display on the global coverage of the 9/11 terror attacks, a thought-provoking gallery of Pulitzer Prize-winning photos, a powerful memorial to journalists around the world who died in the line of duty, and much, much more.
All of that provided the perfect backdrop for the World Young Reader Prize, an award ceremony and mini-conference celebrating some of the world’s best youth journalists, where discussions centered around a very important topic – news literacy.
If you don’t know what news literacy means, don’t worry – many don’t either.
Basically, news literacy is the ability to understand, evaluate, and critically analyse news content. Someone who has a high level of news literacy would, for example, be able to tell if a news piece is fair and balanced. They’d be able to evaluate whether a source cited in a report is credible. Heck, they’d know to check if a report had sources at all.
Even simple things like being able to tell the difference between an actual news story and a fake or satirical piece is an important function of news literacy, one that’s arguably becoming increasingly important. The Onion and FakeMalaysianNews.com can be hilarious, but only if people understand that it’s not actual news.
“If we do not know how to judge the content we consume, we are doomed to become a docile, obedient society that simply swallows all of it or a deeply divided, ungovernable mob that believes nothing. News literacy provides the means to do that judging,” explained Dr Aralynn McMane, executive director for news literacy and youth engagement at the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (Wan Ifra).
McMane has been at the forefront of Wan Ifra’s push for news publishers around the world to promote better news literacy, which has proven to be an uphill battle.
On Dec 5, a man armed with an assault rifle threatened employees at a pizza shop in Washington DC because he read a fake news report accusing Hillary Clinton of being involved in a child sex ring which was based in, of all places, that DC pizza shop.
Now we know what you’re thinking – that guy was probably a nut job. Who else would believe a story like that? Well, the story, dubbed “Pizzagate”, had been circulating the Internet for over a month before the incident at the pizza place, and it had spawned multiple posts and conspiracy theories on other online platforms, giving it the appearance of credibility.
Tech news portal The Verge made a great point in a recent piece as well. It said platforms like Facebook and Google have inadvertently allowed fake news to be “camouflaged” through its Instant Articles and AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) features, which allow users to load stories quickly by stripping them all down to the same standard format.
This makes all stories look pretty much the same, whether it’s from a lousy blog or a sophisticated news site. Readers would have to scrutinise the story itself to determine if it’s real or fake with very few visual cues, and not everyone will take the time to do that.
Deeper issues than just fake news
The challenges in promoting news literacy go way beyond the trend of fake news. There’s also the stuff that lies in that grey area between facts and bold-faced lies, and that takes even more news literacy at a very fundamental level to figure out.
Take for example the US presidential election, which was discussed at length throughout the Young Reader conference.
A member of the audience said during one of the panel discussions just how painful it was having to explain to school students what exactly was going on in the media when Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were duking it out.
“The US presidential election produced both mythic levels of misinformation and a serious failure of professional journalism,” said McMane in a later interview.
What made things worse, she added, was the emergence of “truly nasty media”, which unfortunately often has a wider, stronger reach.
“The core problem was pretty simple, actually,” she said. “The US had not before experienced a candidate who was willing to be completely outrageous – xenophobic, misogynistic, racist, etc. – and it was inconceivable to reporters that such a candidate could succeed.
“Once they realised that giving him so much coverage was only helping his quest, it was too late.”
Politico editor Susan Glasser wrote a piece on the dawn of a “post-truth America” after the election, saying it’s not that journalists aren’t doing their jobs. In fact, they’re doing it better than ever thanks to “decades of disruption”.
“The media scandal of 2016 isn’t so much about what reporters failed to tell the American public; it’s about what they did report on, and the fact that it didn’t seem to matter,” she wrote.
“Even fact-checking perhaps the most untruthful candidate of our lifetime didn’t work; the more news outlets did it, the less the facts resonated.”
No surprise, then, that Oxford Dictionaries named “post-truth” as its “Word of the Year” for 2016, citing its increased use this year in the context of Brexit and the US election.
It defined the term as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
But post-truth isn’t just an American problem. Yannick Dillinger of Schwäbische Zeitung, one of the World Young Reader Prize winners, said it’s an issue not just in his native Germany, but across Europe as well.
“We (in the news media) are all challenged by fake news and mistrust, especially when it comes to younger people, who are increasingly socialised in the digital world and don’t have a strong relationship with our products,” he said.
You can handle the truth
It wasn’t all doom and gloom at the World Young Reader Prize, though. It was meant to be a celebration of excellent journalism for young audiences after all.
Schwäbische Zeitung, for example, won a silver award in the Editorial category for its ambitious project to allow teenagers to take over the newspaper for a day. Dillinger and his team laughed as they recalled how difficult it was, but they did succeed in helping the kids put out an entire edition, and they learnt a thing or two about young audiences along the way.
“They surprised us with their knowledge, even about complex political or economic topics; but we also learned that they know very little about our work (as journalists).
