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The Flipside of Fake News: Appreciating Responsible Journalism
Using reliable news content to learn how to think like a journalist and become a critical news consumer
Many of us who grew up in the late 20th century share the memory of a Sunday night ritual: After dinner, with the T.V. tuned to CBS, there was a beat of silence followed by the rush of a ticking stop watch, and then the news. We were captivated as the likes of Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Diane Sawyer and Ben Bradley delivered in-depth, often confrontational and controversial stories about what was happening in the world around us.
Whether we watched 60 Minutes* because that was what our parents watched, or if – as for many students in classrooms throughout the U.S. – it was a weekly homework assignment to learn about current events, this was one of our first experiences falling in love with information and investigation, and developing news literacy skills.
As 60 Minutes, the pioneering, long-running, perpetually popular television magazine celebrates its 50th anniversary this fall, we thought about how today's students consume news and how they are taught to evaluate news sources – which, in the digital age and the subsequent glut of information that bombards all of us, has never been more challenging or necessary.
With this in mind, we look at a case study by Jennifer Fleming of Journalism and Mass Communication Educator on an innovative news literacy program at Stony Brook University that teaches the important function of responsible journalism in society, and how to be a critical news consumer.
Redefining News Literacy
After serving for 35 years on the staff of Newsday*, the Pulitzer Prize-winning daily newspaper, Howard Schneider launched a new journalism school at Stony Brook University in 2006. In doing so, he took an unconventional track: “he veered off of journalism education’s skills-development tradition and into unchartered curricular territory he called news literacy,” Fleming wrote in the 2014 article Media Literacy, News Literacy or New Appreciation? A Case Study of the New Literacy Program at Stony Brook University. “From the beginning, Schneider positioned news literacy as a subset of media literacy, even though he rejected using established media literacy frameworks.”
Schneider framed the program this way:
Our first mission was daunting enough: to train the next generation of reporters and editors in a period of media transformation. But the second mission was of perhaps greater importance: to educate the next generation of news consumers…
The idea was to teach this next generation of news consumers to think like journalists themselves. In fostering news literacy, as opposed to more general media literacy, it is crucial to distinguish news from other media, holding news-sourced information to the highest standard of veracity and accuracy. The reasoning behind this was so that students “who learned how to identify well-sourced journalism would sharpen their critical thinking skills and come to support high-quality news sources.”
Schneider developed this news literacy curriculum by drawing on his experiences as a journalist and newspaper editor, with the intention of teaching students to “use critical thinking skills to judge the reliability and credibility of news reports, whether they come via print, TV or the Internet,” while emphasizing the public service role of the journalist as watchdog for a free and informed democracy.
Cultivating an Appreciation for Fact-Based Journalism
To be sure, this is an elevated, perhaps rose-tinted view of the journalist’s function in society, but it informed the crux of Schneider’s curriculum. Fleming wrote,
For Schneider, news literacy was his way to teach a new generation of news audiences how to access, evaluate, and analyze news as well as appreciate important principles of the press he feared were disappearing as the lines between “responsible” journalism and everything else blurred in the fast-moving digital sea of information and disinformation…
Lecturers of the news literacy course, offered to all freshmen as a general education credit, featured former reporters, editors and producers of such news outlets as the Post Register, TIME, All Things Considered* and 60 Minutes* that championed journalism as the highest order of information gathering and processing. They focused on responsible journalism’s unwavering commitment to accuracy and veracity, and dedication to serving the First Amendment and “the public’s right to know.”
“There is certain inbred romanticism [in news literacy] about journalism—a kind of love of and respect for journalism,” former producer of 60 Minutes turned news literacy instructor Steven Reiner told Fleming.
“[Journalism] is about the facts,” he added. “It’s rooted in the facts. It’s rooted in being able to essentially prove things... Get it all right, and get it all right regardless of the ramifications.”
The objective of teaching news literacy is to instill an appreciation for these principles in order to hold journalists accountable to such standards and to consume news in alignment them. As Schneider concludes:
The ultimate check against an inaccurate or irresponsible press never would be just better-trained journalists, or more press critics and ethical codes. It would be a generation of news consumers who would learn how to distinguish for themselves between news and propaganda, verification and mere assertion, evidence and inference, bias and fairness, and between media bias and audience bias.
Is Teaching News Literacy Effective?
Much of Fleming’s article analyzes and evaluates the guiding principles of teaching news literacy and how news literacy was understood by students. She also examines criticism of this approach, including that it “blindly evangelizes journalism” and or that it might be viewed by students as “another meaningless class with more meaningless facts to recall.”
To the contrary, in Fleming’s case study, “three outcomes of news literacy instruction emerged: engagement, awareness of current affairs, and knowledge of press principles and practices.” Through interviews, she discovered students from different programs, such as mechanical engineering, computer science and health sciences, responded favorably to such a dynamic approach to learning from news articles and TV reports of current events.
One student was surprised at the realization that news reporting involved more critical thinking skills than just sprinkling some facts into a piece of content:
It’s like writing a little story and you put some facts in there and baam! You’ve got journalism! But [the instructor taught me] that there is actually a thought process behind it and so that stuck with me. Whenever I read an article I ask myself: Is this verified? Where is the verification? Where is the independence?
Developing news literacy and learning to be a responsible news consumer doesn’t just happen in the classroom. These skills can be honed anywhere people access news sources. The struggle, of course, is being able to discern credible, reliable news. Libraries play a critical role in offering access to the latest news content, from the most reputable news providers.
Resources for Developing News Literacy
ProQuest’s comprehensive news databases empower users to easily search, and cross-search, a wide-ranging collection of contemporary and archival news from prestigious newspapers, newswires and news sites from around the world, in full-text and multimedia formats.
Global Newsstream provides nearly 2,800 global news sources ranging from today's news to archives that date from the 1980s and features content from newspapers, newswires, digital-first news, video, transcripts and news sites in active full-text format. This database offers one of the largest collections of news from the US, Canada, Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Australia. All content is cross-searchable on the ProQuest platform allowing researchers easy access to multiple perspectives, resources, and languages on the topic they are researching.
International Newsstream provides decades of the most recent news content outside of the US and Canada, with archives featuring newspapers, newswires, and news sites in active full-text format. International Newsstream comprises more than 660 of the world's top news sources, including The Times (London), The Bangkok Post, El Norte, Financial Times, The Guardian, Jerusalem Post, South China Morning Post, The Daily Telegraph, Asian Wall Street Journal, and the BBC Monitoring series of publications.
U.S. Newsstream enables users to search the most recent premium U.S. news content, as well as archives which stretch back to the 1980s featuring newspapers, newswires, blogs, and news sites in active full-text format. For academic and public libraries, US Newsstream offers the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and access (with Factiva) to The Wall Street Journal. US Newsstream also includes one of the largest collections of U.S. local and regional newspapers.
U.S. Major Dailies provides access to the five most respected US national and regional newspapers, including The New York Times and Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune. The titles offer researchers thorough and timely coverage of local, regional, and world events with journalistic balance and perspective. The content is available by 8am each day and provides archives stretching as far back as 1980.
*60 Minutes is available in US Newstream and Global Newsstream; All Things Considered is available from USNewsstream, US Major Dailies, and Global Newsstream.
Sources:Fleming, J. (2014). Media literacy, news literacy, or news appreciation? A case study of the news literacy program at stony brook university. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 69(2), 146-165.