The 21st century is widely regarded as “the information age”, where most of the societal, political, technological, economical and other processes heavily depend on the flow and distribution of information. In other words, information is critical to how we live and work, and hence, it has to have quality to be effective. The question is then: how do we define quality of information?
At a glance, it seems to be a straightforward topic, doesn’t it? If we see a piece of information that is relevant, accurate, timely and easy to understand, in most cases we trust it. This happens naturally, as our subconscious brain ticks the boxes while we process the information piece. However, despite trusting our intuition, we may find out later that the information we’ve received is completely or partially false, and other people have significantly different views on it.
Why is quality of information being compromised?
The growing number of new media sources inspires hope for greater connectivity and information, yet it also raises concerns on quality (Van Der Wurff and Schönbach, 2011). When people with no journalistic background undertake reporting, the quality of information they offer may be sloppy and even dangerous, such as in this case with WhatsApp rumours about kidnappers in Rainpada making the crowd violently murder three innocent men.
Poor quality of information from unreliable sources may turn into misleading messages that can be easily picked up by mainstream media and turned to their advantage. Why? Because media sources strive for their survival and constantly compete for their users’ attention. They have to publish more content that pleases the audience, and be the fastest and loudest to make it spread well. This fierce competition in media pushes journalists to cut time on researching sources and fact-checking.
Another major challenge that we as media consumers pose to journalists today is that we often prioritise leisure content over any evidence of quality, which makes it difficult for the media to capture and keep our attention (Martin, 2008; Bird, 2010; Madianou, 2010; Costera-Meijer, 2012). Under the pressure of commercialisation, time and political agenda, quality is often compromised in favour of the higher numbers of people clicking on the link. Thus, we end up with, for example, conspiracy theories being popularised by major media channels such as in this case with Notre Dame fire being characterised on Fox News as “the French 9/11” by one of the unchecked witnesses picked from the street, who was later found to be previously convicted of defamation for making false accusations against a French TV network. (Huffington Post, 2019).
What is quality of information?
While the term “quality” is usually associated with “standards” against which it is measured, quality in the case of information spread in the media is not easy to define, as it is perceived through the subjective perception and interpretation of the user (Leggatt, 1996). In practice, it is an impossible task to have a single “standard” or criteria of quality that would be used by journalists, academics and audiences (Wallisch, 1995; Urban & Schweiger, 2014). In real life, some of us may justify the quality of a piece of information by how clearly the presenter conveys the message or how well-known the media outlet’s brand/agency is. At the same time, a professional journalist would assess the quality of the same piece of information based on the time it took to conduct the investigation, access to reliable sources and the contrasting of information.
Back in the days of traditional media dominating the world, the quality of media was primarily assessed by comparing and contrasting published information directly with witnesses present at the event (Lang and Lang, 1953: 2-12; Halloran, Elliot and Murdock, 1970; Meyer, 1987). Contemporary researchers provide a wider range of factors for assessing quality of information (Picard, 2004: 54-66; Schultz, 2000; McQuail,1992: 23-66):
- the amount of self-produced information being greater than that generated by external agents;
- a proper method of information obtention, such as relying on diverse and contrasting informational sources;
- technical efficiency to make content well organised and understandable;
- availability of adequate resources as well as political and legal regulations that protect and guarantee the exercising of freedom by the communication media;
- the journalist’s adherence to professional standards;
- the diversity of media and ideologies represented, as well as objectivity;
- the context where the information is found;
- public interest, where the evaluation criteria are deduced from Western values such as liberty, equality and order;
Researchers from Germany and the Netherlands have put together a set of criteria for information quality (Schatz & Schulz, 1992; Pottker, 2000; Arnold, 2009). Urban and Schweiger (2014: 823) organise these into six basic dimensions of informational quality:
- diversity (of points of view and sources);
- relevance (in terms of the usefulness of the information for making decisions);
- exactness/timeliness (of the information with respect to the events);
- understandability (so that it is understandable by the audience);
- impartiality (to guarantee neutral and balanced informational coverage);
- ethics (respect the fundamental rights of the people and maintain moral attitudes).
How can we sustain a high level of information quality?
Based on a model that catalogues and evaluates the elements of informational quality as a function of the journalist’s codes of conduct and transparency (van-der-Wurff and Schönbach, 2011), we can apply the following checklist for assessing and verifying the quality of any informational content we come across (listed in order of importance):
- Facts are carefully verified
- Editorial content is separated from advertising
- All sources are identified
- Journalist pseudonyms are avoided
- Images or declarations are not manipulated
- Content offers diversity of opinions
- Information is easy to understand
- Information is transparent
- Facts are separated from opinions
- Information is given in an objective way
- Privacy is protected
- News are classified in terms of their importance
- Information is separated from entertainment
- Only information with informational value is given
- Information is published fast
- Audience’s requests are being answered
- Content is entertaining to the audience
Wait, what about Artificial Intelligence? Does it harm or help quality of information?
Researchers from Berkman Klein Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard University discuss the dark and the bright side of AI in their Medium post:
The core threats to information quality associated with AI include:
- Algorithmic curation. Most commonly known as the “ filter bubble” concern, algorithms designed by platforms to keep users engaged produce ever-more refined rabbit holes down which users can go in a dynamic of reinforcement learning that leads them to ever-more extreme versions of their beliefs and opinions.
- Bots. Improvements in automation allow bots to become ever-more-effective simulations of human participants, permitting propagandists to run large-scale influence campaigns on social media by simulating larger and harder-to-detect armies of automated accounts.
- Fake reports and videos. Improving automated news reporting and manipulation of video and audio may enable the creation of seemingly authentic videos of political actors that may irrevocably harm their reputations and become high-powered vectors for false reporting.
- Targeted behavioural marketing powered by algorithms and machine-learning. Here, the concern is that the vast amounts of individually-identifiable data about users may allow ever-improving algorithms to refine the stream of content that individuals receive so as to manipulate their political opinions and behaviours.
On the bright side, there are a number of ways in which AI may help us to address information quality issues, including:
- Automated detection and flagging of false stories; algorithmic tools to point readers to corrections and fact-checking.
- Algorithmic tools to detect and defend against coordinated attacks by propagandists.
- Computational aids to “nudge” readers and users to expose themselves to media and reporting outside of their echo chambers, thus opening their eyes to a broader range of viewpoints.
What can a youth worker do to cultivate a habit of consuming quality information?
An educator is a guiding light for a young person to find sources of quality information as well as to help develop a sense for good quality information. Ask your students where and how they find information they use; discuss and debunk conspiracies, fakes and low-quality content; show them the checklist above and use it for assessing the information. If a situation should arise where you find yourself in absolute darkness about whether or not some video your student has showed you is true or a hoax, snopes.com is a good place to start. And for political stuff, factcheck.org. Also, find more resources available in our Participation Resource Pool and let us know if you know of any other useful practices and tools for teaching about quality information!