Apple, Mike Daisey Offer a Teachable Moment for Today’s Students in Digital Ethics, How to Tell Fact From Fiction

March 29, 2012
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, United States
CATEGORIES Digital Citizenship, Digital Literacy, Students

The recent Mike Daisey fiasco offers an opportune moment for teachers and parents to discuss ethics, authorship, and plain old truth-telling online.

Daisey’s one-man show, “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” was adapted into a 39-minute episode of “This American Life,” which aired in January on National Public Radio, and was retracted on March 16. The monologue was largely an attack on Apple for its factory conditions in Shenzhen, China, which Daisey said he witnessed firsthand.

In the retraction episode, “This American Life” host Ira Glass said that when he and his team were fact-checking before airing the initial episode, Daisey was unable to provide the contact information for his translator, who played a large role in his interviews with Foxconn factory workers. China correspondent for the NPR program “Marketplace,” Rob Schmitz, subsequently found holes in Daisey’s story and worked with “This American Life” to double-check, and ultimately disprove, certain parts.

“I can say now in retrospect that when Mike Daisey wouldn’t give his contact information for his interpreter, we should have killed the story…we never should have broadcast this story without talking to that woman,” Glass said.

Sadly, any awareness his monologue may have raised has now been dismantled by lack of trust, and the cause he risked so much to support is undermined. What’s unfortunate is that, according to a series of reports released by the New York Times earlier this year, some of the conditions Daisey described in his play were based on factual events – he just didn’t witness them as he’d claimed. New York Times reporter David Carr responded to the scandal with an important question, “Is it O.K. to lie on the way to telling a greater truth? The short answer is also the right one. No.”

Yet the controversy can serve as teachable moment to expand students’ knowledge and assess their use of digital media. As Spotlight on Digital Media’s Christine Cupaiuolo wrote in a blog post, the best way to teach digital ethics is for students to create the media themselves. By doing so, they better understand its power. “When students become media creators, they learn what it takes to tell a story, including the importance of factual information and the power of multiple voices and experiences,” she wrote.

Cupaiuolo also noted in another post that “the elaborate self-critique—Ira Glass devoted an entire show to a retraction over Daisey’s deception and the mistakes the radio program itself —can provide a model for the type of critical thinking youth need when approaching what is often generalized information and reductive arguments throughout the media and their social networks. The questions he raises about responsibility on both sides would make for an interesting class discussion about effective storytelling.”

Parents and educators play a bigger role than they may think in helping their children develop skills as media critics and producers. Veteran education reporter John Merrow, president of the nonprofit media production company Learning Matters, said in the Washington Post that, although most young people know more than adults when it comes to the internet and digital media, today’s youth still need moral leadership and direction. “Being a “digital native” is not the same as being a “digital citizen,” Merrow said. “Young people have always needed [online] ethical guidance and the security of rules and boundaries. That’s more true now because today’s technologies have unprecedented power to harm.”

Merrow also explained the “Three C’s 1-9-90” rule of thumb: “Only about one percent of young people are using today’s technologies to create; nine percent are curating, collecting and critiquing, while ninety percent are consuming.” Merrow suggests, like Cupaiuolo, that using the internet to foster creativity and produce original thought is a great way to expand digital literacy. He offers a few ways students could use their smart phones to gather and share information that would be helpful to their communities, such as measuring air and water quality or mapping out their hometowns in order to deconstruct anomalies or inequities between neighborhoods.

By “creating knowledge,” as Merrow calls it, students are reinforcing real-world skills, as well as learning how to question information presented as fact—a literacy Stanford journalism professor Howard Rheingold refers to as “crap detection”. “Now that anyone can publish anything and search engines turn up inaccurate information, misinformation, and disinformation along with accurate claims, the consumer, not the producer of information, must test the validity of claims,” he says.

Daisey’s main defense against the critique— that his was a piece of theatre, something designed to be performed in an artistic medium—is a familiar one online. “The same rules don’t apply online,” we hear, or “blogging isn’t journalism.”  Yet helping students understand that the foundation of trust lies in truth, no matter what the context is a valuable lesson. The Public Theatre, where Daisey’s show had multiple successful runs, advertised the play as “non-fiction,” of which New York Times reporter Charles Isherwood said, “The problem is Mr. Daisey’s particular brand of theater is experienced by the audience as direct and honest testimony to events that he witnessed. Nonfiction should mean just that: facts and nothing but the facts.”

In many ways, the web is very much like a theatre and it is our job to discern what’s valid – which can be moderately difficult when things are slickly produced and there is a withstanding basis of trust. Carr put it plainly: “There is nothing in the journalism playbook to prevent a determined liar from getting one over now and again. It is partly because seekers of truth expect the same from others.”

A now classic online ruse, “Lonely Girl”, exposed the same sense of betrayal as the Daisey scandal. In 2006, a series of videos were posted by what appeared to be a teenage girl (lonelygirl15) talking about how alone she felt. The videos became a YouTube sensation and thousands of viewers poured their hearts out to Lonely Girl. Later that year, it was exposed that Lonely Girl was actually an actress and the vlogs were designed to become a web-based video series. As expected, Lonely Girl’s followers were outraged. One girl summed it up best in a post, “Everybody was mad because no one likes to be duped.”

The outrage Ira Glass felt after being duped by Mike Daisey was palpable on the retraction episode. “I have such a weird mix of feelings about this because I simultaneously feel terrible for you, and also I feel lied to,” Glass said. “And also, I stuck my neck out for you.”

As future generations become more web savvy with the help of training and improved curriculums, identifying unreliable online content should become easier. However, we’re not there yet. According to research conducted by Eszter Hargittai, an associate professor of communication at Northwestern University, many college students still lack the skills to determine the credibility of what they consume as truth online. "Just because younger people grew up with the Web doesn't mean they're universally savvy with it," Hargittai said. They need guidance in classic issues such as plagiarism, ethical use, and “truthiness” –all of which take on new layers online.

We'll have more next week on talking and learning with kids about Kony 2012.

Photo by Ursa Waz.