News literacy

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It’s an important topic for class and newsroom staff development

By Pat Winters Lauro

CBS President Leslie Moonves scandalously said during the run-up to the 2016 GOP primary that Donald Trump is “bad for America, but he’s damn good for CBS.”

Moonves was talking about TV ratings, but the same could be said about news literacy, which includes the development of skills to discern fact, opinion, bias and hidden agendas.

While news literacy has been discussed for years, new such discussions are burgeoning, thanks to Trump’s dismissing news stories critical of him, his family, or administration as “fake news” and calling the press “the enemy.”  These discussions are beacons for all who view journalism as essential to a free society.

News literacy is a topic for classrooms and college media newsrooms.

College media could incorporate discussion of bias, opinion versus fact, accuracy and credibility into staff training. Doing so could increase staff members’ awareness of how accusations of fake news could affect their own credibility with readers, listeners and viewers—and how balanced and accurate reporting can boost credibility for college and professional news media.

There are a host of online resources for discussion and analysis of fake news and news literacy, and many universities, including Kean University, where I teach, offer news literacy courses.

My journey to launching a news literacy course at Kean University began in 2010, when I became bothered by the growing misinformation economy. Facts suddenly didn’t seem to matter anymore, and time-honored traditions like  “check it out” suddenly didn’t apply on the web or social media. I was shocked by nasty anonymous comments on traditional news websites and alleged journalistic articles that were partisan rumor-mongering or outright falsehoods.

The original course was a special topics class for graduate students to study all that was happening in the news media. It was during a period when academics were writing about “truthiness,” a term coined by TV host Steven Colbert, who defined it as the dissemination, not of facts, but of how people feel about facts. Much was also written about Jon Stewart’s ability to capture young people on the “Daily Show” by using comedy to inform his audiences on public issues.

We covered issues like the decimation of local media, the closing of great news organizations such as the Rocky Mountain News, the increasing polarization of news fueled by the likes of Fox network and others, the collapse of journalism’s business model, and the ever-growing blurring of the lines between journalism and entertainment. We also read about the misinformation, propaganda and accompanying nationalism that occurred in the media in the run-up to the Iraq war.

Kean launched “News Literacy” as an undergraduate course for the spring 2017 semester, not knowing then how very prescient that would be.

By spring 2017, it was clear I needed to change the course to address the new world of post-truth America.

Trump’s barrage of falsehoods and contradictory statements led to George Orwell’s “1984” on the syllabus. Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” published in 1931, is a contender for future courses. (The NY Times has a great high school lesson plan on “1984” that can be easily adapted for college.  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/09/learning/lesson-plans/teaching-orwell-and-1984-with-the-new-york-times.html)

I couldn’t find a textbook devoted to News Literacy, but the Center for News Literacy (www.centerfornewsliteracy.org) at Stony Brook University in New York, an authority in the field, is most generous with sharing content via its Digital Resource Center. The center sent a “course pack” of Power Points, recitations and other information covering the entirety of its previous semester of News Literacy taught at Stony Brook as a college-wide requirement. The center also sends new and updated materials, which are always engaging, informative and sometimes funny.

This fall semester, I added a new book, published in 2016, called “Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in the Post-Truth Era” by Daniel J. Levitin. As the title promises, the book breaks down myths and assumptions we make when reading the news. The author addresses how graphs, surveys and polls can confuse, even trick, the public, and devotes whole sections on “identifying expertise” and “how do you know?”

For the graduate level course, I also added Neal Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death, “ the classic text about the mesmerizing, dangerous power of television. As Postman’s son, Andrew, says in the introduction of the 20th anniversary edition in 2005, the book is so “emphatically relevant” that it can easily be applied to today’s technologies. Neil Postman, who died in 2003, was clearly in the Huxley camp. He foresaw truthiness when he wrote that Huxley feared we would become “a trivial culture, preoccupied with what he called “the feelies…”

“Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information,” wrote Postman in 1985. “Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.”

