news literacy

What does it mean to be news literate and who gets to decide?

By focusing on it as a measurable skill, the need to create one definition is temporarily avoidable
October 31, 2014

The goal of news literacy is, broadly put, to teach people how to consume news critically so they know when information is trustworthy–and when it isn’t. But in this growing field, there is little consensus on what type of training works best or how to measure whether someone is “news literate.” This is due, in part, to fundamental disagreement on how to define the field.

One breakout session at September’s News Literacy Summit in Chicago (funded by the McCormick Foundation, which also supports this coverage) was a group brainstorm to address the issue. A take-away from the session was that it’s important to locate news literacy in relation to similar, intersecting spaces, like information literacy or civic engagement, in order to determine best practices for teaching and measuring it.

“News literacy as a field is pretty nascent,” says Jennifer Choi, program officer for the foundation’s journalism program. “It’s difficult to measure something that we’re not really sure what it is yet, in terms of having a uniform definition of what news literacy is and best practices of how to actually teach news literacy.”

But sometimes, spending time and attention on trying to define the field can take away from time and attention that could be spend on measuring whether it’s working. When a project gets funding through McCormick’s $6 million Why News Matters program, the largest news literacy grant-making initiative in the country, grantees must rigorously report outputs and lessons from their programs. They may work, but there’s no way to tell which works best, because grantees all differ by program age, format, social context, and size.

Still, measuring the field has become an important objective to McCormick and to its practitioners. Last year, McCormick funded a study called “Measuring news media literacy” which sought to find a way to measure news literacy based on a “cognitive model” of media literacy. The researchers defined “news media literacy” as “the knowledge and motivations needed to identify, appreciate and engage with quality journalism” and developed and tested a survey that measured how deeply people think about their media experience, whether they are in control of the media’s influence on them, and how high a degree of basic knowledge they have about media content and effects.

This sounds quite different from how many in the news literacy field currently define what they teach, which could limit the scope of how it’s taught.

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“The questions seemed to be more industry specific, like, ‘How does the news industry work?'” recalls Choi, of the same study. When asked if the foundation plans to continue funding research that isn’t program-evaluation focused she said, “I think the foundation has [since] evolved its definition of news literacy, for it not to be so tied down to how the news industry works, as it is about critical literacy: being able to read about current events, assessing your sources, and understanding sourcing, bias, reliability, and credibility.”

Starting in January, then, McCormick will fund the development of a tool for assessing the impact of their news literacy programs on the young people who are receiving them. This will be designed by Sam Wineburg, an expert in history education and assessment design at Stanford University. By focusing on news literacy as a measurable skill, the need to create one definition is temporarily avoidable.

“What we do is so intertwined with what so many other groups do and for new literacies that are so important in a media-rich world–we have to understand how these things relate to one another to effect the most change,” says Adam Maksl, assistant professor of journalism at Indiana University Southeast, who was a co-author on News Media Literacy.

It’s understandable that from a funder’s perspective, measuring whether programs work is a high priority. At the same time, for news literacy not to get pigeon-holed–and limited–it’s also important to fund research that explores what it is in the context of other, intersecting disciplines.

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