Improving media literacy in Australia

The 2023 Max Crawford Medallist, Dr T.J. Thomson examines how mis/disinformation, bias and outright falsehoods can plague news media and social media alike, leaving many Australians feeling ill-equipped to discern the quality of the information they consume.

The stories we consume in our everyday news provide important clues about our society’s values, priorities, and principles. How often are stories about older people included in Australian news? When journalists report on natural disasters, such as our 2020 “black summer” bushfires, do they focus on the impacts on humans or on flora and fauna? Do they discuss climate change or ignore it? The scarcity of stories about older Australians and the dearth of discussion on plants and wildlife reflects their marginalisation.

The choices journalists and editors make about news content influences how audiences experience the world around them in significant, albeit often unconscious, ways. However, when asked, a majority of Australians say they lack confidence in their abilities to identify misinformation online.

Moreover, these abilities differ significantly across different socio-economic groups, including by age, level of education, and income. Yet, most consumers of news, even those who feel confident about their abilities to detect problematic information, would not regularly detect gaps in content that marginalise our flora, fauna or older Australians. They can remain largely unaware that the realities presented in our news media are partial views of a complex world and open to contestation. Expanding media literacy among all Australians is crucial to supporting the healthy media ecosystem that produces the conversations underpinning our society’s democracy.

Truth Claims in an age of information disorder

I am part of a team of researchers working on a three-year project funded by the Australian Research Council to explore how Australians can combat mis/disinformation by cultivating media literacy. The Linkage Grant brings together expertise from researchers working in universities and an array of partner organisations: ABC Education, the Museum of Australian Democracy, the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, and the Australian Library and Information Association. Our goal is to create a series of publicly available media literacy initiatives that will boost public awareness of the possibilities of multiple, sometime competing perspectives in news and information that they consume.

In addition, we will provide journalists with skills and tools to detect poor quality evidence and incorrect or misleading information. For example, in an article in The Conversation we outlined key strategies for identifying false or misleading footage in social media content on the war in Ukraine.

This project is collecting and analysing false or misleading online claims shared by people across the nation to identify challenges that Australians face in discerning truth from lies, or mis/disinformation from evidenced-base information.

We also aim to provide journalists, the producers of news, with solutions to problems that they come across in sourcing information amidst the deluge of possible materials available to them—especially when they are competing for audience attention amidst sensational stories that go viral on social media. The need for improving media literacy has never been more pressing as the competition for our attention comes directly to the phones we carry with us all day, every day.

What about Artificial Intelligence?

A key aspect of my research is to explore the impacts of Artificial Intelligence (AI) on journalism and especially the potential for its algorithms to reproduce and amplify preexisting cultural biases, including within images. But we can also use AI as a research tool to identify core features that may limit the efficacy of the media professionals to produce the healthy media ecosystem we depend upon.

A significant source of bias in reporting emerges from the limited range of people employed as journalists in our mainstream media and AI generated data confirms the homogeneity of the profession. This year, my colleague, A/Prof Ryan Thomas, and I asked AI “What does a journalist look like?” and we were presented with a vision of the profession as one practiced by light-skinned, middle-class, and conservatively-dressed people.

This vision of “a journalist” is at odds with large sections of the many potential audiences journalists and news editors might seek for their work. AI algorithms can generate a mirror to reflect the “face” of journalism, but the display of one picture does little to help us dismantle the many biases embedded in the profession. Worse still, AI can reinforce these biases if people do not critique the information that algorithms generate with such ease and speed.

AI alone will not help us reconfigure the profession of journalism that plays such important roles in shaping our reality and making our lives understandable to each other. The media workforce needs to better represent the community and reflect the lives of a diverse Australia—and perhaps improve trust in the process. And, as my colleagues and I have argued, our journalism schools need to better equip journalists with the cultural competency necessary to report effectively on the myriad peoples and environments that our world contains.

Ultimately, the news and media we consume are of vital importance to how we see the world and our place in it and if that content isn’t truthful, ethically produced, or relevant to the needs of ordinary Australians, we harm ourselves and do a disservice to our civic institutions and processes.

About the author

Dr TJ Thomson is a senior lecturer in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT, a core member of the RMIT Digital Ethnography Research Centre, an affiliate of the Australian Research Council Centre for Excellence in Automated Decision-Making and Society, and an Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow. TJ is a former journalist who focuses his academic work on the visual aspects of news and journalism and on the concerns and processes relevant to those who make, edit, and present visual news.

He has broader interests in digital media, journalism studies, and visual culture and often focuses on under-represented identities, attributes, and environments in his research. TJ also holds a three-year research fellowship (2023-2026) funded by the Australian Research Council, to explore the quantity and quality of local visual news in regional and rural Australia, The Australian Academy of the Humanities funded the preliminary work on this project with a Travelling Fellowship in 2021. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Dr Thomson is the recipient of the 2023 Max Crawford Medal.

Acknowledgement of Country

The Australian Academy of the Humanities recognises Australia’s First Nations Peoples as the traditional owners and custodians of this land, and their continuous connection to country, community and culture.