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Opinion

Want better journalism? Boost news literacy.

Citizens armed with the power of discernment will do more to rescue journalism than any dozen panels of veteran editors ruminating about their golden years in power and musing about better business models. 

By Dean MillerStaff writer / January 14, 2010



Stony Brook, N.Y.

Could you tune out the news for a full 48 hours? I mean a total blackout: No text-message news updates. No e-mail with news in it. No newspapers. No magazines. No weather channel. No ESPN and certainly no CBS News, Fox News, or CNN. No radio. No websites that include news. No news reports on planes, atop gas pumps, or from screens in the back of taxicabs. 

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You’d even have to walk away from conversations about the news and leave the room if someone turns on a news show.  

That’s a real homework assignment we give students on their first day of class in a News Literacy course invented at Long Island’s Stony Brook University

It sounds easy enough – especially to the many students who enter the course saying they don’t follow the news. 

But after just two days, students report an amazing discovery: They have to work really hard to avoid it. 

And with that fresh insight – that they are in fact passively being fed news all the time – these undergraduates are ready for a semester of hard work. 

There’s a lesson here for all of us who worry about the quality of journalism today: Citizens armed with the power of discernment will do more to rescue journalism than any dozen panels of veteran editors ruminating about their golden years in power and musing about better business models. 

Unfortunately, most Millennial Generation students have been deprived of a good civics class. They’re bombarded with 100,000 words’ worth of information a day, yet they are unsure how government works or even who is in charge, and they don’t know how to find trustworthy news in the torrent of information that besets them. 

That's where the News Literacy curriculum comes in. It aims to sharpen their critical thinking skills, reteach the history of America’s fourth estate, and start students on the lifetime search for reliable information. 

This is a course an old-school journalist can teach spectacularly well, it turns out. At Stony Brook, Syracuse University, and a growing number of other campuses across America, the lectures and many of the small group classes in News Literacy are taught by journalists, recovering and active. The course gets consistently high marks from students, who say these are skills they’ll use all their lives. 

Since there’s an overabundance of pontificating former editors offering their successors unwanted advice on how to rescue the news by fighting the future, I offer aging journalists this alternative: 

Come work among the consumers for a while. It is amazing what you unlearn when you teach a course like this one, in which citizens come of age and decide how to run the world better than you did. 

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