Critical News Literacy and Young People

There is a study released today about news consumption habits by young people 8-12 and 13-16 years old:  News and Australian Children: How Young People Access, Perceive and are Affected by the News.

The first point made in the key findings of the report is about how young people receive news from family and friends, including teachers (from the infographic). Trust is extremely high.

My problem with the reporting in the Conversation is focuses on  ‘fake news’. ‘Fake news’ has tabloid ‘outrage’ news value among an educated audience, but it is not actually that interesting from a research perspective.

After being part of three Digital News Reports (2015, 2016 and 2017) the key critical question for me is, how do children and young people develop news literacy and their own sources of news as they mature? If they are accessing news via their family and friends, does this mean this is how they also develop news literacy? By imitating the critical relationships based on cultural values and social norms of their parents? In our research low levels of trust in mainstream news have been interpreted as relatively high levels of critical news literacy. How does this work in the context of young people developing their own news literacy if they have extremely high levels of trust in their primary sources of news?

Critical News Literacies?

What is the relationship between perceptions of bias (key finding 3) and the capacity to spot ‘fake news’ (key finding 4)? Arguably ‘fake news’ is irrelevant compared to the ideological framing of most of the mainstream news. The key development of 8-12 to 13-16 year olds seems to be the radical reduction in the percentage share of those responding to the survey who don’t know about various measures of bias (Figures 18-20). That is, there is roughly half the number of young people who responded ‘I don’t know’ to questions 13-16 year olds compared to 8-12 year olds. Rightly or wrongly having a view on the bias of news representations demonstrates critical or discerning engagement and this increases.

Fairfax Media and Newspaper Next

My colleague Jason Wilson has attacked the Finkelstein Independent Media Inquiry report in the context of the Fairfax restructure announced today. Jason writes:

The Independent Media Inquiry bent over backwards to demonstrate the peristence of media power in order to build a case for regulating it further. But the real story is that traditional media are in a death spiral. These have been major social institutions. Despite what many see as their poor performance in recent years, it’s not clear what exists to replace them in that role.

The Independent Media Inquiry investigated whether or not governmental regulation and/or support would be appropriate in the context of the shifting composition of an industry sector. All major media companies in Australia made submissions that suggested that government support would be unwarranted. The report references a number of submissions and introduces and then quotes from the Fairfax submission thus:

Notably none of the established newspapers felt there was a need for government support. The submission by Fairfax Media states:

No one can deny that the traditional media business models have been severely challenged by the growth of the Internet. That said Fairfax does not support the proposition that independent journalism needs assistance by way of Government subsidy or tax breaks as have been suggested by some submissions … Media organisations need to transform themselves to account for the changing needs of audiences as the digital and online platforms continue to evolve. Existing revenue streams need to grow and new revenue sources need to be found and sustained.

It seems that is precisely what Fairfax are doing at present.

Two other points are worth making in the context of the analysis by the Independent Media Inquiry Report. Firstly, the report analyses the democratic function of the news media (what Jason refers to in terms of them having been ‘major social institutions’) from the government’s perspective, not the perspective of individual journalists or companies. I do not agree with Jason that the Independent Media Inquiry was tasked or even should have been tasked with providing an industry with strategic solutions to their commercial problems. Chapter 12 of the report engages with the problem of ensuring industry-wide ‘journalistic capacity’ to produce ‘quality journalism’, which is slightly unconventional for a media analysis. Most media analyses fall into the political economy perspective or correlating ownership or the identity of news producers in general with a normative sense of ‘diversity’. ‘Diversity’ was mentioned in the terms of reference, but this was developed into ‘journalistic capacity’ in the report. Nor does the report explore even a single example of a specific news outlet or business model. Clearly, this would have been inappropriate. Imagine the furore unleashed by the culture warriors at The Australian if the report made forthright suggestions regarding how businesses should operate!?!


Is this a ‘desperate’ move by Fairfax?

Here is a brief extract from a discussion I had with Jason and Jonathon on Twitter.

Clearly, they both believe, as does Jonathon Green, that Fairfax’s move to be ‘desperate’. Is it?


The Long View

The second point to be made about the Independent Media Inquiry is regarding the absence of the kind of suggestions (as noted by Jason) and if they are not in the report, then where such information can be found. A fantastic starting point for anyone interested in how this may (or may not) play out is the Newspaper Next experiment from the the American Press Institute. Proper historical research is required to analyse the last two decades of of shifting business models, as a way to ward off the boosterism of an always future leaning opinion makers. Less ‘this is what you should do’ (or in the case of Fairfax the schadenfreude of the inverse boosterist ‘this is what you should have done 10 years ago’) and more ‘this is what has and has not worked in this context’. The chronic boosterism of ‘internet evangelists’ manifest in the rush to be ‘in front’ of every other voice in the marketplace of opinion means that existing experiments such as Newspaper Next are often forgotten.   

