Media and News Literacy in Seattle

In March 2009 I visited a social studies class at Chief Sealth High School here in Seattle, Washington. The 12th grade class was just starting a unit on global water issues, so their teacher asked me to come in and talk about some of the reporting I’d done in East Africa the year before. I introduced myself as a radio journalist and right away a hand shot up in the front row.
“What’s a journalist?” asked a high school senior, in total earnestness.
My immediate reaction was shock: how could an 18-year-old not know what a journalist is? I felt lost—a foundational element of what I had come to talk about was missing. But we plunged ahead with a news literacy question: “Where do you get your news?” Some answers you would expect—the local paper, web sites, NPR—and some were surprising, such as These answers helped the class engage in a conversation about news and radio and the difference between news and advertising.
Common Language Project
As a founding member of the Common Language Project (CLP), a nonprofit multimedia journalism organization based in Seattle, I cover underreported local and international issues. Since 2006 the CLP has reported on child labor in Pakistan, immigration and deportation in the Pacific Northwest, and climate change and water access in Ethiopia and Kenya, to name a few.
At the CLP, we can barely keep up with the demand from teachers for our journalists to visit their classrooms. Our network of teachers has found a range of ways to fit our work into their lesson planning. Some work us into units dealing with the issues we’ve reported on, like global health, climate change, or education, others into journalism classes, and others into media literacy units within social studies curricula. We want to maintain this diversity of class subjects, but we are also looking to expand our program to meet teacher demand while creating an opportunity to track the long-term impact of media literacy education on students.
Media Literacy: An Important Exercise
Youth media organizations often teach media literacy prior to producing media. For example, at Reel Grrls, a filmmaking program for teenage girls in Seattle where I work part time, media literacy is a key aspect of every program. Reel Grrls has found that participants need a larger context in order to understand how the media works before they can start to tell their own stories. Girls in the program have gone on to produce award-winning films that have shown in hundreds of film festivals all over the world. Many graduates of the program say that gaining a basic knowledge of media literacy was a pivotal moment in developing their ability to become storytellers.
The inspiration to start talking to students about media literacy came during the CLP’s first international reporting project, when our team reported from Israel and the Palestinian Territories during the Israeli-Lebanese War of 2006. Being submerged in the locally produced news reporting of the conflict inspired one of the first media literacy exercises the Common Language Project developed.
As a trainer, I brought a copy of the English-language news monthly Egypt Today to help students compare with Newsweek coverage. Both magazines featured articles on the conflict. Egypt Today ran a several-page spread of full color photos depicting desperate people searching for friends and family in the dusty rubble of a freshly-bombed apartment complex; another photo showed a dead body before it had been covered with a sheet. In contrast, Newsweek used an infographic as its main illustration: stick figures in red and blue to indicate the numbers of injuries and deaths on either side of the conflict.
Students love this exercise. Many respond to the idea that our media are sanitizing our information for us. They enjoy a rebellious, typical teenage reaction to being told what to think. Others pick up on the emotional manipulation inherent in printing pictures of extreme suffering—or in choosing not to print them. We love to facilitate these discussions, helping students think about how—and who—is processing their information for them. And perhaps even more importantly, to foster a love for what we call the ‘mind-boggler,’ or questions that do not have one simple answer—where wrestling with every side of the issue is what is most important.
In another exercise, we show students a chart mapping the crossover in membership on the boards of directors of major corporations with those of news outlets. At first, our chart is typically met with the familiar mild annoyance that any teacher might expect when asking high school students to read a graph. But as the discussion develops, students quickly grasp the concept of conflict of interest, and suddenly start to make intellectual leaps to many different issues in their lives.
Students consistently tell us that realizing this information empowers them to understand their role in the information landscape and to consider the motivation of other players. A student we visited in 2007 offered a succinct answer to one of our evaluation questions—“What information presented was the most useful to you?”—simply: “Mainstream media chooses what becomes news.”
News and Media Literacy
In January 2011, the Common Language Project plans to launch a Digital Literacy Initiative in Seattle in partnership with public high school teachers and the University of Washington. Our program will bring journalists into classrooms around the city for a series of visits exploring news, media and digital literacy, local investigative journalism, and international reporting, with the goal of fostering an understanding of the news and how it gets produced. We see news and media literacy as two critical thinking tools—we know that students who receive this training will go on to become more engaged, empowered citizens.
In the summer time, these students will be invited to a summer camp that will offer the chance to try their own hands at investigative reporting and media production. They will learn the basics of research and reporting, visit newsrooms around the city, and produce multimedia stories on their own communities.
Next Steps
The Chief Sealth High School student who asked what a journalist was turned out to be one of the most engaged in the class. But her knowledge of the role of journalism in democracy, of how to distinguish between forms of media and of how to access reliable information about the world around her was sadly underdeveloped. She understood so much about how the world works—but not about how that information had reached her.
Something is missing from our public school curriculum when a high school senior does not know what a journalist does, or why it is important to think about where his or her information is coming from. We are pushing Seattle to become a key city in the national news and media literacy movement. We want that 18-year-old student to be the last high school senior who doesn’t know what a journalist is.
Jessica Partnow is a radio producer and cofounder of the Common Language Project, a new media nonprofit based at the University of Washington that reports in-depth stories for newspapers, public radio and television, and online outlets. She teaches an undergraduate course in Entrepreneurial Journalism as well as high school workshops on news and media literacy, and spends two days a week working at Reel Grrls, a filmmaking program for teenage girls.