July 2010 M-Passioned Member: John McManus

John McManusWhat do you do?

I’m a former journalist, university professor and media critic who can’t stand how polluted the public infosphere is becoming. So I’m writing and publishing books that I hope will empower students and other citizens to detect bias and junk journalism.

What can you tell us about your latest work or project in media literacy?

I’m currently at work on a news literacy book for citizens, a non-academic companion to Detecting Bull. It will be called A Citizen’s Guide to News. As traditional news media shrink, they are cutting ethical corners — such as going for cheap sensation over expensive substance and running ads and PR as news. Meanwhile a tsunami of new providers of what purports to be news are flooding the Web. There’s a surfeit of content describing and interpreting current events, but a dearth of empirical public interest reporting. The Guide will help citizens separate the reliable from the rest. It will also provide recognized ethical standards for holding news providers to account.

What is your favorite form of media?

I love newspapers, but hands down the Web is the best news medium we’ve ever seen. It allows readers to view multiple versions of stories, to click to documents and background, often to comment —  turning news from a lecture into a community conversation. It allows stories to be told with text, photos and video, which makes the news much more compelling. It’s as instant as broadcast when news is streamed, yet as deep as a library with almost unlimited storage of old stories and links to documents elsewhere online.

It’s so ironic that the emergence of the ultimate news medium has nearly bankrupted journalism by allowing advertisers a more direct route to consumers.

Why is media literacy important to you?

I’ve dedicated my professional life to quality journalism. It’s now in peril. I agree with Bill Moyers who recently said, “As journalism goes, so goes democracy.” So it’s natural that I would try to adapt the core principles of media literacy specifically to news.
There is no time in history when democracy is not undergoing some kind of challenge. But I think the upheaval in journalism represents one of the more serious threats participatory government has faced. The old news “brands” we used to rely on — CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN in broadcast, and the major metro newspapers like the L.A. Times, Chicago Tribune, Miami Herald, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer and scores of others — are covering much less of an increasingly interdependent world and with much less depth and investigative vigor. Nothing has come along to replace them. In the shadow of that lost reporting, mischief and incompetence are likely to flourish. Joni Mitchell was right when she sang: “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

Why do you think media literacy should matter to others?

In the aggregate, news has the power to define reality. Since we act on what we take to be real, those who control the most popular news narratives exercise enormous power over society. With the decline of serious journalism as metro newspapers lay off most of their reporters and editors, the news vacuum is being filled by special interests providing biased and partial accounts of events designed to lead the public to conclusions that favor those interests, often at the expense of the common good. If the public can’t discern truth from falsehood, it will inevitably make poor choices.

Walter Lippmann said it best almost a century ago:

All that the sharpest critics of democracy have alleged is true if there is no steady supply of trustworthy and relevant news. Incompetence and aimlessness, corruption and disloyalty, panic and ultimate disaster must come to any people [who are] denied assured access to the facts. No one can manage anything on pap. Neither can a people.

Can you tell us about how your work has been recognized? Awards you’ve received?

Detecting Bull recently won the research award for 2009 from the Society of Professional Journalists. It was also won the First Amendment Award from the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, where I used to teach. The book summarizes what I learned directing GradeTheNews.org over the past decade. While it was funded, that project did for news in the San Francisco Bay Area what Consumer Reports Magazine does for toaster ovens. The most popular news providers — print and broadcast — were rated on seven yardsticks of journalism excellence and graded from A to F. During its seven-year run, Grade the News won awards from the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, from the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

What’s been your proudest moment in your work in media literacy education?

What I’m happiest about has been the reaction of students and faculty members to Detecting Bull. A writer lives for the “ah-hah” moment when readers understand something that previously baffled them.

Want to recommend an M-Passioned NAMLE member who should be in our next feature? Contact Kelly Mendoza, Membership Chair, with your suggestion.

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