By Donna Lampkin Stephens (Central Arkansas), AJHA President; Aimee Edmondson (Ohio), First Vice-President; Mike Conway (Indiana), Second Vice-President
If you’re like us, your social media feed has been filled this election year with news, rumors, misinformation and bizarre conspiracy theories. In mid-November, a public school teacher in Arkansas posed a question in a private Facebook group about a situation she faced in the days following the presidential election. In teaching the executive branch of government, she told her class, “When Joe Biden is inaugurated, he will be the oldest president ever to take office.” A student answered her by announcing to the class, “But he wasn’t elected,” and proceeded to argue with her about the results of the election. She then came to the Facebook group with sincere questions about how to handle this situation.While there weren’t any easy answers there, the incident revealed one of the many dilemmas we all face in this fractured environment where people don’t — or can’t — even agree on basic facts.
We all have spent most of the last year dealing with the new realities of life during the COVID-19 era, and now it is time for us as AJHA officers to take on the goals we’ve set for 2020-21. As journalists and media historians, we want to work to address the flood of misinformation and revisionist history narratives such as the above example. With the crisis in funding local journalism and the increasing polarization of information, we can provide the historical context to show the importance of verified information and the role of journalists to provide an accurate view of critical issues facing our communities and our nation.
Who better to add the context of history and media literacy than AJHA—the premier organization for journalism history? This need to serve our profession is growing more urgent by the day, and as AJHA officers, we plan to do so with tangible resources for our members.
One route to this end is to partner with the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), a nonprofit organization whose members are as passionate as we are about helping people become more critical thinkers and understand how to evaluate news sources. NAMLE executive director Michelle Lipkin (@ciullalipkin) spoke at the 2020 AJHA virtual conference on the panel on media literacy.We want to build on the foundation this panel laid by working with NAMLE to create an online repository of tools for our AJHA members to use as we all work to address these issues locally, in our own communities. We envision that this toolbox will include PSAs, presentations for civic clubs and other key stakeholders, social media messaging and other resources.
We urge AJHA members to join NAMLE, whose membership is made up of educators, journalists, and yes, even media historians. Our AJHA colleague Nathaniel Frederick from Winthrop University has inspired us with his own work relating to media literacy and the role of journalists and journalism educators to further this conversation on a local level.We want to continue the conversation with NAMLE members throughout the next year and beyond. And we should all work together on the messaging that media literacy is an essential life skill that is necessary for educated citizens and voters, who in turn are vital for our democracy. Because we expect that this will be an ongoing need for the foreseeable future, we hope that future AJHA officers will continue to add to our members’ toolboxes as we continue the fight against misinformation and disinformation.
We envision several action plans to support this initiative. As journalism historians, we can reach out to our own local civic organizations and offer to talk to the group about media literacy and journalism history. AJHA members who are already filling that role can tell us what has worked for them. We can amplify those messages through sharing on social media.
We believe outreach, perhaps especially to junior high school civics classes, could pay big dividends long term. We would like to focus on this age group to let these young students meet real journalists and former journalists.We believe that personal connections with journalists and journalism historians (like members of AJHA!) could make a real difference in youngsters’ perception of who we are and what we do.
We believe these relationships can help them understand it is the journalist’s duty to question our elected officials—whoever they are. As one of us responded over the summer to a Facebook “friend” who criticized journalists for not supporting the sitting president, “Real journalists tell the truth. It’s not our job to make the president look good or bad.” Students need to see that it is not un-American to hold our leaders accountable. Rather, it is just the opposite. As Marty Barron, executive editor of The Washington Post, says, “We’re not at war. We’re at work.”
We all need to be doing more of this outreach. Our democracy depends on such efforts.While your officers are united in these goals, we want to hear from you. Have you made efforts in this area? What has worked? What hasn’t? What can we do to help each other? Let’s collaborate. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. Our goal is to have resources available to our members on the AJHA website by the end of February.
While media literacy is our top goal for the coming year, we also want to continue the progress we’ve made in the last year toward structural reinforcement of our organization. Now that we have incorporated as a nonprofit, we need to decide on event and liability insurance to protect us, especially in this COVID-19 era. At this point, we know we will have to make a decision in the spring about our Columbus conference. As many of us learned in the decision to postpone our Memphis conference until 2022, our planning includes a number of moving parts, many of them out of our control, and any such decision requires many people working together. Other goals are to continue to have more collaboration with the AEJMC History Division and to continue to build our reserves.
As you can see, we have much to do. But with all of us working together, we are confident that our efforts will bear fruit.