In the fall of 2006, after spending nearly 35 years as a reporter, editor and then the editor of one of America’s largest daily newspapers, I left my job to help start the newest journalism school in the country.
Even then, it was an act of audacious optimism. Newspapers were shedding jobs in record numbers. The traditional business models that had sustained American journalism for 150 years were in free fall. The number of Americans who trusted the press to report the news “fully, accurately and fairly” had slipped below 50 percent, according to Gallup, in what would be the start of a steeper decline.
As I took up my position as dean of the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University on Long Island, I was filled with the canonical faith of a generation of journalists who had come of age in the 1960s and 1970s. If we got the story right, if we held the powerful accountable, if we publicly corrected our mistakes, if we maintained the “wall” between the news report and the opinion columns, and between the editorial and advertising departments, everything would be fine. The audience would understand, appreciate and support our efforts. How could it not?
Even as I watched the economic situation further unravel, the “trust gap” grow and the news ecosystem shatter into a thousand fragments, I clung to the idea that the solution was straightforward. If my colleagues and I could train an even more nimble and penetrating generation of reporters and producers, a generation steeped in traditional values but also multimedia-savvy and internet-ready, the journalistic ship would right itself.
In other words, the solution to our trust problem rested squarely, if not solely, on the “supply side.”
But I was wrong. Within months of my appointment, I realized that it was no longer sufficient for journalism schools in the 21st century to train just journalists. We had to take on a second mission of equal or even greater importance: We had to educate and empower the audience. The realization would lead to the creation of the nation’s first undergraduate course in news literacy and would help spur what is now a burgeoning movement across the country to bring news literacy to every classroom and library in America.
Here’s why news literacy education is a key to dramatically restoring trust and even building a viable future business model for the news industry:
The most profound revolution in communications since Gutenberg introduced the movable-type printing press has left most of the population overwhelmed and bewildered.
The sheer volume of information descending each day like a tsunami has made it hard for news consumers to even identify journalism in a flood of propaganda, promotion, misinformation and unsupported assertion masquerading as fact. New technologies have brought wondrous benefits but also made it easier for malevolent actors motivated by ideology or profit to create and virally spread authentic-looking reports and images. Finally, an ecosystem that economically and socially rewards “sharing” has allowed “popularity” and “rank” to become surrogates for journalistic credibility.
The deficits in the public’s ability to meet these challenges, to critically identify and evaluate reliable news and information, are widespread, politically agnostic and go way beyond the issue of our current preoccupation with patently fake or fabricated news. They not only continue to undermine trust in the news media but in our democratic institutions.
A recent study by Media Insight Project, an initiative of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press, found that on social media, who shares a news story matters more to the reader than who reports or writes it, or the reputation of the news organization. Researchers created fake Facebook posts about health news, some of which were attributed to the Associated Press and others to a fictitious website. Some of the posts were sent by recognized health authorities or popular celebrities. More people rated the article accurate and well-reported if the sharer were trusted, even if the article came from a fictitious outlet, than if the article came from the Associated Press, but the sharer was not trusted.
The news distribution system, once tightly controlled by the newspaper industry, has become democratized and decentralized, but also chaotic, even irrational. A recent study by computer scientists at Columbia University and the French National Institute, for instance, found that 59 percent of links to news stories shared on social media have never even been clicked on. In other words, news consumers retweet or “like” articles without ever reading beyond the headline. This might help explain why nearly one in four Americans admitted to Pew Research Center pollsters in 2016 that they unknowingly or knowingly shared a fake news story (although it wouldn’t explain the 14 percent who intentionally did the spreading).
The deficits among the next generation of news consumers, our so-called “digital natives,” are even more alarming.
In 2015, researchers at Stanford University set out to measure how well a large cross section of American students, ranging from middle school through college, could distinguish credible sources from unreliable ones on the internet. In one exercise, high school students were sent to the home page of the Atlantic magazine, where they were asked to read two articles on global climate change and decide which was the more reliable. One was a well-reported article by a respected science journalist, the other an article “sponsored” by Shell Oil.
The results? Nearly 70 percent of the students selected the Shell article as the more reliable source, many attracted to the eye-grabbing graphics. It gets worse. In a similar exercise, more than 80 percent of middle school students failed to even recognize the clearly marked “sponsored content” as an advertisement.
At the college level, the results were, in some cases, even more dismal. In another study, college students were directed to evaluate the reliability of a website publishing a news article on the effects of raising the minimum wage for fast-food workers. The article claimed that paying the workers more would boost unemployment and food prices. Only 6 percent of the students correctly identified that the “Public Policy Institute” sponsoring the website was run by a public relations firm also representing the fast-food industry. Students taking the test included those from Stanford, one of the most competitive universities in the country.
