Broad speculation on America’s context problem — Editorial


Header Image: The NewsHouse

At the Collegian, all of our staff writers, editors and board members are journalists. We are all student journalists who have a limited amount of time to put into our writing and our research, but we are journalists nonetheless. We are journalists because we find information, we synthesize it, commentate on it and present it in written word to an audience waiting to learn. We are the first to admit that our synthesis of information is from a unique perspective as the students of the university and that our limited time and the size of our staff limits our abilities to investigate in some cases. But, we strive to always present information to our audience in a way that reflects both the truth, and in cases where appropriate, our perspective.

Just as we are journalists who deliver this information to the readers in the capacity we have available to us, all of us have the ability to both interpret information and deliver it to others. The ideas of journalistic ethics and integrity are hot button issues, especially when discussing the modern media landscape, but in a way we all should strive to uphold that integrity. 

We as a people have an innate desire to learn, to acquire information about the things we do not understand in order to make them fit with our personal understanding of the world. When we seek out information, we would like to suggest and explain why it may be in your best interest to find sources and stories that can enrich your knowledge on a certain topic more deeply, rather than inform you shallowly about several different topics.

The Context Problem

Increasingly, rapid-fire news feeds and bite sized looks into the 24 hour news cycle are all too common. Social media, digestible news apps, headline skimming and even word of mouth will bring us to awareness on topics touching on everything from the war in Ukraine to the world of sports to celebrity drama in a matter of minutes so that when we have conversations with our peers and colleagues we have a touchstone, a place to jump off for conversation. But, how often do we miss the facts, the context or even the story itself because we have interpreted the information we have in the best way possible, but that information simply is not enough?

This editorial you are reading is broad, we cover a lot, and we hope you take some of it to heart to both better appreciate the content you take in, and also have a better idea into how to interact with at least our personal publication in a more personal manner to enrich your perspective on current events and history.

In the end, no one publication will provide you with all of the context needed to experience someone else’s story. You will never know all there is to know about the Phillies game, political hearings or the irate ramblings of crazed celebrities because you were not there, you are not the person being interviewed and you will see the events reflected on your background and understanding of the present. But this is not a reason to avoid context in favor of personal understanding. Seek out several published works on news, and if you see parts that do not line up, consider why. One publication may bring a political bias into their story, another may skip facts to create a false understanding of events and others may simply just report the raw facts but give no perspective.

Even by reading two published stories on the same event, a world’s worth of context is gained, because the overlaps are more solidified in your understanding, and the differences stand out as either additional information or perhaps questionable biases.

Reflected in Social Media

According to a Pew Research Study, 86 percent of U.S. adults said they get their news from a smartphone. With an increasing number of people primarily getting their news from social media, there is an increasing danger of misinformation, disinformation and malinformation. Social media like Instagram and Twitter have made arguably moot attempts to mitigate the cycles of negative information that tend to spread rapidly on their sites. 

One La Salle student had this to say: “Living in an age of social media, I think we are also living in an age of misinformation. In my 20 years of life I have seen immense history be made — both good and bad — and in general I have seen this history play out on social media. I remember posting a picture of the eiffel tower when a terrorist attack happened in Paris. Quite honestly, I had very little knowledge about the event and I was just posting because everyone else in my feed was too. I think this example is similar to how people use social media to post about the issues of the time like COVID-19 unresearched and in an attempt to fit in.” 

The effects of social media can be directly seen on members of the student body and their memories surrounding major events. Social media companies (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc.) understand their power and are actively exercising it, perhaps in a negative or predatory manner.

On Nov. 16, 2021 Twitter created new labels for misinformation on the site. Twitter explains that they are working to help enable free expression and conversations, and would only intervene if content breaks their rules. But in cases when the rules are not broken, Twitter works to provide users with additional context like a message that reads “get the facts about COVID-19.”

However, many of us on this Editorial Board feel that these pop-up messages are not doing enough to educate the public. Users may see these alerts popping up on their posts and think it is funny, rather than the serious matter that misinformation is affecting society. 

As more people use various social media, more people are exposed to the cycles of fake news and misinformation. Twitter uses an algorithm that will show a tweet to more users if the tweet is retweeted, favorited or replied to more by enough of its first viewers. Therefore, if a popular tweet contains misinformation and users like what they see, more users will see the tweet in their timeline. Obviously it is more complex and technical than this, but generally this idea is found in most social media algorithms. Ultimately, sites like Twitter creating five word messages to attempt to combat misinformation is not enough. The organizations that control the social medium need to change their algorithm if they do not want fake news to spread. 

Censoring Falsities: Weakening Judgement

Twitter does make some attempts to censor users posting misinformation. For example, since introducing their COVID-19 guidance in January 2020, Twitter has suspended over 6,000 accounts and over 78,000 pieces of content that violated their policies. But, these suspensions create a new issue: a fear of control and censorship. 

The beauty and success of American society may not seem maintainable or even manageable at this point in time, however it should be our goal as Americans citizens to attempt to maintain its most fundamental value: freedom. Freedom of speech, freedom of press and freedom of thought are all directly intertwined. If one goes, the others are bound to go with it. Educators and journalists (including all user-generated content creators on social media) have a duty to not only our country but also to themselves to try and maintain it.

Censorship prohibits the individual from unlocking this innate need. “Truth is great and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate; errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them,” said Thomas Jefferson.

Seek Context, Seek Understanding

As discussed, it is no secret that there is currently a massive issue when it comes to media and information. Whether you are talking to a white-collar professional with an Ivy League graduate education or a construction worker with a high-school education, there is a consistent feeling that the majority of Americans consume the most digestible form of media and regurgitate dogma without any evidence to back up their viewpoint. 

We are aware that across the country there is a widespread argument circulating that most Americans have become lazy when it comes to being educated. The response to this feeling by the majority of media outlets has been more than reprehensible.

While some media outlets and many individuals believe the best response to the general lack of ability or care surrounding media consumption is to make important information easier to digest, we cannot help but feel the opposite. 

The desire for knowledge is innate. The desire for education is primordial. It is the job of educators and journalists to do so. As a university filled with educators, La Salle can, should and, in many cases does, strive to do so not only for the sake of fulfilling its mission as an educational institution but also for the sake of fulfilling the intellectual aptitude of each and every student attending it. 

More importantly, though, the responsibility for seeking out the information needed to properly weigh in on something falls to the individual. Context allows this discovery of understanding. While individuals may choose the easy way out time and time again, they will make the right decision as long as it remains a consistent option. 

It is our role as journalists, our professors’ role as educators and our fellow community member’s role as members of our democracy to strive towards understanding. Bite-sized content, spoon-feeding context tags, social media bombardment and rapid-fire news are not the way to properly learn or experience the world. Censorship, though, does not fix this issue, and in fact could lead to it worsening. The only real solution to America’s context problem lies within members of the public, and it is frightening to think that the only solution we can significantly promote is to just focus your learning. 

You shouldn’t need an algorithm to tell you what to learn, and you shouldn’t have a watchdog telling you what is false. Because if you’re being told exactly what to look at, and aren’t trusted to judge truth from fiction, then what is even the point of learning? Do the work, find the context and learn what is true through your own effort.

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