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.
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).
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):
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:
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):
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:
On the bright side, there are a number of ways in which AI may help us to address information quality issues, including:
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!