Understanding News Literacy: A Youth Media Perspective

In today’s media environment, newspapers look like blogs, corporate websites look like newspapers, and citizen films look like professional documentaries. The digital media are everywhere, and young people, more than any other demographic, are awash in this new media environment. The most recent Kaiser Family Foundation Study, “Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8 to 18-Year-Olds,” found that young people today are exposed to an average of 10 hours and 45 minutes of media per day, and 1 out of 5 young people consume over 16 hours of media per day (1). This means that young people are absorbing information from multiple sources at once during every waking hour of their lives.
Granted, new media technologies have ushered in an era where young people not only consume media, but also create it. The field of youth media is well-known as an educational strategy that leverages the media production process toward youth empowerment, professional development, and media literacy. Youth media programs fully embrace the ever more accessible media production technologies to help young people find and amplify their own voices and broadcast their perspectives, concerns and questions to a wide audience. The youth development and community-building facets of the youth media field continue to grow and gain high esteem.
Recognizing that real social justice and empowerment come from being able to read the world for its messages, evaluate those messages, and articulate a unique point of view in response, youth media programs have always incorporated elements of media literacy in their practice. Media literacy helps young people analyze and deconstruct media messages by asking questions like “who created this message?” “what creative techniques are used to attract my attention?” and “how might different people understand this message differently?”(2)
In this issue of Youth Media Reporter (YMR), we are shining a spotlight on an emerging trend in the literacy field that resonates with specific practices of many youth media programs, representing an approach defined by a group of leaders in the field of journalism education. These educators and practitioners, in response to the increasing cynicism young people express around the reliability of the media, have developed questions designed to help young media consumers not only recognize messaging, but discern verifiable fact from opinion and spin. Janet Liao of the McCormick Foundation reports that according to the foundation, “News literacy is defined as the ability to use critical thinking skills to judge the reliability of news reports and sources (SUNY 2009).” The hope is to empower young people not only to read the media for underlying messages and motivations, but also to have the skills they need to find and use reliable and accurate information in their own media productions.
To a broad community of educators, journalists, academics and funders, this practice of teaching young people to “read” media for its transparency, reliability and verifiability is identified as news literacy.
Patricia Campbell, the President of Campbell-Kibler Associates, Inc., explains, “the digital divide isn’t so much about having access to technologies, but is rather about having the knowledge necessary to be an effective finder of reliable information. [For example], what librarians have always taught—how to use keywords and library research skills—is still relevant today, with the new technologies. But this knowledge also needs to be adapted to suit the new technologies. Media literacy signaled a shift toward the conceptual thinking skills, and today there is a shift back toward the practical, more concrete skills” (3).
Welcome News Literacy
The McCormick Foundation, Stony Brook University, the Knight Foundation and Ford Foundation have been instrumental in assembling a community around news literacy initiatives. This issue of YMR strives to bring youth media practitioners into the fold, because a there is great potential for growth through the collaboration between the two fields.
Carol Knopes of the High School Broadcast Journalism Project explains, “I was on the board of Young D.C. and for several years worked on the importance of youth media as a form of self expression. But, we also need concrete truths to make [youth produced content] stronger. I see news literacy work go hand in hand in working with issues to deal with the media. [Youth media educators] need to fill the huge information/knowledge gap and ask if the young people they serve are watching the news and getting accurate information” (4).
In this vein, Knopes, along with a diverse group of educators who comprise the Radio Televison Digital News Association (RTDNA) News Literacy Team, put together a list of “Five Questions for Information You Receive or Pass Along” for teenagers, which include:
1. Who said it?
2. Where did that person get the information?
3. Is that person biased on this subject?
4. Am I biased on this subject?
5. Where can I discuss this with others or find more information to form my own opinion?
In the same vein, Lissa Soep, senior producer and education director at Youth Radio (and also author of “Drop that Knowledge” and Peer Review Board member of YMR), in response to Katina Paron’s article (in this issue) says “I appreciate that [Paron] critiques the tendency for youth media folks to celebrate the process of making and expressing, without always drilling down to the skills young people need to understand and interrogate their sources.”
News Literacy in Youth Media Programs
This is not to say that youth media programs are not already using news literacy strategies in their own practice. Lynn Sygiel, Bureau Chief from Y-Press in Indianapolis, IN (and a Peer Review Board member of YMR), explains that for many years their program has focused on inquiry techniques as one of the core competencies for young people.
According to Sygiel, the news literacy approach is a necessary building block of a great youth media program. Sygiel explains, “Recent research and trends suggest that youth media may be needed more in communities than ever before. At a time when youth media is threatened to be overshadowed by what is referred to as user-generated media (e.g. YouTube, MySpace, etc.), supporting organized, educationally-based youth communications is imperative. The descriptors of news literacy center on identifying truth. So if news literacy teaches young people to be savvy, critical consumers of the news, youth media must teach youth producers to be savvy, unbiased truth tellers.”
Youth media might learn how curriculum is developed specific to news literacy and vice versa; and, how to help youth producers gather credible and source-checked facts in content that uses statistics, information and even personal storytelling.
Clark Bell, the McCormick Foundation journalism program director says, “A growing sector of the U.S population does not distinguish or appreciate the differences among professional journalists, information spinners and citizen voices. It is important, especially for youth, to be savvy consumers of news so that we become better decision makers.” He continues, “We’re excited to partner with YMR to address the emerging area of news literacy and to enhance the ability of young people to analyze information and decipher what is and isn’t reliable.”
As co-editors of YMR, we are pleased to introduce news literacy to the youth media field and our broader audiences as both an important skill set to digest and an arena for future collaboration. Saving journalism after all, is about sustaining youth media—both hold true the essence of story-telling for a democratic future.
Ingrid Hu Dahl is the editor-in-chief of Youth Media Reporter and a program officer or youth media at the Academy for Educational Development (AED). Dahl is a national and international speaker on youth media, women’s leadership and social change. She has taught media literacy workshops at various high schools, youth media organizations (Reel Grrls 2009 Reel Queer Camp), and several Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls sites across the U.S. Dahl holds an M.A. in Women’s & Gender Studies and is currently in the Brooklyn-based band, RAD PONY.
Christine Newkirk is the editor of Youth Media Reporter and a senior program associate for the Center for Youth Development and Engagement at AED. Newkirk will receive her M.A. in International Affairs at The New School in fall 2010. She is a youth media practitioner focused on work in Brazil and speaks Portugese and Spanish. Newkirk also has an extensive research background, previously supporting the efforts of Computers for Youth in NYC.

(1) Find the report here: www.kff.org/entmedia/mh012010pkg.cfm.
(2) See the Center for Media Literacy’s website for more information and a MediaLit Kit: www.medialit.org.
(3) Personal Interview, May 28, 2010.
(4) Personal Interview, June 6, 2010.