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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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.

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