Supply and Demand

Journalism must invest in educated consumers

The news in recent years about civic education and engagement in American society has been dismal, and particularly so when it comes to young people’s attention to serious news. All but the most cynical critics would agree that a ready supply of high-quality news and information is essential for our democracy to work, and that, for the moment, we have devised no better way to produce this than our traditional news outlets.

Yet today’s teens and young adults are growing up in a society in which the concept of “journalism” has been distorted by decades of anti-press propaganda that reduces all of journalism to an elitist cabal that pushes a left-wing agenda, consciously or not. (More recently, the left’s critique of the press as a cowardly corporate stooge has been no less simplistic.) They are growing up, too, in the bosom of “the media,” an undiscriminating conception of our communication environment that facilitates a blurring of the line between entertainment and journalism.

In his recent book, The Future of Democracy: Developing the Next Generation of American Citizens, Peter Levine, the director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, focuses on reforming the press as an institution, rather than trying to convince young people to value journalism, as a strategy for reversing their disengagement from serious news.

But it seems to us that both strategies are necessary, and while the former is very much the subject of discussion and experimentation, the latter is not.

Not long ago, the Project for Excellence in Journalism explored the idea of a public-education campaign to teach people about the role of journalism in developing an informed citizenry. PEJ ultimately didn’t pursue the project, but Tom Rosenstiel, PEJ’s director, says if the major media companies got behind the idea, it might make sense. “We learned that convincing someone to use a car seat is one thing, very concrete,” he says, “while the whole news/citizenship issue is much more abstract. It really is more of a curriculum than a single message.”

At Stony Brook University on Long Island, Howard Schneider is building that curriculum. Schneider, the former editor of Newsday, was hired in 2005 to develop a journalism program at the school, and soon became convinced that, as he says, “it was not sufficient for us to simply train the next generation of journalists. We had to train the next generation of news consumers, too.”

Thus was born “News Literacy,” a course that is now mandatory for Stony Brook journalism majors; a grant from the Knight Foundation is designed to expand the program beyond that, to 10,000 of the university’s 15,000 undergraduates. Last fall it was taught to more than six hundred students outside the journalism program.

The goal is to give students the skills to judge the reliability and credibility of news, in all its forms. “We will never sustain a robust press,” Schneider says, “unless we have consumers who appreciate it and can distinguish between quality journalism and chuck.”

Journalism doesn’t help its cause when it fails to do all it can to scrutinize the president’s case for war, for instance, or allows fabulists to defraud readers. But among the realities Schneider says his students come to understand are how difficult a job journalism is, that most mistakes are not malicious—and that most “bias” isn’t.

These are important things for news consumers to know, and every serious news outlet has a vested interest in the kinds of work that Schneider is doing, and that PEJ wanted to do. The relentless effort to divine what readers want misses a major point: effective citizenship in a democracy requires some effort, and journalism is an integral tool for that job. It’s time for everyone who cares about sustaining good journalism, and a healthy democracy, to put their money, and their mouths, behind this message.

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.