“In every case and in every level,” the Stanford researchers concluded, “we were taken aback by the students’ lack of preparation.”
(Not that students would disagree. In a 2017 study by Common Sense Media, only 44 percent of students said they were confident they could distinguish real news from news that was intentionally wrong or inaccurate, and about a third said they pay “little” or “no attention” to the source of the news content.)
My decade of teaching at Stony Brook has underscored that the so-called “trust gap” is in considerable part the result of a “comprehension gap.” When I began teaching in 2007, students would routinely ask, is Michael Moore or Oprah Winfrey or Jon Stewart a journalist? They asked if YouTube videos of the Iraq War produced by the Defense Department were examples of reliable journalism. More than 80 percent continue to enter the class believing the news media has a systemic political bias, often confusing commentary, or explainable errors, with biased reporting.
But let me pause here. My intent in marshaling this is not to demoralize you (although if you are reading this on the top floor of a building, I don’t blame you for keeping the windows closed).
My goal is to help you reach an inescapable conclusion: Journalists can’t totally fix the problem of trust by themselves. The societal and technological forces at work are too powerful, the deficits too structural and elemental.
Sure, journalists can play a key role. They can aggressively respond to the most frequent complaints of skeptical news consumers. Too many news organizations value speed over accuracy, create online headlines that mislead or overpromise, allow “perspective” (read opinion) to seep into news reports, fail to represent or listen to the community and lack transparency in how they report and label the news. (A brief aside: It is disingenuous, if not cowardly, not to prominently label sponsored content for what it is: an “advertisement” or at minimum “paid promotional content.”)
So, too, the major technology platforms can be part of the solution. Already, Facebook and Google have taken prophylactic measures to minimize deception by tweaking their algorithms, partnering with fact checkers and demanding accountability from advertisers, all of which have had a relatively minimal impact so far. Most recently, Facebook announced a major shift in emphasis from publisher-based news feeds to information from “family and friends” first. But the change won’t necessarily reduce the sharing of news, and since the business model of Facebook and Google relies on keeping visitors ensconced in a cocoon of targeted information, it’s hard to predict whether any of the modifications will be meaningful.
Transformational change requires a transformational solution. In this case, it begins with a dramatic shift from the supply side — the journalists and technology platforms — to the demand side, the audience.
Just as the Gutenberg revolution more than half a millennium ago spurred a worldwide demand for literacy — the ability to read and access news and information — the digital age requires a new literacy for the 21st century: the ability not to just read, but to interrogate news and information.
News literacy in a nutshell, as defined by the Stony Brook model, is the ability for digital citizens to evaluate the reliability of news and information, wherever it comes from. Its foundational idea is that the best guarantee for ensuring a flow of trustworthy information — the key to any healthy democracy — rests on educating and empowering citizens to be their own gatekeepers.
Over the past decade, we have taught our semester-long news literacy course to more than 10,000 undergraduates at Stony Brook. While the course has evolved over time, especially in responding to the explosion in social media, the hardening of political partisanship, and the role of consumers as distributors and creators, its core outcomes have remained the same.
In a world of blurring “information neighborhoods” students need to develop critical thinking skills — a GPS — to recognize the difference between evidence-based journalism and other kinds of information, and between journalists and other information purveyors. They need to distinguish between news and opinion, and between assertion and verification. They need to evaluate individual news sources and outlets on the basis of authoritativeness, independence and accountability, and to differentiate between news media bias and their own bias.
Finally, students need to demonstrate they can apply these principles across all multimedia and social media platforms, and act on information — reach a conclusion, make a definitive judgment or share with others — only after they’ve determined whether the information is credible, a decision that often requires thoughtful parsing in a world more complicated than a true versus false dichotomy.
The rise of social media as a dominant news platform also means that a new literacy for the digital age requires an entirely new skill set, the ability to read “laterally” as well as vertically.
Sam Wineburg, director of the Stanford History Education Group and of the Stanford study, defines “lateral” reading as the ability to use the power of the web to verify the web, the ability of students to interrogate a site or story by simultaneously checking it out elsewhere, often keeping several computer tabs open at the same time, a practice routinely employed by professional fact-checkers.
“We are in a freaking revolution,” Wineburg said recently, as quoted by an April 2017 NeimanReport article. “We bank differently. We date differently. We shop differently. We choose a Chinese restaurant differently. We figure out what plumber to come to our house differently. …
“Think hard about what the school curriculum needs to look like in an age when we come to know the world through a screen.”
