Good News About the Future of News Literacy

Good news about the news business has been almost nonexistent lately, and good ideas for reversing the trend have been pretty scarce as well. But there is an interesting new idea for coping with traditional journalism’s decline: news literacy.

In a new Brookings paper, James Klurfeld and Howard Schneider provide a detailed view of an innovative Stony Brook University program that teaches students to do more of the critical vetting of information that professional journalism has traditionally provided. I tend to think—speaking here as a professional journalist with 30 years in the business—that news literacy is an idea with legs, but also limitations.

Developing and vetting accurate information requires time, skill, and money. For all its flaws, mainstream, institutional journalism—what I call newsroom journalism, for reasons I’ll come to in a minute—does that job pretty well. Or did. Today’s problem is that the business model which once supported newsroom journalism is disintegrating. Moreover, much of the public recognizes no difference, even in principle, between what (say) The New York Times does and what Daily Kos does. Adults and students alike “strongly believe that news reports are laced with bias and that true objectivity is not humanly possible,” write Klurfeld and Schneider. Much of the public sees professional journalism as just another self-interested racket.

It isn’t. The beating heart of professional journalism, distinguishing it from bloggers, aggregators, social media, and all other pretenders, is the newsroom—not the physical place, but the institution. Newsrooms serve four important functions. First, they organize systematic information-gathering and expert, continuing news coverage. Second, they provide systematic professional oversight, checking and editing what gets disseminated: the crucial vetting and gatekeeping function. Third, they teach the skills to do journalism competently, and they transmit the profession’s values and culture to succeeding generations. Fourth, they have fixed addresses and institutional identities, and so can be held accountable by their communities and constituents. If citizen journalism and the internet were able to serve any of those four functions, they would have done so by now. Unfortunately, they can’t.

“Every student in America should acquire the critical thinking skills of a journalist,” Klurfeld and Schneider write.

If professionals are less and less able to vet information, perhaps consumers can do it themselves. Perhaps, in any case, they’ll have to, because no one else will. The idea of news literacy is to equip young people, in college or even high school, with more of the skills that used to be the domain of professionals. “Every student in America should acquire the critical thinking skills of a journalist,” Klurfeld and Schneider write (their emphasis).

News literacy has been taught to thousands of students, and Klurfeld and Schneider cite some promising, albeit provisional, evaluations. One interesting finding is that learning what reporters actually do (or should do) increases students’ appreciation for journalistic professionalism and changes the way they collect and process information:

After completing the course, the News Literacy students routinely consumed more news from more sources, rated keeping up with the news as more important, voted in higher numbers, could deconstruct some video news stories more effectively, had a higher regard for the “watchdog function” of the press and had a more nuanced view, in general, of the news media. For example, at the outset of the semester only 13 percent of those taking the course felt the media treated both sides of a story fairly; by semester’s end the number had jumped to 52 percent.

In any case, teaching young people how to evaluate information sources, think critically, and check before retweeting makes sense for all kinds of reasons.

What news literacy cannot do—and, of course, does not pretend to do—is make professional newsrooms and journalists stop disappearing at an alarming rate. No one has found a way to do that. And the sad truth is that enlightened amateurism, whether on the part of consumers or producers, is no substitute for dedicated professionalism. That is more a caveat than a criticism, but worth bearing in mind as you read about Stony Brook’s admirable program. If you care about an informed citizenry, rescuing the newsroom is priority one, and far ahead of whatever comes second.

Click through to read James Klurfeld and Howard Schneider’s “News Literacy: Teaching the Internet Generation to Make Reliable Information Choices.”