News literacy vs. media literacy

How academics are differentiating critical thinking skills

Three years ago, pioneer media literacy scholar Renee Hobbs published a short critique of what she viewed as troubling trends emerging in news literacy education. She argued on the site Nieman Reports against teaching news literacy in a way that romanticizes the industry or merely transforms a Journalism 101 class into a news literacy one, teaching students the fundamentals and ideals of the craft. In the comments, there is a lengthy rebuttal from Dean Miller, director of Stony Brook’s Center for News Literacy.

“Dr. Hobbs’ critique of News Literacy would be devastating if it described the way News Literacy courses are actually taught,” he wrote. “But, what a perfect lesson in the need for News Literacy,” he continued. Her piece “defines itself as unreliable opinion by offering no citations, no data and no evidence of direct observation of News Literacy classes.”

The exchange represents the existence of ongoing factions in the news literacy world, which have become starker as access to news literacy training grows. Hobbs views media literacy—widely defined as the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and create media in various forms—as a “big tent”, under which news literacy is a strand, and her approach to teaching news literacy is rooted in integrating journalism across courses through critical reading and thinking exercises, as well as helping students understand journalism’s structures and forms through creating media and discussing the process.

Meanwhile, Miller and his team at Stony Brook, who teach undergraduate-level students but also train teachers to implement news literacy programs in their own schools, view media literacy as more suitable for academic pursuit. To them, “media literacy” emphasizes the need to differentiate between types of media—say, marketing, propaganda, and pop culture. But they believe that news literacy, an independent curriculum that uses existing examples of journalism to teach actionable skepticism in the form of journalistic verification skills, is more appropriately the bread and butter of their curriculum.

While all approaches ultimately seek to foster critical consumption and thinking skills, controversy over how to define the field hasn’t abated since that clash at Nieman Reports. Next month, in the first Poynter-organized news literacy summit since 2008, representatives purposely invited from the various factions—including Hobbs and Miller but also numerous other stakeholders in the field—will come together in Chicago to reflect on their work thus far and set an agenda for going forward. The national summit is part of Why News Matters, a three year, $6 million news literacy initiative funded by the McCormick Foundation, which also funds CJR’s news literacy coverage.

“One of the goals in this conference is to continue the dialogue between those who represent themselves as presenting media literacy and those who present themselves as news literacy,” says Clark Bell, the McCormick foundation’s journalism program director. “I can’t see any disadvantage of bringing some of these factions together. We’re not looking to rile people up. This isn’t to entertain; this is all about knowledge.”

To that end, the summit, which currently has 125 registered attendees who were selected by invitation or self-nomination subject to approval, focuses on discussion and the collaborative production of a white paper defining the discipline and its best practices. Hobbs and the Pulitzer Center’s Mark Schulte are slated to lead a discussion and working group on how to teach news literacy and whether there should be a standardized model curriculum.

It’s an interesting decision by conference organizers considering Hobbs’ long-time critique of some news literacy models, and the fact that she’s more of a media literacy expert than a news literacy one.

“I think we have a problem right now where the general level of trust [in journalists is so low] and the general level of suspicion is so high that some people might perceive news literacy as a kind of desperate attempt to reclaim some old authority that actually doesn’t exist anymore,” says Hobbs. The argument echoes what I’ve heard from numerous journalists, educators, and technologists over months of reporting on news literacy. (In one memorable conversation, a journalist told me that news literacy sounds like “the high priests of journalism” are attempting to get people to read their work.)

Yet regardless of where participants fall ideologically, they will have their work cut out for them.

“Our goal will be to take news literacy to the next step, ideally embedding news literacy in the curriculum of schools across the country,” says Wendy Wallace, a faculty member at Poynter who is also their grants manager and coordinating producer of the summit.

To do this, news literacy thinkers from across the spectrum will need to solve issues such as how to get teachers comfortable with the news. Hobbs has observed many teachers (especially in the K-12 setting) express fear, hesitation, and even hostility toward bringing the news into the classroom. “It’s likely that they have some anxiety, because the news climate right now is so polarized,” she says. “It’s polarized in a way that you’re damned if you bring in CNN and you’re damned if you bring in Fox.”

Except for teachers whose political values are well-aligned with the parents of their students in homogenous districts, using current affairs as a teaching tool is a nerve-wracking experience. This is something that needs to be addressed at the summit, and considering the years of training workshops Stony Brook has provided for K-12 teachers, one that its representatives will likely have some valuable input on. Other issues include understanding the crossover between news literacy and related fields, such as civics, media studies, and information literacy, how technology can help reputable news organizations reach young people with quality content, and how to measure the effectiveness of news literacy. Stony Brook has pioneered the latter—its faculty enrolled their 10,000th student this fall, and they have had independent evaluations completed by three outside research teams.

Perhaps the most important benefit that unity across these disciplines can give news literacy is collaboration on how to define the type of content we call “news.” Bell plans to propose a name-change for the initiative at the McCormick Foundation’s board meeting on September 11, from news literacy to news and information literacy. “Whether you call it media literacy, news literacy, digital literacy, information literacy, it all deals with building critical thinking skills,” says Bell. But the name change was inspired, in part, by research they commissioned to the Berkman Center, which found that what young people consider to be news might not be the same as what the adults who are teaching them news literacy believe it is. An expansive definition of content allows for literacy building across more types of content consumed digitally.

While this might sound like a mere matter of inconsequential jargon, it is in fact very consequential—the results of the summit may well inform McCormick’s future grantmaking in the field. “We’ve also gotten other funders to get involved in this, and that’s part of the goal too,” says Bell. The Ford, Knight, and MacArthur Foundations, for example, are all exploring new or continued investment in news literacy.

Which, perhaps, is a reason there are factions in the first place.

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

Jihii Jolly is a freelance journalist and video producer in New York City