Two major reports were released as part of the experiment, and a third smaller report. One from 2006 announcing the project, another two years later reporting on those media companies following through with the Newspaper Next experiment and a third on using ‘Interactive Databases’ (I’ve uploaded the first two reports to Scribd, because it seems that the API has removed Newspaper Next from its site). I’ve got an academic article in the works that analyses both major reports in terms of the way they discuss ‘opportunity’; it is a curious example of thinking ‘opportunity’ as the necessary restructure of markets (by way of attempting to forge new stabilising social neworks that reproduce markets and therefore stability of revenue streams, etc).

The first report presents some of the conceptual background in thinking about the changes to the US newspaper industry based on notions of ‘disruptive innovation’ and the main points are capture in above diagram (page 19). Some rightly criticised the experiment and the report specifically for being ‘all talk’. Indeed, it does have a certain boosterist tone about it. There is some good ideas amongst all the enthusiasm however.

The second report presents 24 case studies of new products and seven examples of how newspaper companies organized and financed innovation. The most relevant example in the report is The Chicago Tribune. Unfortunately, even at this stage of the experiment it was clear that no newspapers would be willing to ‘make the leap’. As Rick Edmonds at Poynter reported at the time:

However, many of the experiments have stuck too closely to traditional core competencies, making money, for instance, by reverse publishing online material into print, still the comfort zone for the ad sales force. The result: the pace of change is unprecedented but not quick enough; most projects are too small and too slow to develop revenue on the scale needed. So the report urges newspapers companies to “make the leap” beyond news or even news and information.

Then check out this post by Steve Buttry, one of those involved in the Newspaper Next experiment. He was also apparently behind the third report on using interactive databases as a new kind of journalistic product. Steve’s point is that none of the news companies that engaged him or others to make presentations wanted to impliment the Newspaper Next blueprint.

The results were pretty much the same as the response to N2: Executives praised the ideas generally, but lacked the vision, courage and/or freedom to make such dramatic changes in their declining companies. Either N2 or C3 could have led the newspaper industry to a more prosperous future if companies had truly followed them. Instead the business has followed a defensive course of slashing costs, throwing up paywalls and waiting for a miracle.

My point is a very simple one: there has been a huge amount of work carried out in other local, national and international markets on what has worked and what has not worked in attempts to restructure individual companies. It is clear that Fairfax has to undergo a transition to a new business model. It is far from clear what transition model works best.

Maybe I am the only person (at least in my Twitter stream) who thinks that amongst all the commentary about the ‘desperation’ of Fairfax that they actually did something right in holding off from undergoing this transition? Does anyone have any figures on how much money has been wasted at other media organisations on ‘restructures’? obviously some changes should have been made sooner (such as the ‘digital first’ strategy and the integrated newsroom). However, if they had attempted to lock themselves into a new business model even a few years ago would they have the information they have now about what works, what doesn’t and the various different contexts and range of outcomes in between? Business leaders are inherently conservative, they are not going to invest in a company restructure that requires a market restructure at the same time. Not unless they have the ‘killer app’ anyway, but there is no ‘iPod’ solution to the challenges faced by the news industry.

What is competence? Media Inquiry Report

Various libertarian types have fired up their organs of liberty and laboured forth on the Finkelstein Media Inquiry report. Rather than ‘free speech’, I see ‘public competence’ as a much bigger problem at the current historical juncture than any threat to free speech.

Does the public have a problem expressing or accessing the views, opinions or whatever of others? In Australia, to a large extent, no. There are those in various communities without ‘voice’ of course, but this is not a problem with the actual concrete mechanisms and practices by which people participate in ‘free speech’. The current situation has been hard won through various battles in different jurisdictions over the last couple of centuries. I can understand why drawing on debates from the 17th and 18th centuries might be attractive for libertarians unwilling to face the differences plainly evident in the current situation. What are the differences? One key concept is ‘the press’. What was ‘the press’ then? What is ‘the press’ now? They are certainly not the same thing. What about ‘government’? Does ‘government’ operate as a monarchy now?

Rather than limits on ‘speech’ at the moment, we have an excess of channels and opportunities for many people from many different walks of life to have their say. We certainly do not have an abundance of competence. What do I mean by ‘competence’? The first competence is the capacity to assess whether ‘you’ are competent to assess your own competence. We often discuss this in terms of feelings of confidence. We also send people to school and perhaps university or some other post-secondary education to develop such capacities.

The abject character of this column by Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella, and the comments, is utterly sickening to me. I am dismayed that someone who is meant to be an MP and perhaps one day could possibly be running part of the government can read the Finkelstein report in terms of ‘political correctness’. Mirabella is participating in the pure aestheticisation of politics. Using others’ sound bites to ventriloquise moral indignation, the Finkelstein report becomes a tool to whip up and harness the stunted fury in the responses of others who have also not read the report.

