What happens when you search the internet for a restaurant you’ve heard of and the establishment doesn’t have a website? You probably ignore it and move on to the next option. Our laptops and smart phones have become instrumental filters for decision-making.
This is not a new phenomenon, even though the pandemic has amplified online shopping, interactions and socializing exponentially. Access to a plethora of information is immediate, consuming, addictive. And despite its inaccuracy, falseness, or bias, there’s no denying how intensely and greedily we consume it.
Today, every business is potentially in the media business. Whether you sell music or ball bearings, pet food or insurance, you communicate with customers, prospects, influencers and stakeholders who criss-cross your professional and personal worlds. Whether we maintain a website, send emails, use Facebook, Twitter, SnapChat, LinkedIn, Instagram or other online accounts, each of us is a media consumer and spreader.
My roots are in broadcast journalism. After more than 30 years working as a producer for NBC News, I moved on to higher education. Now, as a professor and program director at Sacred Heart University, I help teach and guide students who will be business owners, journalists, marketing professionals, producers, door -corporate speech and the public relations professionals of tomorrow.
It’s a different world to where I was at 30 Rockefeller Plaza – streaming options have forced major networks to reinvent themselves to survive with smaller audiences. And local TV stations are booming as media companies and everyone else look for programs to engage viewers, attract advertisers, and draw attention to their websites.
Unfortunately, many logs have been largely emptied. Meanwhile, platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and TikTok — along with a virtually infinitesimal universe of websites and the creative tools to support them — have exploded and turned virtually anyone with access to a computing device into an editor, designer, extraordinary journalist, publicist and propagandist.
This, of course, is a huge problem. Without a reliable basis for discovering and verifying news and information – the “who, what, where, why and when” that defines good journalism – too much of what we read and hear is either infotainment pretending to be news, or, worse, patently false.
Although the mainstream news industry has made positive strides in being more inclusive, what is also needed is an audience that can discern the truth. Without respect for true journalistic integrity, reliable sources and reliable facts, we have thousands of options amplifying our own echo chamber. Too often, people seek news and information sources that emotionally validate them and align with their political or cultural ideologies.
When I ask my students where they get their news, it’s inevitably online and obtained through their phones. Understanding and researching accurate news sources, I tell them, is essential for honest journalism and effective writing. This includes the ability to ask relevant and probing questions and follow-up queries, and developing the skills to be mentally agile and proficient in deduction, reasoning and good storytelling.
Teaching trusted news gathering and media literacy should be an integral part of every K-12 curriculum in America. Students should learn, from an early age, how the media works, its role in society and culture, and how to separate real news from willful, lazy or sloppy misinformation.
Every day we see facts abused, distorted and manipulated by biased reporting on far-right and left-wing news sites. Social media platforms, which aggregate information, however misguided, thrive on misinformation and antagonism: angry users drive traffic and increase ad revenue. And if we need a case study of propaganda and fake news, look at how effectively Russia manipulates information to keep its own citizens in the dark about Putin’s heinous war in Ukraine.
Students need to know how government works, our Constitution, and the essential role that objective media play in upholding the truth and preserving a democratic society. We must teach the value of accurate reporting and ensure that tomorrow’s leaders have the tools to seek out and insist on truthful information sharing in all aspects of their lives and work.
Communication-related degrees, including journalism and media programs, are essential and lead to rich career paths. We see how misinformation, conspiracy theories, so-called “alternative facts” and lies are tearing our country apart. Without a nationwide commitment to information literacy in education, which would help build the capacity to distinguish fact from fiction, we risk falling prey to charlatans and selfish interests. who understand, all too well, the dangers they face from a fair and honest media and those who respect and seek the truth.
Joseph A. Alicastro is Director of the Masters Program in Journalism and Media Production at the School of Communication, Media & the Arts at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, and a former producer for NBC News for more than 30 years.