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.

Hip-Hop: The Medium of Urban Youth

Oakland, CA. Land of dope, home of the sideshow. The pimps have the strips, the pushers have the corners and the youth travel in-between with little or no outlet. If this sounds familiar it’s probably because there are cities similar to Oakland all across America. In environments such as these, where it is evident that the system has somehow broken, people pick up the pieces and make culture: Hip Hop!
When I was seventeen I developed confidence in my abilities as an Emcee when, much to my surprise, I won a school-wide rap battle put on by the Hip Hop Fanatics—a high school club run very much like B.U.M.P Records at Bay Area Video Coalition in Oakland, CA—the program I currently artist mentor for. Winning that battle did more than give me bragging rights for the rest of the school year, it affirmed in my mind that I had the ability to draw emotion out of people—which gave me confidence. I suppose that’s why I am drawn to the “Big Brother” role I’m in now, as it affords me the space to recreate that same experience for the young people I work with.
After decades of dilution by commercial interests, Hip-Hop is just beginning to gain recognition in the area of education, but for those of us who were raised Hip-Hop, it has always been an arena for personal development, mentorship, the transmission of ideas and ideals, and creative community building. Because of it’s prevalence among urban youth as a form of cultural and personal expression, hip-hop is the most relevant format of story-telling in cities like Oakland and we, at B.U.M.P. records are laying down the groundwork to develop and distribute those stories.
Why Hip-Hop?
Hip Hop is a culture of expression. The beauty of hip-hop culture is that it affords people who have limited resources the opportunity to make something out of nothing. Through these opportunities, people realize the power to not only change their situation but maintain control over it.
In the mechanics of Hip Hop culture we find the keys to better communication between communities and ourselves. It’s not easy to sit down and recollect something as emotionally traumatic as losing a loved one, let alone record such a song for the world to hear.
Song writing gives the artist space to vent or the ability to fantasize and explore one’s self. At the same time, it allows the listener who might be going through something similar know that they are not alone. Making hip-hop builds community. For young people, the process of completing a hip-hop piece aids in building a stronger sense of self worth.
Young Emcees are echoes of their habitat—reflecting their surrounding social and economic culture. They are ordinary people in the sense that none of us are exempt from socioeconomic conditioning, and they are extraordinary because, as a storyteller, the Emcee is a communicator and a representative of those factors. As an educator, my role is to mediate the translation of youth experience to music and lyrics and advocate for a generation of Hip-Hop artists to build on this community of culture.
For example, one young man from B.U.M.P. reflects in his piece, “ya’ll don’t know nothing about the racism I faced as a kid// You don’t know nothing about the places I been //.” Too often this type of content is overshadowed by boasting lyricism or negative depictions of ghetto life in hip hop music. But mixed with mentors and media literacy, young people feel confident to use hip-hop to express their social and political views, which can open a platform for conversation across the lines of race, class, gender, age, and sexuality
B.U.M.P. Records
Founded in 2003, B.U.M.P Records is a music performance and production program for Bay Area youth age’s 14- 19. With the help of industry professionals, young people learn to compose music and lyrics, DJ, and produce and record original music using industry-standard technology. Originating from a disused storage space on the campus of a West Oakland public high school, B.U.M.P. Records creates a space that integrally combined artistic development, community and self-awareness, and 21st century skills literacy under the moniker of a Hip- Hop record label. BAVC’s youth programs central philosophy is based on an idea of digital storytelling. We know that storytelling has the power to raise awareness around shared issues and empower young people to assert themselves on a cultural landscape.
Students present their work in community performances and screenings, and during peer critiques in which they describe production, story, and stylistic decisions. Projects are based in young people’s experience and concerns, and creatively cover topics such as the environment, family health, history, and violence.
Students from the early generations of B.U.M.P. records are now working with engineers, instructors, and event producers both within the organization and in the wider music community. When asked how we measure success in our programs, we look at the usual measures applied to youth development—lowered rates in school truancy and increase in pursuits of higher education and job placement. But I believe our greatest measurement for success with B.U.M.P is most visible in the community of artists that develop under the mentorship of the record label itself.
Teaching Hip-Hop
Educators need to set high expectations for young people to think in their own words and on their own experiences when developing hip-hop—making beats, looping, rhyming and rapping. At B.U.M.P. records, we teach how to make beats and coach youth through their delivery of hip-hop.
I remember when B.U.M.P records had just begun its first recording sessions at Sound Wave studios in West Oakland. One day I made a mark on the white board and asked, “What do you see?” I heard “A point, a decimal, a blemish, a black hole, a pupil” etc. All I had intended for this mark to be was a dot. Everyone saw the same thing but described it with a different word. You could use eighty different words to describe something as simple as a dot. So why approach music or life for that matter from the same direction that everyone else chooses?
As an educator, I push young hip-hop artists to think about what inspires and outrages them and to look for ways to express their realities and ideas for change.
Before our artists sit down to make music and lyrics, we ask them to check in with themselves in a way different from other activities. Queries such as “How do I feel? How do I want other people to feel?” help young artists become aware of themselves, which leads to awareness of their situation, followed by their environment, and how to change it. Imagine how our schools would change if this check-in system was implemented? Imagine how our families our friendships would change if we took the time for this simple question to guide us?
However, one of the most frustrating occurrences I encounter is a sense of apathy among youth people. I don’t fault them—it’s a defense mechanism to the challenges they face day to day and the lack of resources to deal with those challenges. However, when it comes to making music, apathy disturbs me. I make it clear to my students that emotionless music is easily co-modified which in turn, waters down culture and that emotionless people make poor agents for social change. I believe that the innate need in human beings to create must be nurtured especially in young people and I believe that what they create is capable of making things change. The evolution, elevation and expansion of hip-hop culture lies not only in cultivating our skills but preserving the humanity in ourselves through our art.
In my attempts to introduce young people to the larger picture, I remind my students they represent the pinnacle of the previous generation—they pick up where we left off. I remind them that it was people their age who made some of the most critical contributions in innovating Hip-Hop culture. In facilitating and encouraging their growth, I remind students that whether through song, performance or a quick interaction with another artist, they will similarly influence the generation coming after them.
Educators in the youth media field need to value and use Hip-Hop music as one of the most relevant and persuasive digital storytelling formats available to urban America. As a highly important medium for urban youth to share their personal perspectives, educators must emphasize ways to resist conforming to the genre’s recognizable format and the mainstream’s stereotype of urban culture. Young people gravitate to Hip-Hop because it has the potential to amplify their voices. It is up to youth media educators to support young people as they re-create Hip-Hop to reflect the true cultural fabric of urban youth.
Davin Thompson, talent and lyrics coach since B.U.M.P.’s founding, is an Oakland native and member of the Hip-Hop group “The Attik.”