The good news is that news literacy has the potential to transform itself from the cause of a committed few into a powerful national movement. But such a transformation will require its own brand of civic engagement: news outlets themselves will need to join the effort. “News organizations have a vital role to play in terms of educating kids,” says Vivian Schiller, CEO of National Public Radio and the chair of the News Literacy Project board. “The trick is how you do it. Because you can’t just beat them over the head and say, ‘Oh, you must read this newspaper, or you must listen to NPR.’ We need to reach them where they are.” And where they are is in the schools. And on the Web. “Young people don’t see digital news as a reformation or revolution,” notes Caesar Andrews, who until recently was the American Society of News Editors’ chair of audience development. “For them, it just is.”

The bottom line: news organizations need to make a point of seeking out young people—and of explaining to them what they do and, perhaps even more importantly, why they do it. News literacy offers news organizations the opportunity to essentially re-brand themselves. Rather than contort their content to a focus-grouped perception of audience desires, they can begin to help educate those audiences about the value of public-service journalism. Advocacy has its limits as far as journalism is concerned. But news literacy is a different kind of advocacy, and we need, as David Mindich says, “to allow journalists to be advocates for democracy.”

News Literacy v. Media Literacy

The news-literacy movement is in many ways an offshoot of the larger media-literacy movement, which focuses on the critical analysis of media messages to detect propaganda, censorship, and bias in those messages. Media literacy also focuses—and this is a big distinction between it and news literacy—on an appreciation of how the media’s structural features (funding models, consolidation, commercial concerns) affect the information ultimately presented to the public. “You can’t separate news literacy from advertising,” says Renee Hobbs, a professor at the School of Communications and Theater at Temple University in Philadelphia and a leading proponent of media literacy education. “It’s irresponsible to focus on the relations between reporters and sources and news value without positioning all of that in a larger context that has to do with increasing competition, the question of revenue streams, and the like.”

Yet such a commercial focus can tend to emphasize rhetorical caricatures—liberal/conservative bias, corporate stoogery, etc.—over close reading of news items themselves. The best journalism has always been a deeply flawed effort to piece together a thorough understanding of the world. The goal of a good journalist—even one who works for a large corporation—unlike that of a good advertising executive, is to get at the most complete truth of a matter as is humanly possible. And taken too far, a focus on the commercial elements of the media can encourage cynicism rather than skepticism; it can breed a blanket distrust of journalism, rather than a healthy suspicion of its extremes.

News literacy, instead, is fundamentally about distinguishing—and appreciating—excellence. It’s about telling students, says Alan Miller, “Here are the standards. Here’s the ideal. This is what sets quality journalism apart.” Teaching kids what makes good journalism and why good journalism matters, the thinking goes, will make them want to consume that journalism. “There needs to be an audience that recognizes good journalism,” says Rex Smith, editor of the Albany Times-Union and education chair of the ASNE, “even when there’s no longer a reflexive trust in the vendors of journalism.” Underscoring that approach is the belief that excellence is self-reinforcing: quality will foster a large news audience—which, in turn, will foster more quality. “I used to read the Daily News or the Post,” says Raquel Monje, a high school senior who studied the NLP curriculum at Manhattan’s Facing History School this spring, referring to the city’s sometimes sensational tabloids. “Now I read The New York Times.”

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.