Business of News

Can journalists and educators bridge the news literacy gap?

August 11, 2021

The information ecosystem is increasingly difficult to navigate. Local news organizations have shrunk or shut down; polarizing national publications and misinformation networks fill the void. Tech platforms dominate the attention economy with algorithms that surreptitiously shape the way users interact with the news. Information is ubiquitous but difficult to parse. There is hope for a brighter future—the growth of nonprofit newsrooms, the transformation of localized information, the promise of better regulation for tech platforms—though it’s a complex problem, and success is not guaranteed. But even as we search for solutions to build a healthier information ecosystem, it’s equally important to prepare people for the failing system that we have right now: that’s where media literacy educators hope to bridge the gap, and journalists ought to consider their role in doing the same.

The News Literacy Project is only one of the organizations seeking to explore and address the current news literacy gap; the NLP’s work focuses on students, but they are dedicated to helping people of all ages understand the form and function of news sources. “At a time when misinformation threatens both our civic life and our public health, we endanger the futures of the next generation and the viability of our democracy overall if we don’t provide young people with the knowledge and skills to find fair, vetted information and reliable sources,” ​​John Silva, Senior Director of Professional Learning for the NLP, wrote in MinnPost in June. The same could be said for many in the US, at every age.

Information access has changed more quickly than our tools for understanding it, Silva told me, and just because technology is built to be intuitive doesn’t mean that information assessment is equally intuitive. “One of the big challenges in education has always been that—certainly in the last twenty years or so—education doesn’t keep up with technology,” Silva said. “A lot of us are good users of technology. But people are very easily swayed by misinformation; people are making medical decisions based on their Facebook. There’s a huge deficit in terms of critical technology-based thinking.”

Among their various projects and offerings—including free lesson plans and teaching resources, weekly newsletters about news literacy, and an e-learning tool called Checkology—The NLP has held nearly thirty NewsLitCamps across the country since 2017, bringing together teachers and journalists for professional development opportunities to talk about the idea of bias, news judgment, investigative techniques, journalistic standards and traditions. Whenever possible, the NLP seeks to conduct hyper-local NewsLitCamps, pairing local educators with the reporters who cover their community.

Often, Silva said, reporters and educators quickly realize the similarities between their professions, particularly in their forward-facing work and vulnerability to criticism. “In both cases, everyone outside the profession thinks they know how it works. People think both jobs are easy, but it actually takes years to get good at them,” he said. “Teachers and reporters are kindred spirits in a lot of ways. In NewsLitCamps, they argue with each other, and they learn from each other. They realize how similar they are and how much they can support one another.” This collaboration and solidarity is particularly powerful at the local level, where relationships serve as community resources.

“News literacy is the idea that there are ways we can verify information, ways to understand what reputable journalism is and how to prioritize it,” Silva said. “We have to understand how it happens, but—as consumers of news and information—we can also be part of the process.”

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Below, more on recent media trends and changes in newsrooms:

  • LOCAL MEDIA CONTRIBUTES TO VACCINE HESITANCY: Last week, the New York Times reported on local media’s role in elevating vaccine misinformation and contributing to skepticism. Because local outlets tend to garner more trust than national outlets, they have an outsize influence over informing people about public health. But some local outlets have given considerable space and credence to people who oppose vaccination or spread false information about vaccine efficacy and safety.
  • ON THE VALUE OF PUBLIC BROADCASTING: A new policy paper from the German Marshall Fund proposes a reimagining of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to create a public broadcasting system for digital platforms, Axios reported: a ​​”PBS for the internet.” Elsewhere, for The Atlantic, Uri Friedman wrote about Germany’s investment in public media and its successful reduction of political polarization. Eighty-two percent of German survey respondents on the left and seventy-two percent of survey respondents on the right say they trust public broadcaster ARD. “In fact, public broadcasters are the most-trusted news sources in Germany,” Friedman writes.
  • ​​TRAFFIC DECLINES, PARTICULARLY FOR SMALL PUBLISHERS: Page views for small publishers have dropped considerably since 2020 peaks, Digiday reported, with some sites seeing drops below 2019 levels. The biggest dip came from a loss in social media referrals, particularly from Facebook.
  • ALT-WEEKLY EDITORS BUILD SOMETHING NEW IN MINNESOTA: Four editors from former Minnesota twin cities alt-weekly City Pages have launched a journalist-owned publication called Racket, NiemanLab reported. In an interview with Substacker Luke O’Neil, editor Em Cassel said, “We were in the Star Tribune’s guild. That didn’t save us at the end. I think what is interesting is that now people are like, well fine, fuck it, a union won’t even protect us, we have to own the thing ourselves.”
  • GANNETT SELLS BACK TO LOCALS: Gannett, one of the largest newspaper chains in the country, has sold twenty-three local publications back to local owners, Poynter reported. This reflects a larger trend, Mark Jacob writes, as many chains increasingly focus on large products and spin off smaller ones. Gannett’s digital subscriptions are growing, but circulation revenues are decreasing, Poynter reported this week.
  • “JOURNALISM’S TWO AMERICAS”: For Axios, Sara Fischer and Nicholas Johnston wrote about the diverging realities for news publications at the national and local level. Many national publications are doing well, while local publications continue to struggle. “The disparate fortunes skew what gets covered, elevating big national political stories at the expense of local, community-focused news,” they write. Not only that, but salaries and opportunities differ greatly for journalists in local newsrooms compared to those working nationally, they report.
  • JOURNALISTS OF COLOR ARE THE FUTURE: For the Reynold Journalism Institute, Emma Carew Grovum wrote that journalists of color “could be the future of local news,” but they need to be prioritized and supported. “I believe if we set talented journalists of color up with a vision of leadership earlier, we can be more successful at retaining them in local markets,” Carew Grovum wrote.
  • COVERING RURAL AMERICA: The Institute for Nonprofit News announced the launch of a newsroom network to prioritize and expand coverage of rural America. “The challenges facing people living in rural communities are as monumental as they are unique, and the rural population is significantly underserved by the  news media,” INN wrote.
  • ON THE VALUE OF BEAT REPORTING: For Canadian magazine The Tyee, Jen St. Denis reflected on a year spent as a hyper-local neighborhood beat reporter in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. “We’ve tried to listen to people who live and work in the Downtown Eastside and write about the issues they wanted more attention put on,” St. Denis wrote. “To me, this approach felt more like a collaboration with sources, with neighbourhood residents using me as a tool to access the power of news media.”
  • STATE OF THE UK MEDIA: In the UK, ad spending is forecast to grow and displace the losses from 2020, PressGazette reported. Still, many media companies are not expected to regain their losses until 2022. Regional publishers Archant, Midland News Association, and Newsquest halved their furlough claims in May. And elsewhere in the UK, The Guardian plans to hit two million paying subscribers by 2022, having built significant digital reader revenue amid the pandemic, with half of those funds coming from outside the country.
Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites