A NEW LITERACY FOR CIVIL SOCIETY IN THE 21st CENTURY
By Richard Hornik
Stony Brook University
News Literacy, a curriculum developed at Stony Brook University in New York over the past eight years, is designed to help students develop the critical thinking skills needed to judge the reliability and credibility of information, whether it come via print, television or the Internet. This is a particularly important life skill in the Digital Age, as everyone struggles to deal with information overload and the difficulty in determining the authenticity of reports.
In the Stony Brook model, students are taught to evaluate information primarily by analyzing news as well as new forms of information that are often mistaken for journalism.
The Digital Age poses four serious information literacy challenges for civil society:
- The amount of information we are flooded with daily makes it difficult to sort out what's reliable.
- New technologies to create and share information make it easy to create content that only appears authoritative and then to spread it virally.
- The conflict between speed and accuracy has been exacerbated by Digital Age demands for delivering information as fast as possible, but accelerating that process increases the chance it will be wrong.
- Humans prefer information that supports our beliefs, and the Internet and social media make it much easier for us to select only the information that supports our ideas, reinforcing rather than challenging them.
The Gutenberg printing press launched a communications revolution that altered power relationships around the world. But Gutenberg’s revolution and subsequent communications advances like radio and television still largely left the power to publish in the hands of corporations, interest groups, governments and wealthy individuals.
This latest communications revolution has transformed society anew by making it possible for everyone with access to a computer or a smartphone to publish information. It is a positive development that the public is now empowered to share knowledge with others, but as Uncle Ben of "Spider-Man" told Peter Parker: “With great power, comes great responsibility.” A major element of our course is to convince our students that they have a major role to play in the quality of information on the Internet and in social media.
These challenges have created the demand for a new kind of literacy. A healthy civil society can exist only if the public is well-informed. If people can be easily led to believe rumors or gossip, the consequences can be quite dangerous.
News Literacy's Stony Brook model uses heavily illustrated lectures followed by hands-on exercises to help students understand how journalism works and why information is such a powerful force for good and ill in modern societies. The goal is to help them build critical thinking skills that will allow them to:
- Recognize the difference between journalism and other kinds of information and between journalists and other purveyors of information;
- Separate news from opinion in the context of journalism;
- Analyze the differences between assertion and verification and between evidence and inference in a news report;
- Evaluate and deconstruct news reports based on the quality of evidence presented and the reliability of sources, and to understand and apply these principles across all news platforms;
- Distinguish between news media bias and audience bias.
Underlying these skills, the course presents and reinforces four key concepts:
- Appreciation of the power of reliable information and the importance of the free flow of information in a democratic society;
- Understanding why news matters and why becoming a more discerning news consumer can change individual lives and the life of the country;
- Understanding of how journalists work and make decisions and why they make mistakes;
- Understanding how the digital revolution and the structural changes in the news media can affect news consumers, and our new responsibilities as publishers as well as consumers. 1
The goal is for our students to sense when something is "too good to be true” – like those outlandish photos of sharks in New York City that appeared after Hurricane Sandy. Once that alarm has gone off, then the news literate consumer can either disregard the information or pursue other sources in the information-rich world in which we live.
Thus far, more than 10,000 undergraduates have taken this course at Stony Brook, and more than 50 U.S. universities have adopted or adapted all or part of the course. In the past two years, universities in Hong Kong, mainland China, Vietnam, Israel Russia and, most recently, Poland have partnered with Stony Brook to develop curricula appropriate for their students. Stony Brook provides all lectures and materials and conducts training workshops all at no cost to interested educators.
A new generation of news literate citizens who demand high quality information will also shape the future of journalism, determining the balance between information that is important versus that which is merely titillating – a struggle that has been part of journalism from its beginnings. Savvy news consumers are already beginning to understand the value of having journalists authenticate and then put into context the deluge of information we're flooded with constantly. Citizens can vote for reliable information by frequenting websites and following social media outlets that checks the facts as much as possible, strive to avoid conflicts of interest and take responsibility for the information they publish. Just as it is often said that in a democracy citizens get the government they deserve, in the 21st Century newly empowered consumers will get the journalism they deserve.
The ability of the next generations of citizens to judge the reliability and relevance of information will be a leading indicator of the public health of civil societies around the world.