July 3, 2014

The Brookings Institution

Stony Brook University in New York teaches a course in “news literacy” to students based on the idea that “every student in America should acquire the critical thinking skills of a journalist.”

Why would anyone prize the skill set that comes with a job that just edged out lumberjack in a recent report on desirable careers?

“The reason is simple,” James Klurfeld and Howard Schneider write in a new paper published by the Brookings Institution Wednesday:

In the Digital Age, the ultimate check against the spread of rumor, pernicious falsehood, disinformation, and unverified reports masquerading as fact, will never be just more and better-trained journalists and professional gatekeepers. Instead, it will require a generation of astutely educated news consumers, as well as native producers and distributors, who will learn to be their own editors and identify for themselves fact-and- evidence-based news and information.

How it works

Schneider, a former editor of Newsday and the dean of Stony Brook’s J-school, was “taken aback” when he found out how few students had received an H1N1 vaccine after the school recommended it in 2009. Students cited spurious sources when he asked why not.

Stony Brook’s News Literacy course tries to turn “news exposure into news awareness,” Klurfeld and Schneider write, training students to view information as “neighborhoods,” so they can discern “what constitutes legitimate opinion journalism from mere bloviation,” for example.

It uses a couple of acronyms to help parse out reports: “VIA,” which stands for “Verification, Independence and Accountability,” the three characteristics the course says all journalism must have, and “I’M VAIN,” a slightly more tortured mnemonic device:

  • Independent Sources are better than self-interested sources.
  • Multiple sources are better than a single source.
  • Sources who Verify are better than sources who assert.
  • Authoritative/Informed sources are better than uninformed sources.
  • Named sources are better than unnamed sources.

But does it work?

Stony Brook has done two studies of students who took the course, compared to a control group of students who didn’t. (It plans another round next year, Klurfeld and Schneider write.) The result:

After completing the course, the News Literacy students routinely consumed more news from more sources, rated keeping up with the news as more important, registered to vote in higher numbers, could deconstruct some video news stories more effectively, had a higher regard for the “watchdog function” of the press and had a more nuanced view, in general, of the news media. For example, at the outset of the semester only 17 percent of those taking the course felt the media treated both sides of a story fairly; by semester’s end the number had jumped to 52 percent.

Where does it go next?

A similar program called The News Literacy Project teaches middle school and high school students.

Stony Brook is “developing a Digital Resource Center that will provide teachers with curated, multi-media New Literacy materials customized by grade-level and theme,” they write. But “Ultimately, it will require more than individual champions to scale the program; it will require entire districts or states willing to integrate and pilot a new curriculum as part, perhaps, of the Common Core,” Klurfeld and Schneider write. (In a statement that seems like it was scientifically designed to drive some conservatives insane, Diana Hess of the Spencer Foundation told them “If I didn’t know better, I would think the field of News Literacy was invented to address the Common Core standards.”)

And they’re looking to take the course beyond the U.S. Stony Brook has done training in Bhutan and China. Richard Hornik, a former journalist at Time and Time Inc. publications, is “convinced that the future of the news media in America rests not with journalists, but with the audience,” they write.

Correction: An earlier version of this post quoted from a early version of Klurfeld and Schneider’s paper that contained an incorrect number: The percentage of students who at the outset of the semester “felt the media treated both sides of a story fairly” was 17, not 13.

Related training from Poynter: News & Media Literacy | Watching TV News: How To Be a Smarter Viewer

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Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City…
Andrew Beaujon

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