Summer 2011 | Online Exclusives

News Literacy: What Not to Do

By Renee Hobbs
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Three instructional practices that are emerging in news literacy deserve closer scrutiny:

Dumbing It Down: Some educators and news practitioners think of teaching news literacy as a journalism class for non-journalists. Essentially, they dump the content of an introductory course in journalism—topics like the reporting process, relationships between reporters and sources, the First Amendment, press law, and ethics—on students for whom these topics hold little intrinsic interest. For most of the students, this class becomes little more than meaningless facts to recall and spit back on an exam. It's unlikely to support the development of essential skills to carry with them. News literacy needs to be thought about as teaching a different set of skills—more focused on those who consume news and not those who produce it, though they are interconnected in many ways.

Telling War Stories: Teaching news literacy only from a journalist's point of view—recounting war stories from the good old days—doesn't work when the real job at hand is to help students develop critical thinking and communication skills. As John McManus wrote in "Detecting Bull," journalists have blind spots when it comes to being aware of how commercial bias affects the ways in which stories get told. Students can be inspired when journalists share their experiences about their work. That's important, but it's not enough.

Romanticizing Journalism: Some news literacy initiatives place a significant emphasis on teaching about the ideals of American journalism. While these are important to talk about, journalism needs to be presented in realistic ways that make sense to students. The public should be able to place their trust in the "news neighborhood," as Howard Schneider, founder of the news literacy program at Stony Brook University, calls it. Journalists should be accurate and fair in their reporting. News should contribute to people's ability to participate as citizens in a democracy. But if the focus is only on the ideals of journalism, then it will be mere propaganda because of its blindness to the reality of today's media maelstrom in which smear fests build audiences and news aggregation services spread misinformation blindingly fast, sometimes leaving truth in the dust.

The bottom line is if a news literacy course leaves students feeling frustrated that American journalistic practices do not meet the idealistic vision we have for journalism as a watchdog on power and a catalyst to democracy, that's OK. As "Mediactive" author Dan Gillmor notes, skepticism is a highly rational approach for news consumers today.

News literacy programs must focus on building learners' critical thinking and creative communication skills. When this happens, news consumers will be better able to understand, appreciate and critique the news while using the tools they've been given to evaluate its fairness, transparency and accuracy.

2 Comments on News Literacy: What Not to Do
Angel Saavedra says:
October 5, 2011 at 4:50pm
I believe that Dr. Hobbs is right about what NOT to do, I however fail to see these "institutional practices" emerge in News Lit. I taught News Literacy for 2 years and not once did I glamorize journalism, neither did I dumb it down or show war movies. I am a political psychologist by training and a skeptic by vocation. My main focus was to get students to think, to be critical, and to understand the value of free-speech and a free press. I think Dr. Hobbs should provide any critical reader with data about where her research shows these "practices" emerge.
Dean Miller says:
June 23, 2011 at 8:12am
Dr. Hobbs' critique of News Literacy would be devastating if it described the way News Literacy courses are actually taught. It does not. But, what a perfect lesson in the need for News Literacy, the off-shoot of Media Literacy (Dr. Hobbs' domain) which is focused on teaching students how to find reliable information to use in the work of citizenship: making decisions, taking action and sharing ideas. "What Not to Do" (Nieman Reports, Summer 2011 issue) defines itself as unreliable opinion by offering no citations, no data and no evidence of direct observation of News Literacy classes. A News Literacy student would ask if Dr. Hobbs had "opened the freezer" (student-created metaphor for a journalist's direct examination of the evidence.) Which exams and mid-terms did Hobbs review as the basis for the statements about News Literacy tests that were made in this article? How many students were interviewed, surveyed and tested? Did the author read final essays from the courses at Stony Brook, Northwestern, Florida International, Colby or Syracuse? How about Emory, Cal State Fullerton or Nevada-Reno? Maybe the outcomes of the seminars at University of Missouri (Columbia) or the Poynter Institute? Prof. Hobbs writes that News Literacy courses are "unlikely to support skills students can carry with them." Was this drawn from a survey of students, or from interviews? On the evening my Google Alerts flagged Hobbs' piece in Nieman Reports, I was in the process of reading the newest student evaluations of the course, conducted by an outside contractor. As in past semesters, students praise the course for its relevance to their lives after college. Which part of the critique by Dr. Hobbs refers to the mock trials of Bill Keller on Rep. King's charge of treason or the use of student-built materials in News Literacy lecture? Is there something too rote about a news deconstruction process through which students judge the validity of news reports before reaching a conclusion about the safety of hydro-fracking or degree of responsibility BP bears for the crew killed in the Gulf Horizon oil rig fire? What about online discussions of the AP's controversial decision to distribute Josh Bernard's photo? Too distant from real life? Some key skills learned in the Stony Brook Model include evaluation of the human sources and evidence selected by journalists and counterfeit journalists. A student who successfully completed News Literacy would observe that the author of "What Not to Do" is commenting without corroboration from other observers, asserting rather than verifying and, while authoritative as to Media Literacy, clearly uninformed as to News Literacy. On the final, a source with those characteristics is rated "little or no weight." Many thanks to Nieman Reports for providing an object lesson in the need for News Literacy, the goal of which is to help students avoid the belief-based claptrap that floods the internet, while attending to fact-based material. Any reader who wishes to check the facts can find them on the website of the Center for News Literacy. If that's not satisfactory, please contact me directly: dean.miller@stonybrook.edu -Dean Miller, Director The Center for News Literacy Stony Brook University (Nieman Class of 2008)
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