Bonnie Mary Warne, who teaches at South Fremont High School in St. Anthony, ID, attended the Stony Brook summer program and now deploys news literacy in her 10th-grade language-arts classes. “Right now, I’m teaching students that they need to have evidence to back up their claims,” she says. For example, Warne will give her students an article that prompts a public-policy question and ask them to assess whether the story’s sources have legitimate expertise to answer it. “The Common Core standard requires students to write counterarguments, so in their counterargument they can express their opinion of why the other side is inaccurate or too biased to be a reliable source.”
Unfortunately, there has not been a national survey tracking news-literacy programs over time, because they are so new. And the Common Core is even newer, so it is simply too soon to measure whether the Common Core is leading to more news-literacy lessons in the classroom.
The interest in news literacy is certainly there among teachers. The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University recently conducted a national survey of high school civics and American government teachers, and found the overwhelming majority devote at least one class to “critical analysis of news coverage” and nearly 23 percent of those surveyed said it is “a major emphasis of the whole course.”
Other experts are more skeptical. The Common Core-aligned standardized tests being developed by Pearson will be released in the spring and implemented in the fall. There is a limit to how much the Common Core will provide incentives for news-literacy education if it isn’t in the tests. “The Common Core could have a positive effect on news literacy, but I’m not sure it will,” says Diane Hess, senior vice president at the Spencer Foundation, which supports educational research. “We don’t know if [the tests] will have anything in them that is aligned with the goals of news literacy.”
Jay McTighe, an educational author and consultant and a former schoolteacher and state education administrator in Maryland, stresses that just because there is an opportunity for news literacy to expand doesn’t mean schools will get on board. “Schools are often slow to change,” he says. “There may be an increase of critical reading that relies not on news media but on traditional textbooks,” for instance.
Whether or not schools pursue news literacy also depends on which critical-thinking skills are emphasized and how they are applied. “The Common Core is very promising for civics but not really sufficient by itself because it tends to put almost all emphasis on understanding texts as writing or communication and not on understanding things like institutional context,” says Peter Levine, director of CIRCLE. In other words, the Common Core curriculum increases the likelihood that high school students would watch the president’s State of the Union address and read coverage of it in news outlets. But the skill set being emphasized by their teachers might be focused on rhetoric: How did the president try to communicate different concepts and how effective were his different approaches? So a commentator saying she is impressed, or not, by the president’s speech might be used to understand political communication, rather than the news media’s coverage of the speech.
It is also worth remembering that information technology is changing so quickly that no one can project what digital news media will look like in five years, never mind how news-literacy education will have to evolve to keep pace. In the last decade, when the rise of partisan news bubbles and untrained bloggers had journalistic graybeards wringing their hands, one would have taught students to not automatically believe everything they read on the Drudge Report or some random blog. Now, students must be taught not to believe everything being shared on social-media networks. Think of the Twitter hoaxes during Hurricane Sandy, or the missing Brown University student, later found dead, who was incorrectly identified as a Boston Marathon bomber by Reddit users. These are examples the News Literacy Project brings to classrooms, but they must inevitably play catchup. As this issue was going to press, for instance, a reality television producer tweeted a false story of an altercation he claimed to have been involved in on an airplane. It went viral on Twitter, and news outlets repeated the story, including a BuzzFeed item that got 1.4 million readers, before it was revealed to be a hoax.