Unfree the press?

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Maybe the scariest thing about the horror sweeping the Middle East — and now, south Asia — is the more-than inconvenient truth that the democratization of the media is at least in part to blame for it.Reporter's hat

True, as a French magazine demonstrated this week, new media isn’t the only source of problematic performance art. Equally true, as  experts have pointed out, for the fomenters of the violence, the crude Islamophobic video that set it all off is just an excuse for the latest flare-up  of resentments and rage that have been simmering for generations. Still, it’s hard not to conclude that the ability to create a bigoted piece of propaganda and disseminate it worldwide provided the match. How many families would not be mourning loved ones today were it not for that?

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the pendulum is swinging: In an interview with the Washington Post’s Craig Timberg, no less an authority on Internet freedom than Jonathan Zittrain praised Google’s decision to block YouTube access to the now notorious movie trailer in Egypt and Libya as the act of a responsible “corporate gatekeeper.”

Yet if the pendulum is beginning to swing for some Internet evangelicals, it long ago swung for this ink-stained printosaur — only in the other direction. I’ve worked with too many gatekeepers (most of them white males) in the course of my career to see them as an answer. Not even Google, regarded in some quarters with the reverence due – well, in this incendiary times it’s probably best not to mention any names here, so let’s just say the Messiah of your choice — can save us from ourselves.

Only we can do that.

Like every technological leap since Prometheus, the digital one is Janus-faced: The same proliferation of media that gave us marvels ranging from the Arab Spring to the panda-cam has also given us nightmares like the current crisis and the suicide of Tyler Clementi,.

And, like every technological leap, this one requires us all to master new skills. In an information age, we must all learn to be more educated consumers. Not all of it is equal. We must learn to sift information and to evaluate sources — just like journalists do. Like journalists, citizens of the digital world must cultivate a dispassionate and skeptical attitude toward the information that bombards us every nanosecond of every minute of every day. We live in a society where information is increasingly the coin of the realm — but a lot of it is counterfeit, or at least less valuable than it seems. So the rough-hewn wisdom of the newsroom — if your mother says she loves you, check it out — has to be Chapter One of Civics 101.

Here at the Sunlight Foundation, we’re doing our bit with Sunlight Academy, a series of online training modules that put tools of technology and lessons of journalism into the hands of anyone with access to a computer. We’re joined by other organizations, such as former Los Angeles Times reporter Alan Miller’s News Literacy Project and the Annenberg Foundation’s FactCheck.org.

The still-mysterious makers of the nasty Islamophobic video (by the way, any journalist would know to be suspicious of anonymous sources) are no more representative of American society than the relative handful of rioters besieging embassies or staging suicide attacks — videos of which are also spreading like wildfire on the Internet and inciting unjust and irrational responses on the other side of the world — are of their countries.

Can this lesson be disseminated fast enough to keep pace with the technology that requires it? The answer to the conundrum posed by the democratization of the media is not to cultivate new gatekeepers; it is to teach people to be their own gatekeepers.

As I told participants in Sunlight’s Transparency Camp earlier this year, in an age when everyone can be a publisher, we owe it to ourselves to learn to be reporters. Join us. A lot depends on it.

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