News Literacy in High School and Middle Grades: Why We Need it Now More than Ever Before

I was first exposed to news literacy as a set of skills when I was invited to be the lead teacher coordinator of the Center for News Literacy Summer Teacher Institute at Stony Brook University. It was already apparent that an elective course in News Literacy was most desirable for undergraduates (Stony Brook offered the nation’s first such course). Students gravitated to learning examples of biased sources of news: how propaganda is designed to persuade, while the goal of advertising is to sell; and how publicity enhances an image, while entertainment diverts the consumer from the reality of his or her daily life.
However, based on the overall lack of skills that those students exhibited, the need for either an across-the-board curriculum rich in news literacy was desirable in high school and even the middle and elementary grades.
One reason students do not always think critically about what they read is that the purpose of the content is not always immediately apparent.
Information Neighborhoods
News literacy aims to help students read between the lines and take account of context in order to identify an author’s goals. In other words, news literacy aims to help students identify different styles of information, known collectively as “information neighborhoods.” The various types of “information neighborhoods” include news, propaganda, advertising, publicity, entertainment, and raw or unfiltered information. Quite frequently, all of these different types are presented in the same manner as news, the purpose of which is to inform. The teaching of critical thinking skills, therefore, begins with teaching the differences between the “information neighborhoods.”
Students sometimes do not realize that the objectives of non-news neighborhoods may run in opposition to strictly informing. Raw or unfiltered information bypasses editorial guidelines, thus failing to ensure the important qualifications of journalistic truth: verification, independence and accountability.
When students are introduced to examples from the various information neighborhoods, they are led to an understanding that news is generally the domain of journalists, while the other neighborhoods employ practitioners such as advertising or public relations specialists, politicians, singers and actors. Without understanding the diversity of characteristics among the information neighborhoods, it is no surprise that our young people are often easily misled.
Transparency, or the disclosure of how the reporter knows what s/he claims to know, is an important news literacy concept, frequently cited in news reports or broadcasts. Few readers, regardless of age and education, think to incorporate transparency as criteria for evaluating truth. Having students actively search for the appearance of transparency in any reading, as well as identify verification and prove independence and accountability, often leads to a detailed and robust discussion of the reliability of information in the reading.
In addition to producing more critically thinking students, these kinds of discussions can empower students. It has been my experience that the structure provided by news literacy terminology gives even the quietest students confidence to successfully articulate what is being learned.
The same may be said for the evaluation of sources. The MAVIN acronym is a wonderful springboard to provoke classroom discussion and is especially valuable for students needing a concrete structured technique of evaluation:
Multiple Sources are better than single sources.
Authoritative sources are better than uninformed sources.
Verified sources are better than sources who assert.
Independent sources are better than self-interested sources.
Named sources are better than unnamed sources.
This simple acronym again provides a structured technique to regularly apply to situations where students need to weigh the value of individual sources in order to properly evaluate information.
Last year, one of our innovative participants developed a unit that applied news literacy skills to her Spanish class. Students took an important contemporary topic—Mexican immigration to the United States—and were exposed to reports from both the U.S. and Mexican press. This activity extended to a rich utilization and reinforcement of reading, writing, and conversational Spanish, while exposing the students to a variety of perspectives and an excellent reinforcement of the history of Mexican-American relations. The unit included reading of scholarly and popular journals, viewing of video documentaries, the creation of a Spanish glossary significant to the issues, Spanish journal entries, and poetry. The idea of obtaining truth by following a story over time is greatly emphasized as well as the recognition of the information neighborhoods that are being read.
Discussion questions included:
• What was missing from the article that would balance the article’s assertion?
• Are all interested parties fairly and accurately represented?
• What additional points and sources could the article have addressed?
• Is the evidence verified or asserted?
• Identify each source.
• Are these sources independent or self interested?
• Determine reliability of the website used regarding: authority, point of view, and currency.
The unit readily demonstrates how news literacy is a most important and valuable tool for the educational, motivational, and assessment needs of even the most specialized subject areas. Many students have expressed to my colleagues that news literacy is one of the most valuable courses they have taken. One even stated, “I’m going crazy since I took the course! I can’t stop deconstructing (evaluating) news stories!”
Next Steps
All educators have the means to be news literacy instructors. Critical thinking is an end teachers hope to achieve, regardless of content area. Unfortunately, we too often demand critical thinking from our students before we’ve provided enough of a cognitive architecture—in the form of skills and vocabulary—for critical thinking. It has been my experience as an educator at primary, secondary, and collegiate levels that asking students to read between the lines, decipher a point of view or determine the relative strength of sources is critical to their active engagement in society. Perhaps creating media through youth media programs is the next critical step for a teen to put the lessons of news literacy into practice.
Stephen Shultz is an adjunct professor as well as the lead teacher and coordinator of the Stony Brook University Center for News Literacy Teacher Institute. A former Social Studies teacher and supervisor in New York City and Suffolk County, New York schools, Mr. Shultz was honored as the 1987-’88 New York City High School Social Studies Teacher of the Year. He has been a contributing writer for a number of textbooks, has authored teachers’ manuals in both Global and U.S. History, and continues to write articles pertinent to Social Studies educators.