Learning the News: Media literacy for the modern age

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Consumers of the news can be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed by the array of choices they face. We can watch any number of cable channels at any time of day, and we tailor our social media feeds to get the latest news from a multitude of sources. But what are those sources, and are they trustworthy? How can today’s consumers, especially but not only young people, learn to distinguish between opinion journalism and objective reporting? Can they tell the difference between paid sponsorships and independent journalism? How can we help them to read a variety of news and opinion, not just what their friends recommend or what a Facebook algorithm determines is best? At a time when marketing, media and news are slowly converging and readers are insidiously absorbed into this trend as simultaneously consumer and product, how can we teach the news reading skills that are essential to responsible citizenship?

With these questions in mind, 115 educators, news media practitioners and digital and print literacy proponents met in Chicago for a News Literacy Summit in September. The event was sponsored by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and other foundations, leading newspapers and the Poynter Institute, a journalism research center. The participants asked what are the “core competencies of news literacy,” the skills needed to produce and understand the news?

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Founded in 2008 by Alan C. Miller, a former Los Angeles Times reporter, the News Literacy Project is going national. It invites middle and high schools to give students tools to distinguish fact from fiction, understand the First Amendment and the standards for journalistic integrity and exercise civility while engaging in public debates. The project also encourages the development of student media and brings retired journalists into the classroom to help students master print, radio, television and digital media so that these will become not distracting toys but tools for intellectual development and critical thinking.

The obstacles to news literacy are many. They spring in part from our new digital culture, which has brought a variety of challenges along with many obvious benefits. Seventy-three percent of adults now participate in social media, and 30 percent of adults in the United States get news from Facebook—selected and distributed not by editors but by a mathematical formula that predicts what users might want to read. Social media companies seek to attract and hold more and more of their users’ time. They promise diverse viewpoints; in fact, critics say, they allow users to create their own echo chambers and filter out what they do not agree with. For the student generation, it narrows the vision required for real news appreciation.

The news literacy movement offers several remedies. One is the traditional honors seminar. Selected faculty members teach a full-semester course for motivated students, who plunge into the media pond, read widely and discuss a collection of the leading newspapers, opinion magazines and books. They systematically follow TV newscasts with distinct angles or leanings, compare and contrast the whole family of political websites and view films like “All the President’s Men” or the documentary “Page One.”

Another option is to cultivate analytical skills by incorporating diverse media sources into courses like history, literature and the social sciences. Still another is to employ the professional News Literacy Project digital curriculum, a five-day program of narrated videos that includes a live webinar and chat with a prominent journalist. Add to this a three-week, teacher-led classroom unit. More than 3,700 students have experienced this curriculum during the past year.

Over the last few years this experiment has received sympathetic attention from the Columbia Journalism Review and “PBS NewsHour.” To succeed, however, it will need the support of social media sites, especially Facebook, which exercise great control over what their users see. The lessons the project teachers impart are basic and should be widely embraced: Don’t believe a report that has no source and be skeptical about a report with only one source.

The ultimate goal of the News Literacy movement is to recapture the imagination and ensure the integrity of the next generation of readers. Young people have an amazing ability to toggle among various sources of information, but some guidance is needed. The best way to do that is to teach students the rules of basic literary and historical research, where they must dig deep into the library as well as the Internet and bring forth a well-written, convincing report on a disputed social or political problem and publish it in a newspaper, magazine, film, radio documentary, public forum or an online article. The student will be a different young man or woman when he or she presents his research. That is what education—and literacy—are all about.

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Mike Evans
3 years 8 months ago
The Catholic media could play a great part in this venture. But too often, both secular and religious media seem to adopt a "hands off" approach, reporting just the facts, claims and counterclaims without any analysis or critique. We are in a sorry state when editorial pages bow to the power of advertisers or elite sponsors. The Church itself seems to be tangled in knots when one bishop calls the Ryan budget immoral and another (arch)bishop praises Ryan for his acumen and Catholicity. You cannot have it both ways.

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