One of this project’s stated goals is to provide a media literacy component for users of our research. As a study that refocuses topical conversation from the identification and avoidance of fake news towards the contextual conversation surrounding it, we must ask: how might this project enable users to discuss and engage with our findings in useful contexts beyond this project website? We believe that it is important to note that while our data and research is rooted in digital humanities best practice, the analysis is to some degree contingent on the media perspectives—or obfuscation of clear perspectives—reflected in each of the three data sets.
In a blog post titled “Did Media Literacy Backfire?”, Danah Boyd begins: “Many progressives are calling for an increased commitment to media literacy programs. Others are clamoring for solutions that focus on expert fact-checking and labeling. Both of these approaches are likely to fail — not because they are bad ideas, but because they fail to take into consideration the cultural context of information consumption that we’ve created over the last thirty years.” She goes on to argue for the broader ways in which “mainstream media” have marginalized groups of people by underrepresenting or even misrepresenting historically marginalized perspectives. Echoing civil rights leaders, boyd explains the criticism of such mainstream media practices as “arguing for the importance of respecting experience over expertise.” In other words, traditional hierarchies of expertise within media ownership and publication may certainly be understood as legitimate discourse, but context also demands an understanding that such discourse is only one facet of a larger discourse apparatus.
In practice, the scope of this project acts under a complex aggregation of the term “media.” Our study amalgamates three richly disparate media types into a unified temporal conversation that attempts to cut across each media’s individualized vernacular, authority, and scale. Even accounting for systemic hierarchies within all media, more granular details distinguish the breadth of possible perspectives implicit in representations of discourse from newsprint, television, and Twitter.
Traditional news media, represented in our project by the Lexis Nexis and TV Archive data sets, invites critical inquiry about the role of ownership and third party mediation across the news cycle. The collective and/or corporate authority of a newspaper or a television news channel is measurable by dimensions such as legality, where these institutions are legally held accountable by libel, obscenity, and other similar standards of journalism ethics. Similarly, these outlets are often beholden to advertisers and subscriptive users who may maintain expectations of veracity, coverage, or consistent politics. Such traditional media is also subject to the logistics of traditional distribution methods. Placed side by side, our data consistently bears out a day lag (at minimum) of print reporting, and even 24 hour cable TV channels are often contingent on labored production decisions and source verification in ways that the mobility and autonomy of Twitter circumvents. The nature of our project’s varied data types is potentially susceptible to an aesthetic division of “lumbering traditional media” vs. “instantaneous new media”. For these issues discussed here, though, it is important to approach our results with awareness of how traditional medias differ even from one another. Advertising, for instance, plays a very different and arguably more involved role over the course of a television broadcast than it does along the margins of a digital newspaper. Going beyond merely what these sources say about “fake news”, the knowledge of all these characteristics scaffolds a “literacy” that can inform users as to what might influence newsprint or television media to utilize the terms they do.
Twitter exhibits a different type of hierarchy. Unlike traditional media, most non-corporatized Twitter accounts purportedly begin with an equal platform for discourse: an independently published tweet. In the perceived democracy of internet-derived conversation, any tweet may theoretically flourish (or flounder) into an object of discourse from a disembodied record. The bestowal of discourse indicators to users, such as retweets, favorites, and mentions, are liable to give tweets lacking such indicators the impression of engendering no discourse, or at least no lasting discourse that might reach beyond one’s feed. In a way, then, the very features that Twitter uses to project a transparent platform for leveled discussion can reinforce notions of quantified worth within discourse even before one considers how quickly a celebrity (or president) might garner followers and retweets simply by showing up. To the final responsibility of this project to encourage critical literacy for new media, this project’s Twitter datasets especially face analytical challenges of sheer magnitude. Collecting and visualizing 5.3 million tweets means that only in very, very few cases was it viable to research or even infer the contextual user perspectives behind these tweets. The effect is that of a disembodied discourse in which boyd’s notion of reorienting experience over expertise is stymied by collectively fractured and indecipherable identities.
We raise all of these issues here precisely because the intentions of the project demands it. The cultural history of the media as proliferative discourse asks more questions about a way forward from “fake news” than it does provide answers. Our contributors offer the following set of critical questions for users of these findings to ask themselves, others, and certainly our project as they analyze the data through their own experiences.
1. How do you understand the term “media literacy”? How might media literacy change meaning across variable perspectives and over time?
2. Is it possible to successfully examine media literacy critically without context, but with respect to the hierarchies of both top down and bottom up approaches to information?
3. When engaging with data and visualizations pulled from a particular media source: What do you know about the cultural context of this particular media’s distribution? Who has this media been historically for, what types and/or groups of people have been in control of its publication/distribution, and how has this control developed over time
4. Consider the user as authority when engaging new media types versus the user as audience when engaging with traditional media types. In what ways has the role of the user changed? What role does media literacy play in terms of distribution?
5. When reading the content of a tweet or the vernacular contained therein (i.e. mentions, hashtags), what does the tweet convey about the perspective and experience of the user? What do you know already about the user and what if anything might you need to research further regarding user identity for the most meaningful understanding of the content?
6. How might we examine other literacies (information, visual, and digital) using a similar lens?
Druick, Z. (2016). The Myth of Media Literacy. International Journal of Communication, 10, 20.
Livingstone, S. (1998). Relationships between media and audiences: Prospects for future research. In T. Liebes & J. Curran (Eds.), Media, Culture, Identity: Essays in Honour of Elihu Katz. London: Routledge.
Livingstone, S. (2004a). The challenge of changing audiences: Or, what is the audience researcher to do in the internet age? European Journal of Communication, 19(1), 75-86.
Livingstone, S. (2004b). Media literacy and the challenge of new information and communication technologies. Communication Review, 7, 3-14.
Livingstone, S. (Ed.). (2005). Audiences and Publics: When Cultural Engagement Matters for the Public Sphere. Bristol: Intellect Press.
Livingstone, Sonia (2008) Engaging with media – a matter of literacy? Communication, culture & critique, 1 (1). pp. 51-62.
Livingstone, S., van Couvering, E. J., & Thumim, N. (in press). Converging traditions of research on media and information literacies: Disciplinary and methodological issues. In J. Leu, J. Coiro, M. Knobel & C. Lankshear (Eds.), Handbook of Research on New Literacies. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates