Literati and Illiterati

Eventually Reputations Will Be Maintained the Old-Fashioned Way.

It matters where we get our information. Prior to the development of radio, television and the Internet, the main source of information was print, an expensive, time-consuming process. Usually printed information passed through a gauntlet of experts and editors who tried to make sure it was credible and accurate.

When I was a newspaper reporter, I had to interview people with credentials relevant to my story. I wrote according to the rules of objective journalism, which meant getting at least two sides on a controversial issue and double-checking facts and grammar and the spelling of names.

I turned my stories in to an editor who checked everything again. After the paper was laid out and sent to press, reporters took turns sitting up all night in the printing facility checking the paper every half hour to make sure everything was coming out as intended.

Media Matters

Book authors have a more rigorous process. They spend years developing reputations as experts by lecturing and publishing articles. Nonfiction authors are critiqued by reviewers and engaged in dialogue with other experts. The nest of resonant ideas surrounding the printed book endorses the veracity of the content.

Radio and television have faster production schedules and therefore less scrutiny. Still, reputable news and educational shows mimic processes of newspaper and book publishing. Also, the cost and effort required to put shows on air slow the process, making it more likely producers will seek assurances of accuracy.

In the case of print and broadcast, the medium itself acts as a filter that makes it more likely the information it channels is credible. None of this applies to the Internet where anyone can say anything.

Websites, blogs, Facebook and Twitter posts can come from anyone and anywhere. If Internet authors want to be influential they pretend to have credentials or to have the support of an informed audience. They can become opinion leaders without having to earn a reputation for substantive, accurate communication.

The Old Days

Prior to the 20th century, those who were steeped in the laborious process of reading and publishing in the slow discourse of print media were called literati. The online network of uninformed and misleading experts forms an illiterati – that is, pseudo-experts with no connection to substantive public dialogue.

Of course expertise and scrutiny cannot guarantee the truth. All human communication is subjective. However, the issue is not whether a statement is true or not; the issue is whether the statement is worth considering.

Once, when radio was new, people put too much trust in broadcast messages. Eventually we learned not to believe everything we hear on the radio. In the United States, Orson Wells presented H.G. Wells’ novel War of the Worlds as if it were a news broadcast and created a small panic.

Trust was shattered in Europe by the insidious uses of radio by the Nazi party. It is probably a matter of time until election abuses and misleading advertising on social media create a more skeptical Internet audience as well.

People can be fooled for only so long. As skepticism grows, and if print and broadcast media continue to be devalued, businesses will have to rely on an older method of establishing reputation: word of mouth.

Quarry operations with potential conflicts with community groups have a particular need to establish reputations for integrity. Right now, the Internet isn’t making that easier; it is making it more difficult.

For now, opposition groups can make false claims and flood the net with misleading information. However, eventually the public will become weary of Internet rhetoric, and reputations will be maintained the real old-fashioned way – through personal contacts, referrals and customer satisfaction.

Thomas J. Roach Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Northwest since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected].

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