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"We have to trust the youth": Civic Imagination and the Future of Journalism
By Sangita Shresthova

“We talked about… trying to find a balance between everybody having a seat at the table in creating news versus trusted news sources. What does that mean and what might that [future] look like?”

In the comment she made during my civic imagination and the future of journalism and media literacy session in Boise, Idaho, the participant quoted above summarized a key tension between participatory and inclusive media practices and a commitment to professional and trusted news curation. In many ways, this tension defined the entire “Media Literacy and Civic Engagement in the Digital Age” event organized by the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) and the BSU Idaho Media Initiative at Boise State University on April 11, 2018.  The event brought together youth, educators, journalists and media literacy instructors to explore the “intersections between journalism, media literacy and student voice.” Over the day the more than 200 attendees explored these connections through a series of talks, panels and hands on workshops. The full event description and list of featured speakers and organizations can be found here.

The two sessions I facilitated tapped the civic imagination as a tool that could help the participants move beyond problems and challenges and towards articulating more action oriented and inspiring aspirations for the future. My first session included all the participants and used a series of word clouds as tool to brainstorm ideas. In my second session, I ran a Think Critically, Act Creatively worldbuilding workshop with a smaller group that included both educators and high school students.

Images Courtesy of NAMLE (Facebook)

A Future Defined by Empathy, Humanity, Participation and the Current Moment of Crisis

I invited participants to respond to three questions focused on their vision of the future of journalism and media literacy. The questions I asked were:


  • Who creates the news in 2060?

  • What skills do journalists need in 2060?

  • What words could define media literacy in 2060?


The participants’ answers were collected and visualized through a series of word clouds, where frequency of a response corresponds with the size of the word displayed.

While they clearly reveal the breadth of perspectives present in the room, the future oriented word cloud responses generally point to a consensus around a future of journalism and media literacy that is participatory, empathetic and human (as news will be created by human hands and not AI).


Next, I asked the participants to put themselves in the world of 2060 they had started to imagine and think back to 2018. What will we remember? Here are the words that came up for them:

The responses to this question disturbed some of the participants and revealed an overall sense that we are in the midst of a crisis, one that may be necessary if we are to move forward in the foreseeable future.


After the brainstorm, the participants reflected on the word clouds at their tables and reported back to the whole group. I then continued to elaborate on the insights in the smaller break out group workshop later that afternoon.


Here is a summary of the key civic imagination inspired insights that emerged through both of these sessions:

Parents have learning needs

Both the younger and older participants felt that parents (and adults more generally) have a real need to learn more about digital and social media. One young participant summarized this sense, and it’s relevance for the future, when she described how her mother’s approach to digital media changed over time:


It kind of goes back to parents. This is a new thing that parents are going to have to teach their kid. Like, me growing up and doing it, my mom, she didn’t know what to tell me. But, with my little sister, it’s do this, don’t do that. So, it’s not only education in schools that we need to have, but also the parents. Because, all of (well maybe not all of us, but most of us) are going to be parents some day. We have this education so we get to teach the next generation what media literacy really is.


In reflecting on her mother’s increasing comfort level with media, this young participant also connected this evolution to her own projected future, as a parent that would also need to have the skills to teach her, not yet born, children.


Reflecting on this need to educate parents, one high school teacher stressed that he too possessed skills that could be useful to younger people, particularly when it came to connecting civic action taken through social media to more ‘traditional’ civic practices:


We have to have direct action to support the things that we believe in…. It’s not just about sharing or liking something on social media, it’s about donating your tax return money to your favority journalistic sources or your favority news organization…. One of the action items would be direct action, in what ever form that may take, to support what you believe in.


To him, finding the middle ground, one that recognized both the older and newer skills, was crucial to any productive imagined future.

Privacy and the generations


In sharing back her group’s discussion, one of participant highlighted a key generational change they noticed in their reflection on the word clouds:


… If you approach an adult and you are like, “I saw that you bought a new house” - they are like, have you been stalking me?” [laughter] Older people are like, how did you know that? And you’re like, it’s on Facebook. But kids don’t think that way and the older generation doesn’t think that way. They are just so open and sometimes that’s good and sometimes it’s not. But because they are so open and they are so connected, they are able to move that needle to the other side and join these movements…. They are just connected in the world.


