Last week I sent myself an email with this quote from Felix Salmon’s blog post about the media’s response to the Boston mayhem:
There’s an art to working out where to find fast and reliable information, and to judging new information in light of old information, and to judging old information in light of new information. And there’s an art to synthesizing everything you know, from hundreds of different sources, into a single coherent narrative. It’s not easy, it’s not a skill that most people have, and it’s precisely where news organizations add value.
I have been thinking (and talking) a fair amount about media literacy lately and this quote seemed to sum up the challenge really nicely. Media literacy is a very hard thing to nail down because, unlike regular literacy, it’s pretty hard to test for. Ultimately I think it’s about making sure people understand the role of media (whatever that might mean) in the way they experience and interact with the world around them. That can mean simply being aware that the order of the Google results you’re seeing are most likely not the same as mine (even for the same query) to, as Felix says, “working out where to find fast and reliable information.” Media literacy, like regular literacy I guess, is a scale (one with an ever-moving endgame, but I guess the same could be said of language).
Anyway, when I read this quote from Felix I thought of a few different games I like to play with myself that, although I never really thought of them that way, were sort of mini media-literacy tests:
The Snopes Test: When you read something, especially an email from a distant family member, you can immediately sniff out whether you’re going to be able to find an entry for it on Snopes. Knowing whether it’s been proven true or false is good for bonus points.
The GoDaddy Test: This is a funny one, and definitely less useful than the Snopes test, but it’s interesting to predict whether a random domain name someone comes up with is already taken or not.
The Wikipedia Test: This one is actually important I think. If I gave you a random topic, say Snoop Dogg, could you predict whether or not Wikipedia would be the top result? (Bonus points if you predict the actual top result.)
Anyway, all these things help illustrate the challenge with media literacy, which is ultimately it’s an “I know it when I see it” skill. With that said, it’s one that will continue to have a larger and larger impact on culture as more people’s voices (and information) become a part of the news we all sift through on a daily basis.