Finkelstein is critically analysing the news-based media industry in terms of the measures of competence that the industry sets for itself. The example of Mirabella’s piece goes to the heart of the report’s main point. She does not seem to understand that when you write in a journalistic capacity for media outlets that have set a standard of ethics and regulated practice, then you are already writing under the constraint of a series of rules. One of the main rules of journalism, in whatever form, is to be accurate. Journalists do not deliberately lie. They attempt to be as accurate as possible. Accuracy is a question of competence. Either you are accurate in your representations and aspire for such accuracy or you are not.

She raises the example of how a piece of her writing was changed to fit with a Press Council ruling:

It was explained to me that it had to be done due to a Press Council ruling which found that the word “illegal” “may be considered inaccurate and unfair” in relation to those who enter our country by other than legal means. Go figure. Therefore journalists have been instructed to use the term “asylum seekers”, rather than “illegal entrants”. Even more insidiously, the Press Council ruled that “even opinion pieces and commentary” had to be held to this apparently new standard.
Without getting into the argument of whether it’s “unfair” to describe someone who has entered our country illegally as an “illegal entrant”, exactly who has made the ruling that my opinion is now so very offensive that it must be censored?

Unfair or not, the problem is that the term ‘illegal entrant’ is inaccurate. There is nothing illegal about seeking asylum. Using ‘illegal entrant’ in a journalistic capacity is strictly incompetent. It is nothing about being ‘offensive’. Change the laws to make seeking asylum illegal, then you can write journalism using the term ‘illegal entrants’ all day long.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Can anyone else see how this is a monumental problem for Australian democracy?

Maybe it is just me.

News Media Council as Streisand Effect

This post is based on a comment I left in reponse to a post on Prof Mark Pearson’s blog where Pearson outlines his reservations regarding the suggested News Media Council as a recommendation of the Finkelstein Independent Media Inquiry report and my colleague at the University of Canberra, Jason Wilson, agrees with Pearson’s points. I’ll quote Jason’s comment below because it sums up Person’s points and briefly respond. Then I turn to Pearson’s example and argue that the effect of judgements made by the News Media Council would actually benefit advocacy journalism.


This represents an impost and a raising of the barriers to entry for small publishers. The key points made by Mark here, which I agree with, is that (i) this constitutes a de facto licensing scheme for news media, which operates by determining who and who isn’t subject to this regulation (ii) because any disputed outcomes will end up in the courts, small publishers may either be ruined or intimidated into compliance because of their lack of resources. The solution to the problems the report raises is, generally, more media, more voices. This is another piece of regulation that makes it more difficult for independent voices to emerge.

I am not sure what the ‘barrier’ is that Jason is describing. The report rules out economic sanctions (such as fines). The suggested News Media Council is designed to be as user friendly as possible, so I imagine that this would mean remote video conferencing participation or online submissions.

Pearson raises a very good point in his post regarding the character of protections for small publishers:

And what if such a Council orders a leading environmental news site or magazine to publish an apology to a mining magnate for the ethical breach of publishing a ‘biased’ and inaccurate report about the company’s waste disposal practices, based on sensitive material from confidential sources? Where would the power and resources rest in a court appeals process in that situation?
To publish such an apology or retraction would be an affront to the blogger, and in their principled belief it would be a lie to do so.

Firstly it is necessary that everyone agrees that small publishers will be subject to the same laws as they are now (regarding defamation, racial vilification, etc.), then I argue that rather than a bariier and a chilling effect of free speech that the opposite will occur.

The worst that could possibly happen with a journalistic report that draws on confidential source is that the News Media Council demands that a journalistic report has to be withdrawn from circulation. The journalist/publisher has to weigh up the decision to publish knowing that the journalistic document be withdrawn or the prospect of giving up the identity of a confidential source. Pearson argues that to publish such a retraction “would be an affront to the blogger, and in their principled belief it would be a lie to do so.”

Principles of journalistic ideals are fine if we lived in an ideal world. We do not live in such an ideal world. I prefer the reality of journalism to the ideals. What will happen if the above scenario involving a direct action group (say GetUp!) creates an online news media enterprise and publishes a journalistic article about environmental issues and a mining company? Or better yet, say the News Media Council itself becomes corrupt, and a journalist publishes a story relying on a confidential source about the corruption of the Council itself?

The journalistic article will be published. Mining company, member of the News Media Council or whatever will lodge a complaint. In three or four days a decision will be handed down that in a worst case scenario (beyond the conditions already in place for existing laws regarding defamation, racial vilification, etc.) means the journalistic article is withdrawn.

