Panelists offer differing views about future of media literacy at Danieley community dinner

The second Danieley community dinner of the fall featured a panel discussion about the importance of media literacy.

by Reid Cobb ’20

Panelists at the Danieley Center Neighborhood’s community dinner on Oct. 10 stressed the need for media literacy, lamented the persistence of fake news and grappled with news as a business.

The speed of breaking news was of particular concern to the panel, which was moderated by Kelly Furnas, lecturer in communications. News consumers encounter a constant bombardment of advertisements, news and entertainment that is thrown at them at high speeds from many different sources. This can become particularly troublesome when news breaks.

In those instances when news organizations are striving to be first, panelists agreed it’s imperative that people take a moment to consider the information that was shared. A common reaction in some cases is to share it immediately, but Anthony Hatcher, associate professor of communications, urged caution.

“My first impulse is impulse control,” Hatcher said, stressing the importance of fact-checking news stories and not giving into the trap of instantly sharing.

Adam Constantine ’10, Elon’s social media manager, said that not everything one finds on social media is worth sharing. in fact, he challenged those in attendance to consider where they spend their time and energy, inviting them not to live online and to grow enamored with everything they see.

Social media networks, he said, started as a platform for leisure and entertainment but were disrupted when news entered that sphere. As a result, information can sometimes be misconstrued and distorted.

Hatcher agreed and cautioned that the internet is propagated by a handful of companies that “were never meant to be news sources, but have become de-facto news sources.”

But becoming more media literate is sometimes complicated when ads look like news.

“There’s no easy gold standard” for media literacy and determining the validity of news sources, said Joan Ruelle, dean and university librarian.

“I worry about people who can’t discern between ads, news or editorials,” Hatcher said. This is an even bigger problem because of the birth and growth of native advertising—ads that look like stories within a newspaper and may deceive readers.

“(News organizations), their business model is not to provide information,” said Brian Nienhaus, an associate professor of business communication. “Their business model is to gather your attention.”

The panelists turned to Buzzfeed as an example. Its business model is based on sustained viewing and clicks. That’s why its main editorial content—the stuff that’s shared thousands of times across the internet—focuses mostly on entertainment.

Just recently, Buzzfeed has tried to enter the news business, but its first foray included an investigative story that accused President Donald Trump of engaging in lewd pornographic acts—a story that was found to have no basis in fact.

That piece of reporting, according to Constantine, was problematic because it ruined Buzzfeed’s news credibility

“They shot themselves in the foot before they even started walking,” Constantine said.

Now, it will be an uphill battle for Buzzfeed to earn credibility among news consumers.

Nienhaus is largely pessimistic about the future of media literacy because of the “wild west” nature of social media, where people are still trying to figure out the rules. Hatcher said he believes America is just in another pendulum swing between the good and the bad of information and technology.

Constantine and Ruelle, on the other hand, had varying levels of optimism about the future, indicating that news consumers will become smarter about how to discern real from fake and will begin to demand accuracy and care from news providers.