The Factual’s media literacy scholarship was open worldwide in Spring 2021. The Factual received over 150 submissions for the competition. The essay prompt was: “How did misinformation impact our lives in 2020? What steps can we take to ensure we get credible news?”
Carolina Campos Ruiz Baldin’s essay was chosen as honorable mention. Here is her essay below:
When I was a little girl, I looked forward to Sunday lunch at my grandparents. Once I arrived there, the first thing I would do was get my grandfather’s newspaper. (Grandma used to reserve the toys catalog for me, but I preferred the newspaper.) The giant sheets – bigger than me – seemed to contain everything that was most important in the world. I could not always read an entire story: I got distracted; did a crossword puzzle; went to play with my brother; had more dessert … but I always went back to the paper. I was impressed with my grandfather’s ability to read everything – even the classifieds! How was it possible for a person to read with such concentration and, on top of that, store all that information?
Personally, my current routine is totally incompatible with the daily six hours that my grandfather still dedicates to reading and watching the news. The same happens with people of my generation and social circle. Consequently, we choose to receive the most relevant information in our ‘feed,’ listen to podcasts, and read the digital version of the newspaper, all while ‘on the go.’ However, although connectivity provides this flexibility and allows us to access a greater number of news pieces, it does not guarantee that we will absorb them or get credible news. According to a recent study by the Northwestern University Medill Spiegel Research Center, 49% of the digital subscribers of local news outlets visit the websites less than once a month. These unengaged subscribers are known as “zombies” in the news industry.1
Throughout the day, we continuously receive content (advertising, news, etc.) and, with it, the difficult task of selecting where to spend our short time. For some extremely disciplined people, it may be an easy exercise. For me – and I suppose for most people – it is an ongoing struggle. I understand that the conflict here is quantity vs. quality: does being well-informed mean knowing many news pieces superficially or knowing a few in-depth? Making this choice is a big issue for me, and it makes me reflect: what is a reasonable time for us to dedicate to forming our opinion, and which criteria should we adopt when selecting what media outlets to read?
I am part of a generation that, in general, despite being very pressured in terms of efficiency and results, has a hard time concentrating on an activity for a prolonged period and, therefore is vulnerable to interruption and the lure of instant gratification. That is nothing new. The problem is that, because of this, we are in danger of expressing our opinion and positioning ourselves without having the necessary elements to do so. More than being suspicious about the content of the news or how it is transmitted, I am seriously concerned with the long-term effects of the superficial way in which information is assimilated. I believe that journalism has a fundamental role in combating this superficiality.
Especially during the year 2020, we were all faced with the challenge of getting and processing information related to the COVID-19 pandemic and make our life choices based on that. And this time, it was literally a matter of life or death. In a recent article in the New Yorker Magazine, Hannah Fry discusses the consequences of being in a world driven by data and challenges the accuracy of the data we read on the news.2 Regarding COVID, she reflects on how fragile we got in the face of inaccurate and unreliable statistics. She says that even though the “numbers” became a source of comfort in certain situations last year, we should always be aware that these same numbers can betray us.
Throughout the more than 200 years of mass-circulation newspapers and magazines, there have been drastic changes in technology and our way of life, and communication has followed these changes, evolving every day, in a more and more accelerated way. Today more than ever, the challenge of journalism consists of not only informing people, but also encouraging them (especially young people) to delve into information in a critical manner. To foster this deeper engagement, it is not enough that the media adapts the journalistic content to the digital medium – though that is undoubtedly an essential task that has been done intelligently and innovatively by many news organizations. It is also necessary to continually reinvent the journalistic style of writing so that it becomes more attractive and captures the reader’s attention more strongly.
For me, this reinvention process must encompass closer attention to the length of an article and to the selection of the elements that are truly essential to the news pieces. This is not an easy job. But, in a society in which young people are increasingly busy, and with their ‘eyeballs’ becoming more and more coveted, it is imperative that news organizations do this exercise. Only in this way will it be possible to awaken people’s desire to turn from passive reading to active reading. In other words, to create in the reader a will to discuss what they read with others and even challenge the information when it has inconsistencies.
Something that helps me is to try to select just a few news pieces to read each day and read it slowly to absorb the content and elaborate my opinion about it properly. In the beginning, it seemed that I was missing other important news, but now I appreciate reading fewer news pieces well. I have chosen to do that, but I think that news organizations also have a role to play in helping us become less overwhelmed by the news and have a more critical eye about them. Hopefully the journalism of the future will compel young people to a more genuine involvement with the topics published and, in this way, present a greater opportunity for reflection. Only then it will be possible to revive curiosity, combat apathy, and rescue people from superficiality.