More and more educators are doing just that.
Variations of the Stony Brook curriculum have spread to dozens of other U.S. campuses (and to 10 countries) but more importantly perhaps, to high schools and even to a middle school in Coney Island, Brooklyn, where I recently watched 12-year-old students engage in lateral reading to verify a news article about cellphones. The school, I.S. 303, could become a transformative model for the nation. Every student is given one hour of news literacy instruction each week for three years as part of the English language arts curriculum.
Other educators in the K-12 arena, often individual teachers, are spurring advances with their own models, incorporating elements of information literacy, with emphasis on research skills, or media literacy, an older and broader discipline, that encourage students to create, analyze and intelligently consume media.
About the time we launched our initiative at Stony Brook, Alan Miller, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the Los Angeles Times, launched the News Literacy Project after visiting his daughter’s junior high school in Maryland. Miller’s original model was to match professional journalists with classroom teachers in selected cities to provide face-to-face training. The project currently provides such training in Bethesda, Maryland, New York City, Chicago, Washington, Fairfax, County, Virginia. and most recently Houston. But in the past two years, he and his colleagues have developed a fast-growing, online virtual classroom called “Checkology” that is reaching teachers is all 50 states.
In Illinois, where the state recently mandated a new graduation requirement in civic education, elements of news literacy are being integrated into the curriculum, testimony to its potential role in powering the lifeblood of any democracy: well-informed citizens.
The strong civic component of news literacy — the fact that timely news stories serve as the course’s “textbook” — differentiates the curriculum from related literacies. Miller and others also point out that the curriculum is scrupulously nonpartisan. “We don’t tell students what or who to trust, but rather give them the tools to make those judgments for themselves,” Miller said in an interview with PEN America late last year.
Studies show that students who have taken the Stony Brook course have significantly higher levels of news media literacy, greater knowledge of current events and a higher motivation to consume news compared to students who haven’t taken the course, and the effects don’t diminish with time. A more anecdotal survey found that students who complete the course have a greater appreciation for the press’s watchdog role and a more nuanced view of its flaws.
A recent PEN America study of fake news and its potential antidotes concluded: “News Literacy programs are among the most promising approaches to addressing the long-term harms posed by fraudulent news, because they hold the power to reshape Americans’ attitude toward and evaluation of the news media” (italics mine).
Predictably, events of the past 18 months have propelled interest in news literacy. Continuing concerns about fake news, the dark side of social media, the ability of bad actors to undermine our institutions and a general unease that we have loosened the moorings on what to believe and what is “true” have combined to create a climate of urgency.
Media Literacy Now, which advocates for media literacy education, reports that 10 state legislatures are now considering bills that would mandate some form of media education, with Washington State passing the most substantive so far, although it does not mandate new curriculum.
Still, it will be a heavy lift to get where we eventually need to go: a national goal of inoculating every 12-year-old in America with news literacy skills before they leave middle school, as a first step in building their immune system against deceptive information.
It will take public and philanthropic funding for “demonstration projects” that can serve as national models, scalable teacher training programs to reach thousands of current and future teachers, state and local education officials willing to champion the new curriculum and a national conversation about turning news literacy into public policy.
Here is what you can do as an SPJ member:
You can learn more about news literacy by visiting Stony Brook’s Center for News Literacy, by taking our free online course, or by visiting other key websites, including the News Literacy Project or the National Association of Media Literacy Educators.
As part of SPJ President Rebecca Baker’s recent call for outreach to local schools (the #Press4Education initiative), you can become an evangelist for news literacy education. (And also do the same at local libraries, some of which are targeting outreach to adults.)
You can publicize local news literacy programs. In the process, you won’t only help restore trust but build a foundation for a business model that will sustain quality journalism long into the future.
No investment in quality journalism ever will be enough unless news consumers know quality journalism when they see it and increasingly value it enough to pay for it. My colleague, Richard Hornik, a former correspondent and editor at Time Inc., is fond of noting, “Just as in a democracy voters get the government they demand, so too will news consumers in the future get the media they demand.” The promise of news literacy is that the audience will be up to the challenge.
It is perhaps the ultimate irony of our current situation, with confidence in the news media rising slightly but still flagging badly, that the solution to our trust problem rests with teaching all Americans to have the critical thinking skills of a journalist.
Howard Schneider is the dean of the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University and the executive director of the Center for News Literacy. He is the former editor of Newsday.