Both Jason and Pearson suggest that this will be offensive to journalists and/or media publishers because of a principled refusal to withdraw a published article. Offensive to principles or not, I think most publishers of advocacy journalism would welcome the News Media Council complaints mechanism, even if they have to withdraw their article. Why?

I suspect, and without it actually happening I can’t really frame it more strongly, that this will be a classic case of the Streisand Effect. The mining company, member of the News Media Council or whatever will draw attention to something it does not want attention drawn to.

I am making a number of assumptions of course.

The first is that rather than defining journalistic practice as establishing the truth and therefore it matters whether or not a journalistic report is retracted, I am instead assuming journalistic practice in the current media ecology operates as an economy of attention. There is a surplus of media messages and catalysing audience attention around an issue or event is precisely what the sort of advocacy journalism example Pearson provides is attempting to do. Does anyone have any doubts whatsoever what the response would be from the ‘public’ (which is at a minimum other journalists and interested parties) if such an order to retract a journalistic article was handed down? I am largely following the description of the news-based media industry by Stanley Cohen in the preface to the third editon of his famous Folk Devils and Moral Panics (basically he outlines how ‘moral panics’ are a tool for directing attention).

There are other assumptions regarding the details of the implementation of such a regulatory body (ie lodging a complaint is public, but this is not essential). Also that involvement from the News Media Council will commence only after the lodging of a complaint, and hence the publication of a journalistic article, which I think is a sensible assumption.

I can foresee the release/publication of such advocacy journalism reports via email (so it exists forever on mail servers, regardless of the News Media Council’s findings) late on a Thursday or Friday so it remains ‘live’ for at least a number of days. This way such reports will still catalyse critical attention in an audience around specific issues.

Protection for online media enterprises producing news?

I should be doing an article review for a colleague but want to respond quickly to Nic Christensen of The Australian who has also focused on the concept of having a traffic threshold for a site to be possibly regulated by the porposed News Media Regulator. Nic and I have had a brief exchnage on Twitter. It is better practice for more complex points to shift to a different platform as Twitter is inadequate. On the issue of a traffic threshold see my previous post on the misreading required to see the 15000 hit threshold as a problem using Mumbrella’s example.

Nic asks a slightly different question and rises the example of the UTS student news site Reportage Online. Reportage Online apparently receives more than the proposed traffic per year and Nic asks the question should the site be subject to a regulatory body for the news industry?

First question: Is it producing news? Yes.

Second question: Does it receive enough traffic? Yes (assuming the arbitrary figure the report uses will be implemented).

So, yes, it should be subject to the new regulatory body. I am not sure why anyone would think that a student-run site should be treated differently? Sure the managers of the site would argue they are striving to produce works of quality journalism?

If you run a small online media enterprise that produces news-based content, then how are the proposed changes better? Here is the relevant section (point 11, page 9):

A guiding principle behind the design of the News Media Council is that it will provide redress in ways that are consistent with the nature of journalism and its democratic role. Like the APC, its members should be comprised of community, industry and professional representatives. It should adopt complaint-handling procedures which are timely, efficient and inexpensive. In the first instance it should seek to resolve a complaint by conciliation and do so within two or three days. If a complaint must go to adjudication it should be resolved within weeks, not months.

Conciliation first, then adjudication. The current modes of redress for complainants (and protections for media enterprises) are entirely inconsistent with the “nature of journalism and its democratic role.” The report alludes to this in a following point (point 14, page 9-10):

The process of accountability proposed here recognises the realities and difficulties of journalism, emphasising immediate exchange and correction rather than financial or legal punitiveness. Equally it is consistent with the ideals guiding journalism by emphasising transparency and recognising the public interest in how a major institution of our democracy performs.

In fact, the report’s suggestions indicate a method by which an online news site can demonstrate it values trust and newsworthiness (point 15, page 10):

These proposals are made at a time when polls consistently reveal low levels of trust in the media, when there is declining newspaper circulation, and when there are frequent controversies about media performance. Many of the criticisms are self-interested or expedient; much of the public cynicism is misdirected. Yet a news media visibly living up to its own standards and enforcing its own high ideals is likely to increase rather than undermine public confidence and acceptance.

If a site owner is confident in the quality of the reporting and news-based media content on the site, then it would be a good to sign up to the regulatory body as you would then be subjecting your site to possible adjudication by a community panel. That is why the report suggests that some small sites may desire to ‘opt-in’ (point 11.68, page 268).

The report address the chilling effect of governmental regulation in detail using the experience in the US as a model (pages 183-187). Another kind of chilling effect are frivolous complaints by serial pests. It also addresses this point (point 11.70, page 296):

There should be a filtering process carried out by a senior officer of the News Media Council. The process is to determine whether or not a complaint is frivolous or vexatious. If it is, it need not be pursued. It may be appropriate to allow for an appeal to the chair by a complainant whose complaint is not to be pursued.