I require my students to read the New York Times every day, and I give news quizzes to ensure that they do. Hence, a big part of the course involves discourse on national news issues. DACA, the Syrian refugee crisis, the Mexican earthquake, the hurricane in Puerto Rico. Often times, I need to provide context because jumping into a discussion based on the front page of the New York Times, without a history of reading news, is quite a leap. David Mindich discusses this disconnect for young people in his 2004 book “Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don’t Follow the News.”

Of course, News Literacy also must address the hot topic of fake news and how to spot it. NPR, which live-checked the presidential debates, has posted several articles with tips such as this one http://www.npr.org/2016/12/11/505154631/a-finders-guide-to-facts.

In our divided political environment, I also like to look at a site called allsides.com, which takes an issue and offers articles on it from left, right and centrist views. We examine and question news values  – such as the penchant for uniqueness — and whether that is good for society. In addition, we discuss the benefits and flaws of the traditional business model of journalism and discuss, read and view non-profit journalism such as ProPublica and the Marshall Project.

To me, discussing the news is the best part of the class, although I will admit it can be exhausting to keep up with the news cycle.

On the plus side, I see the course as a way to show students in real time how news works in our system. One issue made for that ongoing lesson is the investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election. The DNC hack by Russians didn’t seem to move the students as much as news that Russia infiltrated social media with fake ads and stories about the election apparently to foment discord and weaken our belief in democracy.

It’s illuminating for students to wake up to the world, and learn that global players are serious, and that our democracy is not necessarily ironclad safe.

Sometimes, News Literacy is criticized as “journalism light” taught by reporters who tell war stories. As a former reporter, I’ll admit I do a bit of that, but what’s the harm if it engages students?

I think the critics make wrong assumptions, starting with the idea that students know the purpose and use of journalism. The News Literacy students, who are mostly majoring in other disciplines, don’t necessarily connect journalism with democracy, nor do they understand that truth telling helps shape pubic opinion and can effect change.

Students also don’t view newspapers as the vehicle of community that they have been. News Literacy can make these connections for students. As Peter Dahlgren wrote in his Afterword in “The Changing Faces of Journalism: Tabloidization, Technology & Truthiness,” a collection of essays edited by Barbie Zelizer, a clear connection needs to be made between journalism and civic action or citizenship.

“In a sense, the future of traditional journalism is ultimately tied to the development of democracy – which in turn remains an ongoing and very problematic challenge,” he wrote.

Last semester, as the launch of my course coincided with Trump’s inaugural, I was interviewed several times about the rise of fake news and what educators are doing to fight it.

The Philadelphia Inquirer quoted me, and a reporter from Veja, the leading news weekly of Brazil, came to campus for photos and an interview. In addition, I ended up on the front page of New Jersey’s Record.

But the highlight was when the Associated Press asked to use my classroom and students as a way to illustrate a piece on News Literacy in schools around the country. A photographer and videographer came into my classroom, shot video of my class, took photographs and interviewed my students and me afterward.

The article, video and slide show were picked up all over the world. The story ran in England, in Russia, and in the Mideast. The video also appeared on TV, including local WNBC-TV, New York. https://apnews.com/869ef17ddfc34a2ab5bc5be038f6362b

The recognition was rewarding and a great experience for my students who saw firsthand how news works.  I look forwarding to continuing the news literacy class, which is an opportunity for me to share my love of and faith in journalism—and to reach students about journalism’s critical role in our democracy.

Then, as always, it’s up to the students to decide whether to make it their own lifelong pursuit.


About the author: Pat Winters Lauro is the journalism program director at New Jersey’s Kean University, where she teaches courses in journalism and public relations. She was a columnist at the New York Daily News and covered advertising and marketing as a longtime contributor for the New York Times. She was a 2003-04 Knight-Bagehot Fellow at Columbia University.

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