This sense of connection was crucial to the future of journalism and media literacy. It was also something that older generations needed to better comprehend. Some educators noted:


We see the youth and the kids moving us in the direction of everyone. For them, their lives are so much more connected than we ever were and so we were just talking about, our students will come and talk to us about something they did like we should know because they posted it on Twitter and they SNAP chatted it and they instragramed. And they are like, “What? You didn’t know I won my game and we are like “no”. That is their world.

Reflecting on this shift, this educator then went on to note, “As adults, as the older generation, we are not used to that and sometimes we shy away from it. And, if you want to get everybody to be a part of it, we have to be willing to get connected.


This need to rethink assumptions about how we approach and handle information (about us and others) surfaced in one of the stories during the afternoon workshop as well. The story centered around a moment in the near future where people refuse to pay for any content. As a result, all people associated with content creation will lose their jobs. They riot and through this draw attention to their plight. In the meantime, companies that charge for content (like spotify)  increase their prices to the point where no one can afford their prices. Then, people in the general public realize that this is not sustainable. They want to be able to access their content and accept advertising, and some privacy trade offs, to regain access to their media content.


A Future where everyone creates news? Need for Empathy


As already mentioned, the question of who creates the news and how how trust is determined was a key tension point during the event. Given the current political and cultural moment that often features “fake news” debates, questions of trust were understandably top of mind for many participants. Still, the word clouds revealed a desire for new approaches that move beyond ‘fact checking’. Some participants were surprised to see that “truth” did not emerge as a key work for the future of journalism; rather, it was empathy. For one, mostly older, group of participants the the need for empathy in the future reflected on our current moment:

We were very struck by empathy being in the middle. That was a little disheartening because presumably we think that that is something that is lacking currently. But, also, it’s great that is something people are thinking about moving forward.


Other groups noted that a moral compass, a sense of “professional ethics”, and curiosity were need to accompany “empathy” it it is to effectively shape the future of journalism. As one on young participant summarized it:


We generally gravitated to being a better person in general, having morals, having integrity, having common sense, knowing what it is that you are telling people. We really leaned towards being educated about the topic that you are going to speak about, not just pulling everything out of the air and saying that its true just because it is.


Memes and How News Spreads

For the younger participants, memes stood out as a key characteristic of the future of journalism. One of the participants reflected on his group’s interest in memes:


We looked at the memes and thought it was interesting how in our (my) generation what we get through the major news sources like CNN or whatever, we take that and put it into memes and from there it goes to everywhere through like Instagram and that’s how a lot of people hear stuff.


Another participant saw memes as emblematic of the “rise in the non traditional”. To him, “our news sources are coming from like Reddit and all these meme pages.” So, for young  people, the future of journalism does involve “memes being that big”.

Political Education as Part of Future  Media Literacy Efforts


For young participants, civic education was very much part of their vision for future media literacy efforts. But, this civic education would need to change as well. As one young participant observed:


I thought it would be nice if we could educate our youth around the junior high age with a lot more of the non biased representation of politics so they can later make that decision for themselves going into their adulthood rather than it being fed through their families moral beliefs or what they are seeing on the news. But rather, they can make their own decisions and decide for themselves on what they would like to take a stance on.


In the afternoon workshop, one of the groups focused on civic participation. In their story, set in the very near future, so few people participate in an election that democracy seems doomed. Responding to this impending crisis, some young people speak up, get organized and work together to engage each other, and others in the civic process. Through this effort, the very nature of civics changes, providing a glimmer of hope for a future with democracy.

Tide Pod Challenges: Stupid and Important


Tide pod challenges, a strongly critiqued phenomenon which involved a dare to the eat poisonous pods and post videos of the experience on social media, appeared in both the future of media literacy and reflection on the current moment word clouds. In explaining why this appeared, some participants dismissed the tide pods as a diversion from the real issues at hand. Others felt their presence was significant and helped our understanding of the future of journalism and media literacy:


The way that we took it, it was gravitating away from stupid decisions that people make. So being more educated on things like that. Obviously people know that eating Tide Pods is not a good a idea. Not leaning towards those trends and things just because other people are doing it. I think that is also a really important thing to know.


Other young participants agreed with this view and felt we need to understand why phenomena like Tide pod challenges appeal and spread. As one participant noted in our conversation during lunch, future journalism and media literacy efforts may have something to learn from Tide pods.


The saved live stream of the event is accessible here.


Throughout the day, the organizers and participants tweeted using the hashtag  #MediaLitBSU.

(posted on May 17, 2018)

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