News Literacy: A News Lens for Youth Media
University journalism departments across the country are getting involved with a new trend: teaching news literacy as an elective, seminars and/or mandatory courses for all incoming students. Most young people aren’t familiar with the phrase, but what is becoming familiar is an adult journalist visiting their high school classroom asking where they get their news.
It seems that news literacy training is creeping into the lives of the youth with whom we—as youth media educators—work but is there a place for it in youth media programming? What is news literacy and what does it bring to the youth media field?
In its essence, news literacy is an initiative to:
• educate people to distinguish legitimate news sources from propaganda and sensationalism; and,
• engage people in the conversation about the role of a free press in a democracy.
I have been working in youth media, mostly in a print setting, for 15 years and I know how passionate and effective we are in getting young people to actively create and contribute to media (1).
Cross-Over Benefits: News Literacy and Youth Media
Currently most of my youth media work takes place in New York City public high schools where I freelance as the newspaper adviser for two high schools. I also co-direct the NYC High School Journalism Collaborative, an initiative at Baruch College, to provide support, training and opportunities for high school newspaper teachers and students. Because my work focuses on journalism skills training, I am by default teaching news literacy, which leaves me uniquely positioned to see the crossover benefits.
What I see in schools is that there is so much “information” easily available and students do not have the skills to sort through it. As a result, students search on Google but do not know how to sort through the 14-pages of links that result.
Think about how you researched papers or looked up information when you were in high school. For example, I remember filling out my financial aid form for college as a teen and one of the questions was: “How many people live in your community?” I had no idea nor did my mother. It was 9 p.m. on a weeknight, the library was closed and the form had to be post-marked the next day. I made up a number that was probably ridiculously low. I remember feeling completely isolated from information about my community.
Fast forward to the present and students can easily bring up Census.gov and find that Shelby Township, Mich. had a population of 65,159 in 2000. But, if they landed a Google search on www.americantowns.com, they would find that my hometown has only 3,951 residents; another search, to www.zipareacode.net puts the figure at 69,812–which is 4,653 more than the Census. Which one is right?
News literacy helps students understand that the question really is, “Which source is most legitimate?” The personal example I use has real world implications. There is so much information that is readily available that it is hard to know what to trust. For student journalists, this as part of their training; they learn how to research, identify legitimate sources of information, consult independent experts and provide context. In the youth media context, news literacy practices provide a framework for due diligence in our teaching.
For example, years ago I was working with a group of young people on a story about homelessness. Homes for the Homeless stated on its website that the average age of a homeless person was 9 years old—a powerful statistic for a youth media piece that wants to grab adults’ attention. But, as a youth media educator, I wouldn’t let the youth reporters use it until they got the whole story from the nonprofit. The students called the NGO and after several hand-offs were eventually told how that statistic was determined. They decided it was legitimate research and so the statistic went into the article. It did not change the outcome, but the students learned when and how to question information presented as fact and to take ownership over the material found in their work. Youth media practitioners must encourage students to identify “real” news and information.
“The process of making media is a window into news literacy,” said Janet Liao, a journalism program officer at McCormick Foundation (2). When we teach young people how to make media, we have the perfect opportunity to teach them how to do it well, because in the process of making media young people run into the problem of finding reliable material for their productions. This process provides a space to talk about the necessity for using the stringent standards of knowledge production that are the foundation of professional media work.
And in the eyes of John Nichols and Robert McChesney, who are spearheading a media reform movement (www.freepress.net), the opportunity to train young people about good journalism is also chance to save democracy. “What should be done about the disconnect between young people and journalism?” asked Nichols and McChesney in The Nation. “We need to get young people accustomed to producing journalism and to appreciating what differentiates good journalism from the other stuff”(3). Even outside the youth media field, professionals are drawing a connection between youth creating media and understanding the importance of a high quality, independent press. If those outside the youth media field can see it, we should too.
Youth Media as Citizen Journalism
As youth media practitioners, if we teach young people that every news article or blog entry they comment on and every Facebook post or tweet they write is a permanent part of the information landscape on the web, then we are taking part in journalism and news literacy practices. We just do not make that distinction enough, nor, do we typically compare the work done in youth media to the practices of investigative journalism.
Professor Geanne Rosenberg (4) at Baruch College sees news literacy as an essential part of primary education because so many young people are active as citizen journalists, whether they know it or not. She explains, “There’s an increasing role for the public to contribute to news gathering. If we can teach our students how to contribute high quality, factual information, that is good for students and for society.” Rosenberg, who is the founding chair of the Department of Journalism and the Writing Professions, is developing curricula that she hopes will reach the college’s 1,400 incoming freshman.
In a combined effort to bring understanding of these elements outside the newspaper classroom, Rosenberg and I are organizing a High School News Literacy Summit at Baruch College in November 2010—a day of workshops and speakers that will serve 250 high school government students and teachers in New York City (5). “Because news is fragmented across the Internet and mixed with opinion, propaganda and misinformation, students need to be empowered to inform themselves,” said Rosenberg. The summit—the first of its kind—will provide workshops hosted by The News Literacy Project, Stony Brook University, The Pulitzer Center, New York Community Media Alliance and The LAMP.
