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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. 

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This isn’t about reaching out to journalism majors. It’s about preparing all students for full citizenship, which is why News Literacy enrolls students from all majors. 

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Many in my course are the first person in their family to attend college. Many come from multilingual homes. Most are on financial aid. All of them are digital natives. 

In this course, they write up to two papers a week on their way to a firm grasp on verification, independence, and accountability as the distinguishing characteristics of journalism. 

They write briefs and argue the treason/free speech case arising from fourth estate decisions to expose controversial executive branch actions in wartime. 

To plumb the bias all readers bring to news coverage, students participate online in an ongoing Harvard University research study called Project Implicit, which measures their potential prejudices. They study cognitive dissonance – how people tend to dismiss ideas or facts that contradict their beliefs – and the natural quest for validation. They become expert at dissecting faulty accusations of media bias and at constructing meaningful examples of actual bias in news coverage. 

Finally, they dissect specific stories using those ideas, plus a welter of classical lessons about rhetoric, evidence, and shoe-leather sourcing. 

From that first news blackout, they progress to active deconstruction of the news in search of specific answers: Should I get the H1N1 vaccine? Will healthcare reform serve my family’s needs? Can I trust a news organization that routinely airs unverified assertions? 

Some cop a cynical pose. But more students push past black-and-white judgment into an inquiring mode: How much weight should I give this specific news item; what other information should I go seek; as an online “author,” what is my responsibility before I forward a salacious e-mail or post a rumor on my blog? 

Once students learn to seek truth instead of accept truth, they are well on their way to the kind of power the Founders abundantly reserved for American citizens. 

Journalism’s elders have a great deal to offer to students in this course. It permits a little pontification, but also requires professors to listen and learn how news gets used by busy strivers who have strong civic impulses and little patience for self-important news figures. 

It’s all about that sovereign individual, the news consumer, learning enough skills to gather reliable information and strike out on their own. This is the legacy we offer journalism’s elders: stop wringing your hands. Teach what you know about the value of stubborn civic facts. Your guesses about a profitable new business model for news aren’t worth much, but a generation of savvy news consumers is worth a great deal. 

Dean Miller is director of the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University in New York. Thanks to grants from the Ford, Knight, and McCormick foundations, the syllabus, teacher guides, and course materials are available to secondary and postsecondary teachers nationwide. He freelanced for the Monitor in the 1980s, writing pieces such as this one.