Friday, July 20, 2012

The Information Skills for the 24/7 News Cycle Age: An Analysis of the Reporting of #theatershooting

Abstract: an analysis of high-impact news stories and the 24 hour analysis-reporting cycle as it impacts the teaching of communications and information literacy.

I think the best description of the news-commentary-begets-more-news cycle I have heard came from Jon Stewart on the daily show. I looked (lightly) for the specific clip, but could not find it. If I do, I will be sure to link to it (thx to commenter Slowdog for the link). Essentially:

  • News Channel Reports factual data
  • During the commentary/analysis period, the data is interpreted to draw a more meaningful/slanted conclusion to the benefit of the station, political bias, commentator, ratings, etc.
  • During the next NEWS period, the conclusion is reported as breaking news about the original story citing experts, sources, etc.
This is one of the examples that we use in #digcit to discuss PLN bias and the need to be more savvy about news in the modern era than ever before.

Tragic News Reporting in a 24/7 World
When I woke up this morning, I had every intention of working on a blog post ranting on the House committee hearings to give "Highly Qualified" designation to Teach-for-America graduates or finish up my #bbw12 posts with thoughts on the last keynote...

but, when it rains, it pours.

The first item on my news-reader described the tragedy of the Colorado shooting at the premiere of "Dark Knight Rises" midnight showing -- details are still coming in about this awful event (which is part of the point) and I will leave it to others to assign blame and find meaning...that is for another day and more ambitious people than me.

As I walked into the living room, the TV was already on a national news channel piecing together information and trying to put some meaning or reason upon the chaos. There were very few details at that point and within about 30 minutes the repeat of information made it clear that all of the essential data that the news had, I had absorbed. One hour later (Note: I am in a house full of people watching the news -- my inclination would have been to change the channel -- "0" on Feeling according to the Myers-Briggs), only one new piece of information was being reported:
the mother of the suspect had said to ABC news, "You have the right person. I need to call the police. I need to fly to Colorado," (exact words from Mercury News).
When the mother's statement was released, a careful caveat was given, namely that the statement a) could have been nothing more than confirming a name, b) could be that statement of a person in shock or coping with overwhelming information (certainly), c) did not imply much of anything on face.

My wife and I left the cabin to replace a flat tire.

When we returned, the news was still on. There was still only one story. The significant change was that we had moved out of the fact-news part of the news cycle/day and into the commentary part of the day, which was filled with analysis..

A few hours later, the mother's same statement was being picked apart by multiple retired profilers, three news analysts, and a supplemental scroll of social media commentary along the bottom of the screen. One expert went so far as explain that this mother's statement along with the incident itself was enough to show that there would probably have been indications of psychopathic tendencies demonstrated as early as age 5 (I added the emphasis) - so much for those caveats, neh?

As the afternoon commentary gave way to a news break, my jaw dropped as the news reporter updated the facts of the case known, including a tidbit that experts have begun piecing together a profile of the suspect, including potential childhood signs of behavior. After searching for an hour, looking through different sources, and checking my handy-dandy PLN, there was no indication of this information beyond the speculative comment of one person who had researched no background, conducted no personal interviews, and had no firsthand contact with the suspect, parents, neighbors, or even a kindergarten teacher.

The Stewart Cycle was complete.

Reflection: The Impact of the News-Commentary Symbiosis on Classroom Teaching

I hesitated to write this one so early, since I do NOT want to trade on the misery of others (even we strong "T"s have some couth). But this was such a clear example of something that I suspect goes on every single day. And, if it does, we need to completely rework what we think of in terms of Communications 101, the teaching of research and biases, and even some of the newer lessons on #infowhelm such as PLN development and filtering skills.

Roughly speaking, students should be developing the following skills or, lacking that, should be learning systems that will give them the following information:

Trackback Mechanisms: The ability to trace the origin of a piece of information to its original source. This becomes particularly complicated in the 24-hour news-commentary-news cycle since the need to tag sources in a 30 second soundbyte is often severely diminished to "experts" or "this just in, some say that..."

Development of Strong, Muli-level, Variable bias PLNs: A persons learning network, the web of trusted sources, must include more than echo-chamber inducing conclusions, particularly in an age where commentators provide the analysis that becomes the next hour's news brief. This will be a longer post as we get closer to the school year and the information literacy/research section of the #digcit class. (I started discussing this as it applies to classrooms here, applied to to politics in the Big Tents post, and added a little bit of religion to the mix in this post --ok, this one i think about a lot).

Opportunities to practice Claim Analysis: So much of what we are told takes place in a tone of incontrovertible facts (complete with colorful infographics) that we must allow students the chance to pick apart the actual data and see if the conclusion matches. We cannot rely on the the fact-checking of the news agencies, but must instead use their articles as the source of our own fact-checking.

Credential Analysis: I watched at one point as a CIA profiler, an FBI former profiler, and a psychiatrist who consulted on multiple spree killings went at each other in a barely moderated forum. They referred to the others as ill-informed, dangerous, and irresponsible. I am sure that it made for great TV, but in terms of developing any kind of understanding of the topic at hand, the undercutting made for awful conclusion drawing. We must help students develop a filter of not just information but also a filter of the credentials of potential sources. The critical questioning ability that used to only be necessary for reporters, lawyers, and job interviewers is now an essential skill for well-informed citizens in general.

This is in addition to an added emphasis on the development of information filtering systems (both automated such as RSS feeds and manual scans for much of what was describe above). And introductory lessons on logical constructions and common logical fallacies, would probably also be necessary to be able to pick apart some of the issues I have described.

Where do we teach this? At Brebeuf Jesuit, the first taste of this will come formally in the Digital Citizenship class. Every Freshman takes the course. In order to increase the time given to this we have moved away from other topics that we have felt are less vital. But a one semester freshman class will not be enough. Opportunities to practice this level of information criticism must be used throughout high-school and college (and probably introduced even earlier). Application opportunities exist in Social Studies, English, Religion and more.

We are past the time where we can rely on the conclusions of experts and those who interview the experts to act as our filters. We are past the time where students need only be taught to make sure that a source has the  proper bona fides to be trusted.

It is time that we take responsibility for our own information management systems and develop tools and curriculum that provide students the skills and capacity to take responsibility for theirs.