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.

Published by Carolina Campos Ruiz Baldi

Carolina Campos Ruiz Baldin is a Master of Science in Journalism candidate at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her essay received honorable mention in The Factual's 2021 media literacy scholarship program.