In addition to teaching students that whatever they do online can follow them around for the rest of their lives, we also want to teach them that they are adding information to what’s out there and they have a responsibility to make sure they support their claims. Accreditation of facts and reliable sources are things I talk a lot about in my youth journalism classes and high school newspaper trainings; however, the point of news literacy is that there is a large social value to teaching these skills outside of traditional journalism environments. “The better informed they are, the better decisions they make about community,” said Liao.
An important aspect of news literacy is teaching how to “to judge the reliability and credibility of news reports and news sources,” according to Stony Brook University’s Center for News Literacy. We can incorporate this in our youth media programs during the research phase of their projects. When students talk about getting news online, as educators, have a conversation about what the sources are. If youth producers say they saw it on Yahoo, it is important to share that Yahoo News rarely does original reporting. When youth producers see AP (Associated Press), do they know what that means? If not, it is our responsibility to point it out as a teaching opportunity.
This form of fact checking is not new; it is inherent in the world of journalism. However, this attention to detail will help young people be more critical in their own work and in their own lives. Whether they are reading their favorite sneaker blog or producing a documentary on undocumented youth, they need to be able to distinguish fact from opinion and to understand the value of independent research and reporting. “News literacy is an essential skill as how [young people] are going to operate in the world,” said Katherine Fry, Ph.D. Fry the co-founder (along with DC Vito) of The LAMP, a New York-based media literacy organization that served 700 people (mostly youth) last year. Through The LAMP’s media producing workshops, participants learn to understand “how information is put together,” which Fry considers a crucial element to news literacy.
As Megan Garber (6) put it in the Columbia Journalism Review (7), “News literacy…is fundamentally about distinguishing—and appreciating—excellence.”(8) Fry said these skills will make them better prepared to handle college and the professional world when they leave our doors. It will also make their media pieces stronger, more believable and professional.
News literacy advocates see the field as an audience-building technique—once you teach students why independently reported journalism is crucial to democracy and you give them the skills to evaluate the source of information, they will create a permanent place in their lives for quality media. The goal is to create a “community of people who are interested and take part in civic life,” Garber writes. This holds true in the youth media world as well—if we teach youth producers to pay close attention to the media in their lives, and help them express themselves and inform others through the media they produce.
In a previous YMR article, Lisa Lucas of the Tribeca Film Festival argued that “We cannot encourage students to think outside of the box without showing them what actually is outside of the box.”(9) True, but if they have never taken a close look of what is inside the box, then they won’t know the importance of branching out.
In my years in youth media, I have heard many arguments from practitioners who deliberately reject mainstream media, in their own lives and in the programs they run. Through my experience, I have seen that the practitioners who broaden their perspectives on the mainstream media better serve the young people in their programs. We have to help young people understand all media—not just alternative press.
Without a critical audience we are heading for information anarchy—an environment that will devour youth media. Just like a parent needs to train a palate to enjoy real food versus processed items from a box, we need to teach our students to consume quality media.It is our job to help young people understand the world of news and information that they are immersed in every day 24/7. It is not enough for us to help them create more news and more information; we need to show them how to make sense of what is available to them now.
Katina Paron is a journalism educator with 15 years of youth media experience. She is the co-director of the NYC High School Journalism Collaborative at Baruch College, where she is also an adjunct lecturer. She is the founding newspaper adviser for Achievement First Crown Heights High School and the Business of Sports School. She is an instructor with the Bronx Youth Journalism Initiative, par t of the Bronx News Network. As the co-founder and former Managing Director of the youth news agency, Children’s PressLine, she has worked with thousands of students to develop professional quality media that has been published in the Daily News, Newsday, Metro, Minneapolis Star-Tribune and Espn.com, among other places. She is a professional journalist who has focused on health, literary arts and youth media. Her work has been recognized by NY1 as “New Yorker of the Week” and by WCBS-TV as a “Hometown Hero.” Ms. Paron received her B.S. in journalism from Boston University.
Where can you learn more about news literacy?
(1) Specifically, Teen Voices magazine in Boston, Children’s Express (RIP: 1975-2001) in New York and Children’s PressLine in New York.
(2) McCormick is an active supporter of youth media (including projects run by the author and is underwriting this issue of YMR) and is beginning to explore its news literacy involvement.
(3) “The Death and Life of the Great American Newspaper,” The Nation, April 6, 2009, http://www.thenation.com/article/death-and-life-great-american-newspapers
(4) Geanne Rosenberg co-directs the NYC High School Journalism Collaborative and teaches at Baruch College.
(5) We may have some room for NYC-based youth media programs. Please contact me for more information: Katina.firstname.lastname@example.org.
(6) Garber is a staff writer at the Columbia Journalism Review. She has covered the coverage of education, culture, the 2008 presidential campaign, and, most recently, news innovation for the magazine and its Web site, CJR.org.
(7) Columbia Journalism Review is a non-profit industry publication published by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
(8) “Leap of Faith” by Megan Garber; July/August 2009.
(9) “Building the Critical Lens of a Captive Youth Audience,” by Lisa Lucas; Youth Media Reporter. April 15, 2008.