Learning to be media literate requires a few key principles

In this media-saturated age, it's becoming more apparent that we need to update media literacy. When people create media, not just consume it, the task is more complex - and more vital than ever.

In this media-saturated age, it's becoming more apparent that we need to update media literacy. When people create media, not just consume it, the task is more complex - and more vital than ever.

Why? Because the media now encompass everything from personal blogs to million-circulation papers, YouTube videos to mega-expensive films, and more. Yet we often can't separate the proverbial wheat from chaff, knowing what's trustworthy and what isn't.

Children, especially, need to learn how to sort things out. Unfortunately, schools - and even more unfortunately, most parents - don't do it all that well.

I think of media literacy in terms of principles, not a bunch of specific, must-do kinds of instructions. They differ somewhat depending on the role one is playing in the media ecosystem.

But even those of us who are producers of media are much more often consumers. When we're in that role, we should consider these principles:

Be skeptical. We need to be skeptical of just about all media. This means not taking for granted the trustworthiness of what we read, see, or hear from media of all kinds, be it a traditional or online outlet.

Use an internal "trust meter." Being skeptical of everything doesn't mean being equally skeptical of everything. That's why we need to bring to the modern media the same kinds of parsing we learned in a less complex time when there were only a few primary sources of information. An article in The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal starts out in positive credibility territory. An anonymous comment on a random blog, by contrast, starts with negative credibility; it would have to improve to have none at all.

Learn media techniques. Younger people are getting pretty good at this already. What I suspect they - and almost all others - lack in this regard is understanding how communications are designed to persuade and how we can be manipulated. We must teach ourselves, and our kids, about how media work in ways that go far beyond knowing how to take a snapshot with a mobile phone or posting something in a blog.

Keep reporting. No one with any common sense buys a car solely based on a TV commercial. We do homework. It's the kind of research and follow-up that journalists do. So let's call it reporting. We need to recognize the folly of making any major decision about our lives based on something we read, hear, or see - and the need to keep reporting, sometimes even in major ways, to ensure that we make good choices.

You'll find these principles in any professional journalist's toolkit. But the media creator who wants to tell others things about the world, in any remotely journalistic way, should recognize a few more principles: thoroughness, accuracy, fairness, independence, and transparency. I'll talk about them in more detail in my next column.

Dan Gillmor is the author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People. He's also director of the Center for Citizen Media (www.citmedia.org).

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