January 20, 2020

Updating the 5Ws for a New Media Literacy

Category: Digital Citizenship
Hands holding smartphone

You probably remember learning in school about the 5Ws: Who, What, Where, When and Why? Those are critical questions for both educators who teach media literacy, and students wanting to evaluate resources.

The 5Ws continue to be important; but we need an update. Technology and the explosion of content has changed how to access, evaluate and disseminate information. The changes in society have outpaced the changes in how we instruct. Here are some ways to adapt and change the 5Ws for a fast-paced and information-saturated world.

1. Who?

We generally assume that there is a person on the other of the content or chat— and that assumption, for the most part is correct. However, we are not interacting more with flesh and blood people but bots. One study out of the Journal of Political Communication found between 9 and 15% of users on Twitter are bots, and the number of bots increase during elections.

Bots are not just the social or chat type, they are creating and editing more content online. People want content fast and new tools have arisen to get news articles out faster. News organizations like the LA Times, Washington Post, Forbes and others use tools like Bertie or Heliograf to create their stories. There is AI-driven video production assistance as well. The software Wibbitz can mimic user-generated content.

For the most part these AI tools are harmless and can help with productivity. However, there are bad actors and potential consequences. A platform that has just two to four percent of social bots, can influence the discussion.

Instead of WHO created the content we should ask: Was it a human or a bot who created this?

Here are some suggested questions when determining WHO?

    • When did this person join the platform?
    • How much do they post?
    • Do they stay on topic?
    • Are there pauses or delays in the video or chat?

2. What?

Marketers, businesses, politicians and influencers know we are bombarded by content. So how do you get someone’s attention in this information-saturated world? Simple: by eliciting strong emotions. A study out of PLoS ONE found that this type of manufactured emotions aka “clickbait” has regularly surpassed the number of interactions compared to mainstream news.

Headlines on posts, YouTube videos, blogs and even mainstream media increasingly and dramatically use hyperbole and punctuation to Get. Us. Reading.

Instead of WHAT happened in the content we should ask: What am I feeling?

Here are some suggestions when thinking about the WHAT?

    • What emotional response is this content trying to elicit?
    • What mental state am I in when consuming this content?
    • What do I want to do after consuming this content?

3. Where?

I am old enough to remember searching through a card catalog in my school years. It took some time. You needed to know exactly what you were looking for, the date, author, title, magazine. Finding content was a more time-consuming process—but that has drastically changed.

In 2016 there was a largely unnoticed shift. For the first time since the birth of the Internet, mobile internet use surpassed a desktop. The where of Internet access, and the start of looking for content has fundamentally shifted. When you start with a card catalog, you research differently. If you start with a laptop and a Google Search bar, you also look at content different. An algorithm does not have much effect on the card catalog, but it does in a Google Search.

Searching on a mobile device is much different than a laptop. The screen is smaller, you’re even less likely to look through pages of links. On a mobile device you want the information even faster. And you’re less likely to type it. It’s estimated about 20% of searches on mobile devices are voice searches.

When voice searching, or asking your Google Home or Alexa device something, you get one response. This isn’t an issue for finding basic stats on the circumference of the Earth, or where the nearest gas station is. But for topics like politics, history, philosophy, communications and more—answers are not so black and white. Voice searching also does not require the 5Ws, it just requires speaking a sentence.

Instead of WHERE does this content come from we should ask: Where am I accessing this content?

Here are some suggestions when thinking about the WHERE?

    • Is my phone the best way to search for information?
    • How many answers do I want from this research?
    • Where am I getting my information from with this search?

4. When?

The churn of information moves quickly. Journalists not only have to write the news, but tweet and retweet about it. Smaller newsrooms and a hectic pace make the question of WHEN even more relevant. With some stories, educators and students need to look beyond the year, or the month or even the week to find the best information.

One example of the importance of WHEN in a story was the death of Tom Petty. News reports started coming out that he was deceased as of Monday afternoon at 1:30pm, but the singer and songwriter actually didn’t pass away until about 6:30pm. There were conflicting reports with the Rolling Stone, CBS, Variety and more. When one news source hops on a story, many follow, without fact-checking the original story.

Instead of WHEN does this content come from we should ask: When was it last updated?

Here are some suggestions when thinking about the WHEN?

    • When did this story first come out?
    • Is there an update to the story?
    • When was the exact time of the original publication?

5. Why?

The last W, Why, is an important question: Why is this message being created and shared? This question encourages consumers to look at motivations behind the message. However, discovering those motivations in the 21st century is very difficult.

When I was in college I remember being taught about domain names. If the domain name had a certain extension, it was more trustworthy because it was a nonprofit. But with the exception of domain names like .gov, anyone can get the domain extension they want. Thus, one fairly reliable way of figuring out the motivations of a site is suspect.

Ownership and sponsorship of websites can be confusing. Sometimes websites mask their ownership by contracting with companies who handle the domain registration and hosting. Looking at “About Us” or “WHOIS” can help, but researchers should be aware that the owner of a website is not always an author. If you do not know WHO the author or funder of a website or organization is, it’s difficult to answer the WHY.

Here are some suggestions when thinking about the WHY?

    • Where is this website hosted?
    • What does this site link to?
    • Who is the author, owner and funder of the site?
    • What advertisements are on this site?

In the educator journal phi Delta Kappan authors Joel Breakstone and others write of the importance of evaluating information.

“The consequences of failing to prepare students to evaluate online material are real and dire. The health of our democracy depends on our access to reliable information, and increasingly, the internet is where we go to look for it.”

If we want our students to better evaluate information, we should start by reevaluating how we teach them to evaluate.