Pioneers Stony Brook’s Howard Schneider, seen here with Christiane Amanpour, developed the first news-literacy course after realizing how confused and misinformed students were about journalism and its role in society. (Wasim Ahmad / Stony Brook).

This piece was funded by the Robert R. Mccormick foundation as part of the 2014 National News Literacy Summit.

In 2005, as Howard Schneider was developing a plan for Stony Brook University’s new journalism school, he taught a course called Ethics & Values of the American Press as a way to get to know the students. He was shocked to discover that about a third of his students believed everything they read—from The New York Times to People magazine—and judged it all to be equally credible. Another third reflexively rejected anything in the news as hopelessly biased. And the remaining third were confused and peppered him with questions, like, “Is Michael Moore a journalist?” and “Is Oprah a journalist when she interviews the survivors of Hurricane Katrina?”

“That class haunts me,” says Schneider, a former editor at Newsday. It also shaped his proposal for the new journalism school. At the time, Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam’s 2000 treatise on the decline of civic engagement in America, had helped spur a national debate about the future of democracy and what our young people needed to be effective citizens. Schneider was convinced that a modern journalism school could no longer teach only journalism; it needed to reinvent itself as the purveyor of a core competency for the entire student body: the ability to be savvy and critical consumers of news and information.

He oversaw the creation of a 15-week “news-literacy” class, open to all students at Stony Brook, and a movement was born. In 2006, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation gave Stony Brook $1.7 million to enroll 10,000 students in the course—the university hit that mark this fall.

In the decade since, Schneider’s vision has inspired similar programs in schools and communities around the country*[Correction appended, 9/8/14]. Stony Brook launched a summer institute to teach news literacy to educators and has collaborated on programs in Bhutan, Hong Kong, Australia, Vietnam, and China.

Meanwhile, the need for news literacy has only grown. Where the movement once worried about blogs, left-right bias, and how to decode the front page of a newspaper, it now confronts a booming content-marketing business that is cranking out native advertising, all manner of “sponsored content,” and glossy magazines and slick docu-ads produced by corporations that look and sound a lot like journalism. “Contributor networks,” in which “experts” and others self-publish for little or no money and without even a cursory edit, are sprouting like barnacles on the hulls of legacy news brands. Hoaxes and plagiarism are disturbingly common, factchecking has been turned over to the digital mob, and Facebook is considered a major news source.

News literacy’s mission—to help give people the critical-thinking skills necessary to discern what is trustworthy in this churning informational stew—is crucial. It can also, at times, feel impossible.

When the activists, philanthropists, and academics gather in Chicago in September for the National News Literacy Summit, they will rightly celebrate all that has been accomplished. But they also will be wrestling with two big, complicated, and interrelated questions that are central to the movement’s future: First, how can they reach a critical mass of people? To date, thousands of students and others have had news-literacy training, but that’s nowhere near the numbers it will take to shore up the “demand” side of the news business. And second, even if they can reach enough people, is news-literacy education capable of creating the kind of engaged, critical consumers that our democracy needs? The scant evidence available so far isn’t conclusive, but it also isn’t very encouraging. News literacy—a field pioneered by journalists rather than theorists or psychometricians—is still a young discipline that needs time to accumulate a body of evidence for its efficacy. But rightly or not, defining its goals in terms that are clearly measurable is integral to its effort to sell itself as an indespensable part of the nation’s education system.

Measuring up

In theory, critical-thinking skills are teachable, but in practice they are difficult to define and measure. Stony Brook’s news-literacy program has produced volumes of data on the effects of a news-literacy course administered to a large but self-selected swath of the undergraduate student body. But, as the Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton said in an email, “For the most part, when you dive down into the details of the critical-thinking skills, clear evidence was not there that specific parts of the class were creating big changes in whether students could tell the difference between good and bad journalism, opinion and news, and so forth.”

Lindsay Beyerstein is a freelance journalist in Brooklyn and the co-host of the Point of Inquiry radio show and podcast

This story was published in the September/October 2014 issue of CJR.