by Dan Gillmor
204 pages, Lulu.com, 2010
Dan Gillmor, author of We the Media, decided to self publish his new book because no traditional publisher would accept his requirement to make the text simultaneously available for free under a Creative Commons licence (the text is available at mediactive.com). Why give something away for free if you’re trying to make money out of it?
The author deserves a fair return for his work – and I bought my review copy in Kindle format for £5.88 – but I suspect he’s more interested in spreading his ideas than in making a short-term profit.
So to the message.
The author is an experienced journalist who now teaches entrepreneurial journalism and is involved in an advisory capacity with a number of digital media start-ups.
His book begins with a diagnosis of the problems besetting the traditional news business – and the problems of misinformation in the age of digital media. Many bemoan the decline of local newspapers and the ease with which rumours and falsehoods spread on the internet. But Gillmor remains optimistic:
Tomorrow’s media will be more diverse, by far, than today’s. We can imagine, therefore, a journalism ecosystem that’s a vital part of our expanded mediasphere and vastly healthier and more useful than the monocultural media of recent times – if we get it right. That we means all of us. Remember, Digital Age media are broadly distributed and participatory – broadly democratic.
Given the diagnosis of the problems facing traditional media, and the need to ensure that we can trust the media of the near future, Gillmor proceeds to offer a prescription for those participating in this new age of digital media – including the students he teaches.
I envy my students, and I tell them so; they and countless others like them around the world are inventing our media future, and the field is wide open for them in ways that I could not have imagined when I started my own career.
Principles for media consumers
Becoming an active user demands media literacy and an understanding of the principles governing media consumption. His guiding principles (in US English) are:
- Be Skeptical
- Exercise Judgment
- Open Your Mind
- Keep Asking Questions
- Learn Media Techniques
It comes down to this: As news accelerates faster and faster, you should be slower to believe what you hear, and you should look harder for the coverage that pulls together the most facts with the most clarity about what’s known and what’s speculation.
This is much more easily said than done. It takes energy and experience to perform ‘due diligence’ on every story we encounter. Gillmor is clearly better at this than most: ‘When a news report quotes anonymous sources, I immediately question the entire thing’, he writes.
Most of his examples are from the US, though Gillmor admires British journalism. He describes how he buys The Guardian and The Telegraph when in London: both do excellent journalism, he writes, but from different political perspectives. ‘I read both and figure I’m triangulating on the essence of (British establishment) reality.’
Media production principles
Since we all have the tools of media production at our fingertips, what principles should even amateurs follow? Gillmor recommends:
Of these, he argues that transparency is the most important and he reveals a paradox in stating: ‘If you do an honest job as well as you can, greater transparency will lead your audience to trust you more while they may believe you less’. This is because transparency requires you to declare your biases and to acknowledge your mistakes. Though not mentioned explicitly, this guideline works for public relations advocacy. Those seeking to be trusted must accept that they won’t always be believed.
Gillmor reviews the main categories of digital media (though he promises more at the mediactive.com website) and reminds us that ‘the most important element in your media creation is not the technology… What matters is you.’
After a discussion of entrepreneurial journalism, he reviews the legal and social landscape affecting content producers.
Finally, he turns to teaching and learning mediactivity, for which he advocates critical thinking.
We regiment children instead of helping them to be creative, teaching them to take standardized tests instead of teaching them to think for themselves. In too many school districts, teaching critical thinking would be denounced as a dangerous experiment. It’s not dangerous at all. It’s entirely American to challenge authority.
The book is a powerful manifesto for change written by a trustworthy guide. I had thought he was being over-boastful in the many names he introduces as close friends in the book – but then realised that Gillmor is simply practising the principles he’s preached in his book, above all to be transparent about his connections and biases.
Becoming a mediactivist should be fun – but will impose many obligations.