The news-literacy movement was born in the middle of the last decade, in response to the challenges news consumers face in the digital age. In fairly short order, the longstanding brands that had delivered the news in established formats had become part of a cacaphonous and uneven information ecosystem in which partisans, charlatans, experts, and amateurs of all stripes and competencies deliver a daily torrent of “news” and commentary, via myriad channels. Much of this information has never been vetted, or even sourced.
How is a reader or viewer—especially one not weaned on the old-media standards—to know what information, or outlet, is trustworthy? That was the fundamental question that animated the news-literacy pioneers.
The larger context for the creation of news literacy was rising concern over American ignorance—of not only the wider world but also the basics of life in the republic. Surveys regularly showed that most young adults could not find the latest country we were bombing on a map. News illiteracy threatened to worsen the situation.
Howard Schneider, a former editor at Newsday, took the first step in 2005, creating a news-literacy class for undergraduates at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. After launching the university’s journalism school, Schneider realized that too many of the students knew too little about how journalism worked to go straight into training as reporters. The news-literacy curriculum he developed teaches students how to separate ads from editorial content and opinion from straight reporting, and how to determine the accuracy of sourcing. And, perhaps most important, why all that matters. Today, not just the journalism students, but roughly one-third of every freshman class take the news-literacy course.
Three years after Schneider built the Stony Brook program, Alan Miller left his job as an investigative reporter at the Los Angeles Times and founded The News Literacy Project (NLP), which brings professional journalists into classrooms, physically and digitally, to teach students how to separate the informational wheat from the chaff. NLP has since formed partnerships with the Chicago public school system, schools in New York City, and the suburbs of Washington, DC.
One of the challenges for these programs has always been a limited reach. NLP to date has reached more than 10,000 students, which is still just a tiny fraction of the American student body. Digital technology may allow them to find a much larger audience: NLP hopes to expand dramatically online, and teachers are beginning to incorporate news-literacy strategies and projects into general-education classes. Every summer, Stony Brook’s Center for News Literacy trains roughly 20 K-12 teachers how to incorporate news literacy into English, history, and other classes. And Newsela, a startup founded last year, offers digital news-literacy curricula and lesson plans.
But news literacy remains marginalized in the sprawling and emotional debate about how to fix what ails America’s system of education.
That may be about to change. The Common Core standards, released in 2010, are a state-led effort to create ambitious national benchmarks for English language arts and math. They have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. For most states, 2014-2015 will be the first year that they take effect. The English standards broaden expectations in nonfiction reading and critical-thinking skills. No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the Bush administration’s signature education reform initiative, was widely criticized for its narrow focus on math and reading comprehension. English exams focused on the technical components of language and the basic meaning of a passage. The Common Core standards, by contrast, would have students engage with the quality of an author’s argument or analyze how the narrator’s point of view affects his or her perception. They do not require news literacy per se, but many proponents and educators believe news literacy programs—which are fundamentally about critical thinking—will grow in popularity as a way of teaching the skills that Common Core demands.
“There is an increased, broader interest in media literacy,” says Joe Kahne, director of the Civic Engagement Research Group at Mills College, referring to news literacy’s more established academic ancestor. “And a significant portion of that is increased interest in news literacy. Common Core is one of the drivers of that interest because it emphasizes the ability to make sense of information.”
NLP’s Alan Miller puts it more succinctly: “We’re really swimming with the educational current now.”