“So we realised that we have to invest more time in explaining how we work,” said Dillinger.
Teaching young people how news media works could be the key to getting the world out of this post-truth funk, which makes the work of people like Dillinger, McMane and the Young Reader prize winners all the more important.
“Young people are a key part of the dissemination chain for news and other information because they are the largest users of social media. This makes it more critical than ever that they know how to avoid being duped,” said McMane.
“It’s not only a challenge for young people, however. Today’s information context is new and constantly evolving; older people also have no experience in knowing how to cope.”
Aside from news literacy, another major talking point among journalists at the conference was the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which enshrines freedom of speech, religion, petition, assembly and, of course, the press.
There was a long conversation about it during a panel session which included experts from the Newseum, the New York Times and News-O-Matic.
“As members of the press, you bear an awesome responsibility to get (the First Amendment) right,” said Barbara McCormack, Newseum’s vice-president of education. “And we can do so by encouraging the development of media literacy skills and exercising our five rights.”
Journalist Caroline Gaertner, representing French publication Journal des Enfants, which won a Young Reader prize in the Public Service category, said the terror attack against Charlie Hebdo was a reminder for the French media on the importance of freedom of speech.
“Two years ago, we didn’t realise its importance,” she said. “And when Charlie Hebdo happened, it showed us that freedom of speech was under attack.”
Gaertner was speaking to R.AGE at the Newseum exhibit which pays tribute to journalists who had lost their lives in the line of duty, including the Charlie Hebdo team.
Another exhibit just a few steps away contains stories of journalists who had suffered for their work, including some who had been attacked, tortured and raped.
Even more poignant is a large installation with the names of all the journalists who had lost their lives, etched in large panes of frosted glass mounted against the setting sun, symbolising both hope and transparency.
There were several panes left empty, a clear reminder that many more journalists will be lost to the cause.
We left with a greater appreciation for what our fellow journalists risk for the craft we love, and maybe now you will, too.
R.AGE wins the World Young Reader Prize in Washington DCR.AGE was in Washington DC to receive the World Young Reader Prize! Here’s a quick recap of the award ceremony, but stay tuned for the full video, and please LIKE our page to continue supporting our work =)
Posted by R.AGE on Sunday, December 11, 2016
When in Washington…
R.AGE editor Ian Yee reflects on the team’s trip to Washington DC to collect the World Young Reader Prize.
AS we stood in front of that gleaming set of letters on a wall, we all had a bit of a moment. There we were, seven young Malaysian journalists who had traveled halfway across the globe just to be entranced by an old signboard. Of course, it wasn’t just any old signboard. Those letters spelled the words “The Washington Post”.
As winners of the World Young Reader Prize, the R.AGE team had the chance to tour the Post’s new office in Washington DC two weeks ago, and yes, we totally geeked out.
Never mind that we managed to drop by New York for an epic team vacation. Never mind that we visited the Capitol, the White House and a bunch of other House Of Cards locations (no Freddy’s Ribs, though).
Never mind that we received our Young Reader trophy as proud Malaysians in front of journalists from around the world at the amazing Newseum.
This is The Washington Post we’re talking about. Everything else we had done up to that point paled in comparison.
We were shown around by one of the editors, Christina Barron from the children’s section, KidsPost, who kindly answered our numerous questions.
And being the kiasu journos we are, we asked quite a bit about their best practices, y’know, so we could rip them off.
Perhaps the most important thing we learnt was that Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder and CEO who bought over the Post in 2013, has been telling the staff that they’re no longer a newspaper company, but a media and technology company.
These days, technical staff work side-by-side with editorial staff to constantly develop the technology being used to disseminate the Post’s news content, which has led to a 61% increase in mobile users in the past year alone.
But we didn’t just talk about boring industry stuff. Barron was full of little tidbits and anecdotes which were pretty awesome.
For example, Martin Baron, the former editor of the Boston Globe portrayed in the movie Spotlight, is now the executive editor of the Post; and according to Barron, Liev Schreiber totally nailed his dour, socially-awkward demeanour – and he absolutely hates the attention the film has brought him.
Barron also pointed out that facing the editors’ meeting room, where the stories of the day are decided, there’s a wall listing all 47 Pulitzer Prizes the Post has won; and they made sure to have plenty of empty space on the wall, to inspire the editors to aim for more earth-shattering stories.
Well it worked, at least on the seven young journalists from Malaysia, who had spent the past year working incredibly hard and putting themselves in harm’s way to tell stories that make a difference, and to inspire others to do the same.
The World Young Reader Prize was validation of the ambitious, risky path we set on in November 2015 when we produced our very first piece as a rebooted, camera-slinging R.AGE team.
Our trip to DC was a great way to end an amazing year, but you can be sure that we’ll be targeting even bigger stories in 2017.
After all, we work with a simple motto here at R.AGE: Always do good, and always do better.