News literacy—the discipline that teaches students how to critically engage with the news they consume—grew specifically out of the contemporary American media environment. The first news literacy curriculum was crafted at Stony Brook University in 2005 to help students navigate Web outlets of dubious provenance competing for attention by churning out sensational headlines atop thinly-sourced stories. The News Literacy Project, which teaches high school and middle school students, includes the First Amendment as an one of the four pillars of its five-hour digital unit

Nonetheless, news literacy is expanding abroad to some of the countries where you would least expect it. That includes some of the US’s most powerful and authoritarian adversaries, such as Russia and China. But it starts with Bhutan, a tiny, remote, poor kingdom in the Himalayas. 

In 2008, Bhutan was undergoing a transition to democracy, accompanied by an explosion of independent news outlets. Pek Dorji, founder of the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy, reached out to the Stony Brook Center for News Literacy to see if its staff might help Bhutanese students learn how to carefully assess news. “[Dorji] called me and said, ‘We’re trying to transition from a feudal system to democracy; we’ve introduced news media and cable television to a population that may not be ready for it, and would you help us?’” recalls Howard Schneider, founding dean of the Stony Brook journalism school. 

Bhutan didn’t allow cable TV until 1999, and internet only became widely available there in 2006. In 2009, Dorji attended a news literacy conference at Stony Brook, and in each of the last three years Stony Brook professors have gone to Bhutan to do workshops for public school teachers on teaching news literacy. (The workshops are essentially a shortened version of the Stony Brook summer institute that trains mostly American K-12 teachers in news literacy instruction.) 

“It was first my experience trying to work across cultural divides when teaching news literacy,” says Dean Miller, director of the Center for News Literacy. “It’s so neck-snapping, driving down the highway countryside, and there’s a woman with a forehead strap carrying manure down a steep hill to the rice paddies, and walking down the same road you see a young girl wearing a North Face knockoff parka carrying a smartphone.” 

Next came Hong Kong. Masato Kajimoto, a former CNN Web reporter, teaches an introductory course at the University of Hong Kong on principles of journalism. “In 2011, I felt that my students in this course, mostly freshmen, needed more than the traditional induction into what journalists do and how news media function,” says Kajimoto via email. “My observation was that regardless of their majors, students were very casual news consumers who were arbitrarily deciding what is good journalism and what is not based on rather flimsy impressions they had about news outlets, journalists, and news presentation. I believed that the course should help the students develop their own mental tools to critically evaluate the types and sources of information they come across every day in this information age. That’s when I encountered the News Literacy initiative by Stony Brook.”

It was not immediately obvious to everyone at Stony Brook that news literacy could be adapted to all these different conditions. “News literacy is very much a creature of the US, created by print journalists in the US,” says Richard Hornik, director of Overseas Partnership Programs for the Center for News Literacy. “We wondered if it could be de-Americanized enough to be exportable.” 

In Hornik’s experience, the answer is yes. In the fall of 2012, Hornik co-taught Kajimoto’s class at the University of Hong Kong. Hornik and Kajimoto had to replace most of the American stories in the Stony Brook curriculum with examples from the local media to make the lessons relatable. For instance, Hornik found a piece in the Hong Kong Standard with the headline “Overseas firms pack bags over high rents.” But the claim was totally unsupported by the evidence in the article, which was merely that 3 percent of foreign firms in Hong Kong said they would move in the next few years, while 22 percent said they would expand. “We teach students to evaluate news stories the way an editor would, to deconstruct the news article,” explains Hornik. “We want them to ask, ‘Is the lede supported by the body? Is the hed supported by the body?”

These are principles that can be applied in virtually any media environment, no matter how restrictive, assuming the authorities will allow you to teach it. Stony Brook is currently putting that to the test by building relationships with the Communications University of China in Beijing, and the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. 

Last summer, four professors from Moscow attended the Stony Brook summer institute. They went back and set about rebuilding the curriculum for undergraduates in Russian, with Russian examples. Earlier this month, the Higher School of Economics there hosted its first news literacy conference. Miller and Stony Brook journalism professor Jonathan Sanders spoke. Attendees came from around Russia and countries in the region such as Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Armenia, and Ukraine. “There’s a lot of state-controlled media, and not a lot of independent media in Russia,” notes Miller. “Teaching news literacy in that context is fascinating.”

Anna Kachkaeva, the head of the school’s journalism program, has been able to focus lessons on critical thinking skills that can be applied to stories in state-run media. “Anna teaches them to analyze the evidence, analyze the sources, the methodology,” says Miller. 

In Russia, news literacy educators confront cynicism about the press among young people that can create its own blinders. Between the state repression of independent media, the heavy-handed propaganda of state media—and the widespread practice of “zakazukha,” in which flacks bribe reporters to write articles, or to withhold them—young Russians often assume all major media outlets are corrupt or biased. “They’ve stopped watching television,” says Sanders, who has reported extensively from Russia and Eastern Europe. “They watch programs online.” News literacy teaches Russian students how to assess the credibility of a news story or segment on its own terms, rather than assuming information is credible, or not, based just on its source. 

The situation is similar in China, where the Communications University, which is working with Stony Brook to create a news literacy curriculum, trains thousands of journalists. And that actually helps explain why authoritarian regimes such as Russia and China are tolerating news literacy education. “Since these countries have opened to the Web, they need the basic skills even if the civic framework is different,” says Miller. “The way one of our colleagues in China explained it to me is that the Chinese authorities are well aware that young Chinese are cynical about the official news agency [Xinhua], and therefore more likely to believe rumors on the Web. If you teach them news literacy, they might believe some of the stuff on Xinhua. I think that’s how our colleagues are able to teach it—because it’s better than preferencing outlaw or independent journalism just because it’s outlaw or independent. There’s no critical thinking in that; it’s no different than believing the state information ministry.”

Stony Brook is also in the early stages of assisting in developing curricula in a handful of other countries, including Vietnam, Australia, and Kuwait. It turns out that in countries with little else in common, the cacophony of online media creates similar challenges, and calls for similar solutions. 

Funding for this coverage is provided by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

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Ben Adler covers climate-change policy for Grist and is a contributing editor for CJR