It is only mildly melodramatic, then, to suggest that news literacy is an attempt to reclaim reality itself. Programs like the Stony Brook course and the News Literacy Project, paradoxically, validate the news precisely through the skepticism of it they aim to foster. Though their curricula examine varied platforms for information—newspapers, TV, radio, blogs, Wikipedia, YouTube, and the like—they still subscribe to “the news” as a singular cultural agent, definable and therefore manageable. They serve as a sieve of sensibility that can help us filter through the split-second news cycle and the journalism it produces—“churnalism,” the British journalist Nick Davies calls it—and counteract the vagaries of information overload. The news-literacy approach, in its simple but rather profound focus on “knowing what to believe,” fights against the choose-your-own-adventure approach to reality: it attempts to make quality journalism a normalizing—which is to say, connective—force in a world that is increasingly fast, furious, and fragmented. The varying news literacy programs and projects out there are contemporary responses to the declaration made by Walter Lippmann in 1920: for communities that lack the information to distinguish between fact and fiction, “there can be no liberty.”
The Sitting Duck and the Missionary
The question that hangs over the various news-literacy programs is the same question that always hangs over such ventures: Can the results match the rhetoric? Similar efforts have, after all, failed to inspire a new wave of savvy newspaper readers. In the eighties, newspaper-in-the-classroom programs were widespread. High schools regularly offered journalism classes that taught, essentially, news literacy as they taught other journalistic skills.
But one benefit of crisis is its corollary of creativity: now more than ever, journalism has a marked opportunity to reinvent itself and its role in the community. “Tear up the current models that perceive journalism as a craft,” declares Nieman Foundation curator Bob Giles. “Rethink the field as one of rigorous scholarship and practice. And build anew around one truth: journalism matters. Give students that, and they will find their way.”
And—who knows?—they might just find their way to journalism. In his autobiography, A Reporter’s Life, Walter Cronkite observes that “life and the course we take through it are affected by many circumstances.” He is “inclined to think in those lofty terms,” the newsman notes,
when I think of those events that followed upon meeting Fred Birney, a rather slight man of unprepossessing mien who, despite his glasses, always wore a frown, as if he were looking for something beyond his range of sight. He was an inspired teacher who directed the course of my life. He wasn’t even a professional teacher, but he had the gift.
Fred Birney was a newspaperman who thought that high schools ought to have courses in journalism. That was a highly innovative idea at the time, but by presenting himself as an unpaid volunteer and the program as a virtual no-cost item, he convinced the Houston school board. He spent a couple days each week circulating among Houston’s five high schools preaching the fundamentals of a craft he loved…. I was a sitting duck for Fred Birney, missionary from the Fourth Estate.