Teaching News Literacy

This submission won the Dr. Tom Pasqua Memorial Bring-in Essay competition at the 2013 Journalism Association of Community Colleges State Convention in Sacramento. The topic focused on how news consumers could learn to pick out fact from fiction while wading through a deluge of digital information.

In an interview with PBS Newshour in 2011 Alan Miller, then the director of the News Literacy Project, said: “A century ago, Mark Twain said that a lie can get halfway around the world while truth is still putting on its shoes. In this hyperlinked information age, a lie can get all the way around the world and back while truth is still getting out of bed” (PBS Newshour).

The “hyperlinked information age” Miller referred to is one in which people in the U.S. spend 20 percent of their time on computers (Facebook accounted for 17 percent) and 30 percent of their time on mobile devices on social networks, according to a Nielsen report published in December 2012 (“State of the media”). A 2012 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found about 50 percent of people consumed news digitally, less than TV news but far ahead of newspapers and radio (Mitchell et al.).

Technological advances lower (or possibly obliterate) barriers for publishing, allowing marketers, hucksters or the simply uninformed to pass off their writing as news or newsworthy, reminiscent of the “yellow journalism” of the 1800s (Schudson 4-6, 12-14). However, today’s readers are also users who can share information quickly, effortlessly, and may unwittingly perpetuate misinformation.

How then can modern readers hone their ability to discern fact from fiction so as to make informed decisions? Some, primarily educators, hope to answer this through developing news literacy.

“Simply put, news literacy (distinct from media literacy) is an effort to educate citizens, especially young people who have been reared in this new media wild West, to be more critical, more discerning consumers of the news” (Loth 5).

Stony Brook University in New York opened its Center for News Literacy in 2008, the first such center in the country, and has shared its program curriculum with dozens of universities and high schools (The Center for News Literacy). It teaches the history of the news media and its importance as well as examining what characterizes quality news. These characteristics, not dissimilar from those of scientific studies, are that the article verifies the statements it reports, that the author has no conflict of interest with the article’s subject, and that the reporter, editor, and publisher are accountable for any misinformation (Loth 9).

However, hard data for the nascent news literacy movement’s effectiveness is not as strong as enthusiasm for the program and its growth might suggest. Dean Miller, director of Stony Brook’s news literacy center, described the center’s assessment efforts in a presentation titled “Assessing Outcomes” during the 2011 news literacy conference (Miller, “Assessing Outcomes”). Stony Brook evaluates the center’s courses by testing the students before enrollment, after completion, and following up a year later. The center compares these results to a control group’s constituted by students not enrolled in the course.

The first assessment, between 2008 and 2009, indicated “dramatic improvement” in the news literacy students’ ability to recognize flawed or specious video reporting. The students were slightly more politically active than the control group (13 percent vs. 9 percent), had increased their exposure to newspapers and were more likely to consider staying abreast of current events important.

A year later, the students’ video-analyzing skills slightly atrophied yet remained superior to the control group’s. But “all of the initial differences – and civic engagement, in news consumption, in placing a higher value on keeping up with the news – are nowhere near as marked as before,” Miller said.

The second assessment, which at the time of the presentation tested students only before and after the course, found similar (possibly short-term) improvement in news consumption, civic engagement and perception of the news. However, the school recorded strong student performance in only one of four new components designed to assess critical analysis and news literacy, and no statistically significant differences on the other three, Miller said. He offered four explanations for the disappointing results, including the possibility that other courses at Stony Brook improved the control group’s critical thinking skills, or that because of the field’s youth researchers are still developing reliable tests..

Given the difficulty of developing a college course that definitively improves long-term news literacy, how can members of the general public improve theirs? The assessments suggest it is a learnable skill, but requires diligence and practice – characteristics that contradict assumptions made by journalists of their readers (namely that they have little time and even shorter attention spans).

Elementary and secondary schools represent the best opportunity for regular reinforcement. The News Literacy Project, founded in 2008, shares traits with the Stony Brook model but focuses on teaching students in middle schools and high schools in the Chicago, Washington D.C., and New York areas. It develops curricula and arranges guest lectures with practicing journalists.

The News Literacy Project and the Stony Brook program are important first steps but provide only superficial remedies for a deeper problem.

News literacy is an appropriate reaction to the exponential growth in the creation and dissemination of news. But more broadly, a democratic society requires a well-informed citizenry, and thus critical thinking is a necessity. Much of society frames the purpose of education in economic terms: high school leads to college, and college leads to degrees and financial comfort. Lost in that narrative is an emphasis on lifelong learning, or civic engagement or responsibility (Arum and Roksa, “Academically Adrift”).

American education ought to include the tenets of news literacy. English courses could teach students to analyze news articles as well as literature. Science courses could subtly underscore the scientific method and the importance of seeking out the truth. Students should learn to look upon new information with a skeptical but not cynical eye, and understand that education is not the means to a diploma but a continual process of self-improvement. They will develop a taste for quality journalism as they begin winnowing ersatz news from it, and will demand more.

This is how to achieve news literacy.

Works Cited

Arum, Richard and Josipa Roksa. “Academically Adrift.” The News Literacy Conference, Stony Brook University. n.d. Conference presentation. Web. 6 April 2013.

Loth, Renée. “What’s black and white and retweeted all over? Teaching news literacy in a digital age.” Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, Harvard University. 2012.

Miller, Dean. “Assessing Outcomes.” The News Literacy Conference, Stony Brook University. n.d. Conference presentation. Web. 4 April 2013.
< http://newsliteracyconference.com/content/?p=1318 >

Mitchell, Amy, Kenny Olmstead, and Jane Sasseen. Digital: As mobile grows rapidly, the pressures on news intensify. Pew Research Center. Web. 8 April 2013.

PBS Newshour. “News literacy project trains young people to be skeptical media consumers.” PBS. 13 Dec. 2011. Web. 4 April 2013.
< http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/media/july-dec11/newsliteracy_12-13.html >

Schudson, Michael. Discovering the news: A Social History of American Newspapers. Basic Books, 1978. Print.

“State of the Media: The Social Media Report 2012.” NM Incite, Nielsen, 2012. PDF file.

The Center for News Literacy. Stony Brook University, n.d. Web. 8 April 2013.
< http://www.centerfornewsliteracy.org/ >

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