This editorial is a slightly longer version of the one published in the December, 2018-February, 2019 Winter Print/e-Edition of Global Geneva.
WHEN AN AMERICAN JOURNALIST FRIEND – a veritable gadget freak with the latest technology – had his birthday, a group of us presented him with a T-shirt. It depicted a boy surrounded by computers, mobile phones, headsets and drones with the caption: “The kid with the most toys wins.”
This obsession with ‘toys’ increasingly appears to be the way many private and public sector organizations, including UN agencies, are seeking to reach out to potential audiences. Most important, their targets include our kids, the Millenniums or Generation Z, who have been brought up with social media. There is now even a second post-2000 wave obsessed with smartphones described by some as the “snowflake” generation; young people whose attention span melts at the slightest distraction.
TECHNOLOGICAL SHORT-CUTS ARE NOT THE ANSWER
Unfortunately, many believe that ‘informing’ the public can now only be achieved through innovative technologies, whether the latest tablet or generation-appropriate apps. Yet such short-cuts often come at a cost: the side-lining or even abandoning of credible content. It’s as if Tweets, Likes, Instagram, or YouTube alone will help people better understand what knowledge is all about, whether history, culture, science or geography.
This is something that Global Geneva is particularly concerned about. So are numerous parents and teachers with whom we have talked, most of whom are finding it increasingly difficult to know how to remedy this problem. While mobile phone users may indeed scroll down on internet visuals or texts, it does not mean that they are absorbing the information. They whip through them. Nor do Facebook ‘Likes’ even remotely suggest that content is being read. Growing numbers of schools, including in Switzerland, are now banning mobile phone use, some selectively, others completely.
While social media have revolutionized the spread of communication platforms, the question at hand is whether we are more globally aware – or even informed – today than, say, 20 years ago. For example, do Thais and Malaysians, who rank among the world’s most switched-on social media users with an average of five hours a day on their mobiles, have a better grasp of what is happening? And if yes, does such access prompt people into taking action? Or change behaviour, such as no longer using throw-away plastic bags which are now polluting the rivers, canals and oceans, or being better prepared for tsunamis?
HOW CAN YOUNG PEOPLE DISCERN WHAT IS REAL, AND WHAT IS NOT?
Being sceptical of social media is not a matter of refusing technological innovation. Cybertech is with us whether we like it or not. Yet in a world where ‘alternative facts’, untruths and blatant propaganda are disconcertingly becoming the norm, how can we expect teenagers, who have never experienced the comfort of growing up with one or two largely trustworthy newspapers or a nightly TV news programme, to discern what is reliable and what is not? The Edward R. Murrow’s, Walter Cronkite’s or Richard Dimbleby’s of today no longer exist.
The danger now is that we are at risk of losing an entire generation – or two – to false news, triviality and virtual egos unless we can involve young people more effectively. For the news industry, too, – regardless which side of the political spectrum – there will be no future readers unless we do this.
According to some high school teachers, this may already be happening. We are failing to help young people better understand the need for reliable information. Or to impress upon them the importance of genuine – and well informed – civic, personal responsibility. Clearly, many young people make the effort to be involved. The current anti-Brexit movement – both on the Left and the Right – in the UK appears to be heavily influenced by young people fearing that their future is being hijacked.
But many do not make the effort, often because they claim to feel ignored, or not included. This should not be an excuse to opt out. Most countries, however, are not like Australia where citizens are required to vote by law; and if you don’t bother for four federal elections, you lose your right for 10 years.
A GROWING LACK OF WRITING SKILLS
The ability to write is another casualty. As some universities are pointing out, growing numbers of high school graduates suffer from poor reading, writing or even basic communication skills. As one American professor told me: “Some of these kids have no idea how to write a proper sentence. Their knowledge is also superficial, based on watching YouTube videos rather than reading books. For me, that’s a problem.” It will also affect the way future entrepreneurs, civil servants, scientists and even teachers operate.
Some US law professors are now banning computers and iPads from class, requiring students instead to take notes – once again – on yellow legal pads. As Pew Foundation and other media studies have shown, people have a far better retention rate of information by reading off-screen or writing by hand. One leading British surgeon recently noted that while medical students today may demonstrate exceptional knowledge, they often lack the basic hand skills needed for sewing up after an operation. The same goes for airline pilots, who, according to one veteran Swiss airlines’ instructor, are trained primarily on flight simulation rather than also an ability to fly a plane without computer support. It is doubtful that Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger would have been able to land US Airways flight 1549 on the Hudson had he not known how to pilot a glider.
JOURNALISM IS NEEDED TO HELP NATIONS TALK TO THEMSELVES
Whether parents or journalists, we should be investing in youth at the high school level by getting back to basics. This includes a greater focus on reliable content and global awareness rather than gadgetry as a means of making personal, informed decisions. During a luncheon with foreign correspondents in Berne last November, Swiss President Alain Berset made two significant points. First, he noted, not without jest, the Swiss take great pride in being “boring,” because “boring” means not being caught in conflict or insecurity. Second, more seriously, he stressed the critical role of independent journalism, particularly when viable democracies are under threat. Citing American author Henry Miller, he referred to journalism as being imperative to help nations “talk to themselves”.
Of course, this is easier said than done. At a time when most news organizations are struggling to gain new – and younger – audiences, only select media such as the New York Times, Washington Post, The Financial Times, The Economist, Le Monde, El Pais and The Atlantic appear to be succeeding in re-establishing the role for reliable journalism in the public interest.
Much of this has been prompted by increased manipulation of social media. Or blatant lying and misrepresentation. People are realizing that a return to trusted media is crucial if we are to counter such abuses or to remain informed. This is what we need to convey to our children.
Some news organizations are doing this by broadening the media platform but without losing their focus on reliable content. National Geographic, for example, which has been around for 130 years, is fervently trying to reach young people through its use of platform-specific approaches such as Wattpad, IGTV (Instagram’s new home for ‘long-form’ video) and Snapchat. According to Jill Cress, the magazine’s chief marketing officer, this is vital if they are to engage younger audiences. While NatGeo’s median reader age is 47, those under 24 make up only 13.4 per cent.
As a result, NatGeo is re-purposing its events and social media content. Already the most popular brand on Instagram with 92.8 million followers, it is now adopting visual formats such as vertical video, explainers and “over-the-top” (OTT) video. Its Snapchat subscriptions have reportedly risen to seven million members, 1.5 million joining last year alone. The National Geographic Society, however, has always been about visual content, notably exceptional photography and documentaries, so this approach is not surprising.
It is a different matter with numerous other organizations, particularly those dealing with artificial intelligence, machine learning, crypto-currencies, PR, propaganda, or innovative advertising. Only by constantly developing stimulating new technologies or formats, they believe, can we ‘educate’ and ‘inform’ properly. This obsession with the latest bells and whistles is overwhelming, but also undermining.
What often appears to be missing is ensuring that in-depth knowledge with credible content be part of such outreach. Far too many institutions fear that young people will simply tune out unless new enticements are designed to cater to their constantly changing whims and attention spans. Actually involving them in a process to explore a broader understanding of the issues at hand – and what is really at stake – seems too brutal an option. But this is precisely what needs to happen.
Edward Girardet is editor of Global Geneva magazine. A journalist and author, he has reported on wars, humanitarian crises and development world-wide for 40 years.
Global Geneva’s Young Journalists’ and Writers’ Programme is being currently launched for the 2018/2019 school year. While initially focusing on schools with English-language programmes in Switzerland, we eventually hope to reach out to international schools across the globe. For students, teachers and potential sponsors interested in this initiative, please go to: www.global-geneva.com contact: firstname.lastname@example.org