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From print to digital: The rise of misinformation online

April 29, 2021

The digital age of the Internet came around in the late 1990s, but before that, there were physical newspapers. Sundays were for the paperboy to drop off the weekly scoop on all things news, sports, and reviews. They were the primary source of information on current events and crossword puzzles that took at least two cups of coffee to finish. 

Picking up the newly printed edition of the suburban dailies, opinions and news were put in an orderly fashion with bolded sections. The brick wall between news and opinions was clear for the reader to recognize which articles were undeniably true rather than up for questioning. 

The turn of the digital age, however, made reading a print newspaper a whole different ball game. It meant not reading a physical newspaper at all. The rise of digital media [such as photos, graphs, and video] leaves more opportunity for consumers to be engaged but also enhances the likelihood to subconsciously internalize information based on emotional appeal rather than the facts and evidence presented. A  2016 Stanford University study about finding credible sources concluded less than 20% of middle school students can distinguish between a news report and a sponsored story. In addition, less than one-third can identify implicit bias in an article they read. 

Stanford’s 2016 study reinforces a change of what might literacy mean in the digital age. Naperville Central High School communication arts teacher and Central Times adviser Keith Carlson believes that being able to read and write is not a definition that can cover the entire terms of literacy such as media and news literacy. 

“For someone to be considered literate no longer means that you can just read and write,” Carlson said. “That involves the ability to process the intense amount of information that we’re being fed through digital and multi-platforms, to be able to decipher that information and process it, and to make use of it.”

Although media illiteracy is becoming more common, organizations such as The National Association of Media Literacy Education [NAMLE] advocate for more media literacy awareness and offer literacy resources for the public. Media literacy is an umbrella term and can be used to associate with concepts related to the media, digital and print, as well as media technologies that are used to portray messages to an audience. Organizations such as NAMLE have a founding principle where the skills of media literacy are ultimate to “access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act using all forms of communication.” 

For someone to be considered literate no longer means that you can just read and write. That involves the ability to process the intense amount of information that we’re being fed through digital and multi-platforms, to be able to decipher that information and process it, and to make use of it.””

— Central Times Adviser Keith Carlson

Kyle Plantz serves as NAMLE’s program assistant. He was a political reporter and did science reporting before working for NAMLE. He went into the journalism industry looking to create an impactful change and found media literacy as an opportunity to combine all of his interests with journalism and education. Through his experience as a reporter, Plantz realized some of the causes of media illiteracy. 

“The decline of local news is a direct threat to democracy, because we’re seeing a lack of coverage of communities and holding people accountable for their decisions,” Plantz said. “We’re seeing local news outlets starting to decline, and they’re no longer in existence.”

News outlets such as The Washington Post, FOX, and CNN often focus on news that resonates with the entire country. One example includes the recent verdict of Derek Chauvin’s trial which followed the murder of George Floyd. His death continued to heighten the alarming increase of police brutality against Black people and minorities, which prompted the nation to push for police reform and justice. This includes a Minneapolis police practice investigation from the Department of Justice and legislative action regarding the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. Monumental stories call for not only a local spotlight, but a national one as well. Although it is vital to view news at a broader scale, a key part of creating a country-wide change is to understand what is happening locally. 

Since when did Aurora community members see coverage of the Aurora City Council elections or profiles about local changemakers on the New York Times? It is on local papers like the Aurora Beacon or Daily Herald that keep the community in the know. However, local journalism is declining due to budget cuts and layoffs, which makes it more difficult to cover every corner and beat of the community.

“There are whole areas of this country that don’t have anyone speaking for the people — but also, no one is holding people accountable, and without that, what is filling that place and we’re seeing a lot of propaganda sites pop up,” Plantz said. “People that are not journalists are claiming to be [professional] journalists and just pushing you to know one narrative or funded by people that have political intentions to spew certain types of information. That is a major issue and I think is a major reason why we are where we are today.”

Organizations such as NAMLE, MediaWise, and News Literacy Project are some of the many groups that create initiatives to promote media literacy to the public. It may seem simple to obtain those skills, but those organizations are only a small part of becoming media literate. The other parts are dependent on the consumer and the content creators.

One of the other main proponents of media illiteracy is social media. From Facebook to Instagram, instant gratification overrules obtaining a critical viewpoint.

“Sometimes it’s just really easy to not double-check what you’re saying,” senior Lavannya Deolalikar said. “You know to scroll on Instagram, you see something, and you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I could look into this, but do I really want to [fact check] when there’s just another post just waiting below this one?’”

Social media is not the only driving force of creating a world of misinformation and disinformation. Other entities include corporate interests in mainstream media, such as broadcast news, along with digital and print newspapers. Metea 2019 alumnus Dhrtvan Sherman is a sophomore at UW-Madison and studies political science and public policy. He mentions his personal experiences with gathering news about politics while noticing the pitfalls of the journalism industry. 

“I think journalists are failing, and it’s not because it’s their fault,” Sherman said. “It’s just the structure of the media. We have a system where corporate interest is what drives journalism. When’s the last time you’ve seen a big mainstream media source owned by someone in the working class? It’s not possible.”

When one runs a newspaper as a for-profit, the debate of compromising journalism ethics arises. One main issue at hand is the blurred line between entertainment and hard news — and how institutions, including media corporations with primary and secondary education systems, emphasize media literacy. It is up to journalists, creators, and consumers to discern factual information versus misinformation and to uphold the ethical basis of curating content.

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