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Media have a capitalism problem, which explains everything from fake news to Denis O’Brien but you don’t have to agree to understand that the causes of the recent crisis over Government ‘advertorial’ are structural

Ireland has a dreadful, inequitable, dangerously failing healthcare system. The State’s answer is the likes of healthy Ireland, which runs a public campaign that, in essence, throws the responsibility for health on to individuals – who seemingly just need help from an initiative to ‘empower and motivate them’.

February saw the launching conference – hosted by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) at Facebook Ireland HQ – of a new network, Media Literacy Ireland (disclosure: I’m in it). From the conference stage there was lots of talk about empowerment and not much talk exploring from whom it might be necessary to take power away. There was even a speaker from healthy Ireland, lest the analogy be missed.

Don’t be surprised, then, to encounter an Irish campaign in the next year or two imploring you to the media equivalent of ‘eat your vegetables, get some exercise, don’t smoke cigarettes’. Something along the lines of ‘read the Irish Times, trust in Miriam, don’t tweet fake news’. Or maybe not. Media Literacy
Ireland potentially has some of the hallmarks of industry-friendly campaigns like Drink Aware and Gamble Aware, plus the involvement of a regulator, the BAI, which might like a campaign that implicitly justifies light-touch regulation abetted by ‘greater public awareness’. On the other hand – and credit to its organisers for this – Media Literacy Ireland has come into being as a genuine network of interested researchers, activists, community-media practitioners and others. And most of us in it are not disposed to frame the problem with Irish media as one of public credulousness, to be addressed by offering tips for spotting ‘extremism’ online.

Regular readers will know my view: that media (like healthcare) have a capitalism problem, and that everything from fake news to clickbait to inadequate investigative resources to Denis O’Brien ows from that basic source. But you don’t have to agree with me and name the underlying problem as capitalism to understand that there are structural causes for crises such as the one that erupted recently over Government ‘advertorial’.

“I believe the Government is attempting to exploit the difficulties many local and regional titles are facing to promote their party interests”, said no less a media critic than Fianna Fáil’s Timmy Dooley, the party’s spokesman on communications. (How sweetly old-fashioned that word ‘communications’ can sound as it grapples with the changing world.)

Media literacy, if it is to be of any use, has to do more than implore us to look for the little ‘special feature’ tag on the top of a piece of paid corporate or government puffery, then to regard the ‘journalism’ below with due scepticism. It must mean understanding ‘the difficulties’ for all journalism that operates in the current market, especially one in which technological change has accelerated existing trends toward blurred lines, and in which advertisers have alternatives to local and regional newspapers when it comes to reaching eyeballs.

If the most poignant aspect of that brief, quickly snowed-under ‘Ireland 2040’ crisis was the image of the Taoiseach issuing guidelines for labelling advertorial content – guidelines of which the most callow intern in a local newsroom should surely already be aware – we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that media have been operating at the edges of such guidelines for decades, for the benefit of advertisers looking to buy a little ersatz editorial credibility. How can this fail to be a lesson about how fragile, at best, any such credibility has become ?

As the media may or may not have told you, global research shows trust in media is in tatters – media are less trusted than governments, NGOs, businesses – and Irish people are at the mistrustful end of the distribution. In this context, media literacy can hardly consist of legacy media saying ‘trust us, not them’.

What can be done ? (Yes, short of getting rid of capitalism.) Anyone who has worked in a newsroom knows what a frightening prospect it would be to try to earn the public’s trust with transparency and accountability about our editorial practices. On a daily basis, contingent and incomplete information is transformed into definitive statements of ringing certitude. That’s one sausage factory we don’t want you to see inside, especially since the work often consists of sticking our label on someone else’s meat.

DIT’s Centre for Critical Media Literacy aims to facilitate a range of media research, production, learning and community engagement, with a commitment to equality and diversity, and to an understanding of political contexts. Its mission includes scientifically informed studies of changing technologies.

The irony is that the technology often over-simplistically blamed for creating the journalism crisis has long offered tools for remarkable transparency, tools that most journalists have chosen to use only in limited ways. What if hyperlinks in journalists’ stories led not to dull pages of cross-references or to Wikipedia, but rather to images of documents and notebook pages, audio of interviews, pictures of the journalist in the field ? It can be done and has been done, but the experiments in transparency of the early web – notably the extraordinary 1996 investigative series by the aptly named Gary Webb in the San Jose Mercury news, about the CIA’s involvement in the cocaine trade – have rarely been repeated, let alone built upon.

Such transparency would foster media literacy without the onus being placed on the audience. Whether it would foster trust is, of course, a matter of what audiences thought of the practices revealed by transparency. Interactivity and social media mean we have some tools whereby that reaction could be tested and gauged.

Dublin Institute of Technology, thankfully, is prepared to put its money where my media-literacy mouth is: it’s funding a project that will will use the Liberty, a student- produced ‘hyperlocal’ newspaper and website for Dublin’s Liberties area, to innovate in the area of journalistic transparency. We’ll employ social media as a forum for sharing ‘the story behind the story’, with tweets, Facebook updates, Youtube videos and Instagram posts that unveil aspects of the production of journalism, from notebook pages to editing history, from who-was-interviewed to who-refused.

A doctoral-level researcher will be responsible for implementation, monitoring, community engagement and evaluation of this project, which should help readers to understand better the process of news construction, and help journalists-in-training become accustomed to radical ideas of public openness about that process.

But – and it’s a big but – such a project will have to employ social-media tools without succumbing to trust in them. While it’s pointless for media activists, scholars and practitioners to try to wish social media away, we can’t leave our critical faculties at the door, or the login, of Facebook, and pretend that such platforms are some- how neutral and open channels through which we can simply allow our information to flow, transparently or otherwise.

It’s not just a matter of ‘likes’. Notwithstanding Facebook’s rather nice catering at the first Media Literacy Ireland conference, it’s obvious that a truly contemporary and critical media literacy can only be built upon knowledge of the evolving processes and parameters of computation that sustain such platforms. The shortage of computer scientists in media-literacy circles urgently needs to be addressed: we need to understand, and to teach people about, things like algorithms, machine learning, blockchain technology, natural language processing, textual analysis, quantum computing, data mining, and security in the cloud.

True media literacy – which is to say public understanding of, and capacity to respond to, crises and developments in media production, consumption, interaction and distribution – will be enhanced by such engagement with computing as a set of processes. Without facile technological determinism of either utopian or dystopian hue, people should be enabled to address the complex relations of content and medium. With such ability, they can challenge with confidence the pretences of trustworthy competence and powerful inevitability that legitimate the neoliberal masters of the media universe.

Harry Browne lectures in the School of Media at Dublin Institute of Technology and coordinates the Centre for Critical Media Literacy there. His book ‘Public Sphere’ is published soon by Cork University Press.

Harry Browne