Dan Gillmor’s Mediactive Provides a Clear Overview for New Media Participants

Katie Donnelly cover

Dan Gillmor, Director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurshipat Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism, recently released Mediactive, a primer for media users in the Digital Age. Easy-to-read and filled with valuable information, Mediactive provides guidance for responsible media consumption and production as well as new ways to look at the evolving media ecosystem.

It is worth noting that the book itself doesn’t follow the typical publishing path. Published by LuLu instead of a major publishing house, Mediactive is available in its entirety for free online. Instead of an index, Mediactive includes hyperlinks (indicated by underlined text in the print version). Also, it’s published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license, so readers can feel free to modify and expand upon Gillmor’s thought-provoking ideas. Readers should be sure to check out all of the great resources available at the Mediactive website as well.

While Gillmor acknowledges the feeling of information overabundance that many of us experience, he is an optimist when it comes to users’ abilities to sort out reliable information. He writes:

Welcome to the age of information confusion: for many of us, that abundance feels more like a deluge, drowning us in a torrent of data whose trustworthiness we can’t easily judge. You’re hardly alone if you don’t know what you can trust anymore.

But we aren’t helpless, either. In fact, we’ve never had more ways to sort out the good from the bad: A variety of tools and techniques are emerging from the same collision of technology and media that has created the confusion. And don’t forget the most important tools of all – your brain and curiosity.

He goes on to provide a series of principles of media consumption: be skeptical, exercise judgment, open your mind, keep asking questions, and learn media techniques. He examines many of the methods people can use to detect untrustworthy information, noting that we all rely on an internal “credibility scale” to some degree. Gillmor turns to Ben Goldacre of BadScience.net, who argues, “The reality is you’ll never be able to have a set of rules for whether someone is reliable or not. What you can derive clearly are heuristics: time-saving devices and shortcuts. They are reasonably accurate, but they misfire sometimes.” Later in the book, Gillmor explores the idea of developing metrics for evaluating trust and reputation (work we’ve touched on here at the Future for Public Media project). At present, this type of impact measurement remains particularly challenging, although there have been some great projects designed to crowdsource trustworthiness.

Gillmor also spends time addressing the principles involved in becoming an active media producer, noting that we all have a role to play in the evolving journalism ecosystem: “In a participatory culture, none of us is fully literate unless we are creating, not just consuming.” As he does for media consumers, Gillmor provides a list of principles for producers, including thoroughness, accuracy, fairness, independence, and transparency. He reminds readers again and again that being honorable is of the utmost importance.

While Gillmor is excited about the potential for citizen-created media, he has some criticism for the way the current system operates. He chastises corporate-driven citizen journalism operations, like CNN’s iReport, for not including appropriate warnings about the accuracy of semi-anonymous contributions, for not making contributors fully aware of the risks and ethics involved in journalism production, and for expecting user contributions to be free. He also offers an intriguing potential solution for acquiring user-produced breaking news videos and images: a real-time auction system.

Gillmor also addresses the big legal issues of our time, including free speech, privacy, copyright, and corporate media consolidation. He notes that our current laws are not applicable in every instance— for example, the recent cases of online bullying that lead to suicide, while heinous, may not have technically broken any major laws. Gillmor does not advocate more laws, and instead argues for new societal norms that abhor online cruelty. He also argues for new norms that tolerate, to some degree, adolescent online indiscretions, noting that, “Sometime in the foreseeable future, we’ll elect a president who had a blog or Facebook wall or MySpace page when she was a teenager.”

Some of the most interesting sections of the book are Gillmor’s thought-provoking lists of ideas: ideas for running a hypothetical news organization (his would link prominently and often to competitors), ideas for reshaping journalism education (he’d encourage cross-disciplinary study and require courses in research methodology and business concepts) and ideas for reshaping the ways in which stories are written and disseminated (he’d include a “Big Topic” overview for each story, and make revisions and updates transparent, similar to Wikipedia articles).

In contrast, the weakest part of the book was the chapter on media literacy, which Gillmor supports but offers very little specific advice for expanding. Gillmor includes quotes from experts in the field about why media literacy is currently lacking in schools, but he clearly could have made a stronger argument for systematic media literacy education at all levels. And perhaps he will, in the next iteration of Mediactive, which will be updated both in print and online.