The common ground uniting news literacy and its umbrella movement is their emphasis on the cultivation of savvy information consumers—and that shared mission is more urgent than ever. According to a recent study, fewer than a fifth of Americans say they can believe “all or most” media reporting—down from the already alarmingly low 27 percent that said the same five years ago. A large part of journalism’s crisis in credibility—which is of a piece with its crisis in authority—comes from the poor job journalism has done to distinguish itself from “the media” more broadly. “The problem is that you see journalism disappearing inside the larger world of communications,” the journalism scholar James Carey told Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach in The Elements of Journalism. “What you yearn to do is recover journalism from that larger world.”

Reclaiming the Narrative

Journalism and those who practice it are—let’s just say it—unpopular. Study after study confirms it. The extent to which journalists themselves are the victims or the cause is an open question, but the fact remains that our good name has been sullied since those halcyon post-Watergate years.

The news-literacy movement has the potential to begin to rewrite the unflattering narratives about the press that have become so pervasive that we’ve nearly stopped questioning them—to remove the derogatory undertone from the phrase “mainstream media.” It has the potential to push back against the hijacking of the journalistic reputation—not only by a sustained and strategic smear campaign on the part of the political right (“the liberal media”), but also on the part of the political left (“the corporate media”).

Such rehabilitation is necessary, in part, because the journalistic establishment as a whole, whether out of naïveté or complacency or both, has largely failed to defend itself. “While all those voices shouting from the left and right kept complaining about professional journalism,” says Ellen Hume, research director of mit’s Center for Future Civic Media, “nobody within journalism has been shouting back. I hear journalists talking to each other, wringing their hands, feeling unloved—but saying, ‘We’re not the story.’”

Part of the problem, as Hume suggests, is journalism’s longstanding reluctance against advocacy. But part of it, too, is journalists’ assumption of the self-evidence of their own civic significance: that the people shall know, and all that. Newspeople often forget how little the public appreciates, in every sense of the word, the press’s role in democracy. A 2005 Knight Foundation report, which surveyed 112,000 students at public and private high schools nationwide, found a marked ignorance of—and, worse, apathy toward—the rights afforded by the First Amendment. Three-quarters of those surveyed thought flag-burning was illegal; half believed the government has the power to censor the Internet; and more than a third thought the First Amendment takes too many liberties, as it were, in its provisions of free expression. To teach news literacy is at once to highlight and fill a void in the journalistic reputation. As Nick Lemann, the dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, put it in a recent commencement address, “I spend a lot of my time these days talking to nonjournalists about journalism, and I can tell you that we all have to learn to make a more sophisticated argument for ourselves.”

If we can do that successfully, we might just foster the flip side of our audience’s respect: a respect for our audience. What if what audiences need is also what they want? The notion is not without precedent. A 2000 study of viewer trends in local TV news, conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, concluded exactly that: that excellence, on top of everything else, makes good business sense. “Quality is the best way to retain or increase lead-in audience,” the study asserted. And for that matter, “the surest way to lose lead-in audience is to trick up newscasts with easy gimmicks—eye candy, ratings stunts, and hype.”

And that’s not true merely of TV news. “Over the long term, the history of news economics favors quality,” Tom Rosenstiel, PEJ’s director, points out. In the 1950s, he says, “People didn’t know that it was going to be The New York Times and The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer that were going to survive over the next fifty years.” Rather, many expected that it would be the tabloids—the papers with lower quality but larger readerships—that would be the future of news.

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