Letter from the Guest Editor: Dean Miller

Letter from the Guest Editor | Youth Media Reporter (Volume 4: Issue 3)
You don’t have a movement until you have joiners. 2010 may well be remembered as the year news literacy’s joiners began to rapidly outnumber—and outrank—its founders.
As one would expect, a movement dedicated to free inquiry and free expression is itself defined by its diversity. So, while the Stony Brook Model has provided root stock for university news literacy programs across the country, what this issue of Youth Media Reporter seeks to explore is the wide variety of forms that news literacy has already taken, just five years after its birth in a classroom on the North Shore of Long Island.
In this issue, we asked writers from a variety of backgrounds—high school teachers, radio journalists, youth media practitioners, university professors and instructors and NGOs—to try to define what news literacy is—and is not—even as we take time to explore what it is becoming.
What comes through is this: news literacy is not a new name for media literacy, the useful scrutiny of the impacts of all things written, seen and heard. What also became clear is that news literacy is not merely a new name for civics, despite the importance of news literacy in students’ preparation for their civic lives.
News literacy teaches students how to use critical thinking in their search for reliable information, usually through journalism, but increasingly, youth media programs. What’s exciting is preliminary data that show news literacy education has powerful effects on youth development, increasing civic engagement and attention to news about the world outside schools.
As the guest editor of this issue of YMR, my aim is to showcase the way educators and other professionals have harnessed skills developed as journalists and as organizers of youth media programs to teach students how to flex the information muscles they need as citizens in a democracy.
News Literacy at Stony Brook: A Historical Reflection
The godfather of the movement was a newspaper editor. Howard Schneider left Newsday after leading the young paper to multiple Pulitzer Prizes. Restless, he began a new career teaching at Stony Brook University on Long Island and building its new journalism school. What struck him immediately was that one large group of students was lost in the digital flood of information, willing to believe whatever they happened upon, and another large cohort had adopted a defensive cynicism, unwilling to trust that information could be anything other than spin.
By late 2005, Schneider had built the first stand-alone course in news literacy. Seeing connections, he collaborated with hard science, social science and humanities experts at Stony Brook to build a course that helps students understand the importance of reliable information to their inherited role as stewards of a democracy.
This Humanities approach helps students understand how human nature, cognitive blind spots and powerful societal forces make it hard work to find reliable information: you can not be passive about this. The course that emerged is the foundation of this new discipline dedicated to the very post-modern task of sifting the Web for the trustworthy information essential to the ancient endeavor of self-rule.
Schneider was certainly not alone in finding students adrift in the flood of information and, by 2006-2007, several of America’s largest private foundations looking to solve the same problems selected the Stony Brook model for replication and promulgation. Some highlights:
• The Knight Foundation funded the nation’s first Center for news literacy to test, revise and spread the course, teaching 10,000 undergraduates at Stony Brook University;
• The Ford Foundation funded the first national conference on news literacy and the creation of the Summer Institute for News Literacy to train new teachers; and,
• The McCormick Foundation has funded the Center for News Literacy’s conference web report, and then follow-up news literacy national conferences, including workshops where government and media leaders meet with academicians to share best practices. McCormick’s latest grant funds a partnership with the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which supplies fresh ripped-from-the-news examples for news literacy classrooms.
From University Campus to High School Classrooms
The campus news literacy movement spun a creative counterpart in secondary schools. About the same time Stony Brook’s News Literacy program launched, another Pulitzer Prize winner, Los Angeles Times investigative reporter Alan Miller, began talking to sixth graders at his daughter’s middle school in Bethesda and discovered a connection. Though newspapers were in decline, students awash in media were receptive to learning about the values of journalism.
English teacher Sandra Gallagher wrote to Miller: “All of the information you shared was interesting to [my students] and pertinent to our curriculum. You brought to life the idea of `newspaper’ and opened a new perspective of thinking.”
Miller had found a new way to make a difference and began work on a program to connect journalists like himself to other classrooms like his daughter’s. After a brief visit to Stony Brook, Miller assembled a team of secondary school curriculum experts and built an age-appropriate curriculum that would be taught by journalists like himself in partnership with teachers in schools across the nation.
By 2008, he had sufficient funding to launch formal pilot projects in the 2009-2010 school year. What became the News Literacy Project worked with 17 English, history and government teachers in seven middle schools and high schools in New York City, Bethesda and Chicago, reaching nearly 1,200 students. More than 75 journalists spoke to students and worked with them on projects. The McCormick Foundation became the project’s third major funder.
But a great deal of work lies ahead. While it makes sense to teach news literacy in public schools, curriculum adoption is a barrier to nigh-impenetrable thicket to the academic outsiders who comprise News Literacy’s leadership.
At the same time of this YMR issue launch, a coalition led by the American Society of Newspaper Editors has begun to crusade for the inclusion of news literacy education in the Common Core Standards proposed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.
Preliminary data collected at Stony Brook show that in addition to measurable increases in news literacy students’ ability to detect opinion-tainted writing and flawed reporting, they are more likely to register to vote than their peers in a control group. Such data may be useful in the slog toward winning formal adoption into public school curricula.
President Obama and Friends of News Literacy
Lately, the news literacy effort has attracted interesting friends. For example, the National Endowment for Humanities Chairman Jim Leach, a Republican who represented Iowa in the U.S. House for 30 years has embarked on a “civility tour” of the nation, in which he sounds many of the key themes of news literacy, most notably the importance of reading a wide range of news sources and engaging with those of contrary minds.
At the University of Michigan’s commencement on May 1, President Obama devoted the last third of his remarks to those ideas that focus news literacy, distinguishing it as the core information competency of citizens:
“…If we choose only to expose ourselves to opinions and viewpoints that are in line with our own,” he said from the bully pulpit, “[we risk becoming] more polarized, more set in our ways. That will only reinforce and even deepen the political divides in this country.
But if we choose to actively seek out information that challenges our assumptions and our beliefs, perhaps we can begin to understand where the people who disagree with us are coming from.
Now, this requires us to agree on a certain set of facts to debate from. That’s why we need a vibrant and thriving news business that is separate from opinion makers and talking heads. That’s why we need an educated citizenry that values hard evidence and not just assertion. As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously once said, “Everybody is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
Still, if you’re somebody who only reads the editorial page of The New York Times, try glancing at the page of The Wall Street Journal once in a while. If you’re a fan of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, try reading a few columns on the Huffington Post website. It may make your blood boil; your mind may not be changed. But the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship. It is essential for our democracy.”
“Here’s the point. When we don’t pay close attention to the decisions made by our leaders, when we fail to educate ourselves about the major issues of the day, when we choose not to make our voices and opinions heard, that’s when democracy breaks down. That’s when power is abused. That’s when the most extreme voices in our society fill the void that we leave. That’s when powerful interests and their lobbyists are most able to buy access and influence in the corridors of power—because none of us are there to speak up and stop them.”

Reviewing President Obama’s speech also speaks directly to the youth media field.
Practitioners must guide students to think about the information they use in their media and to look at examples of opposing views. Youth media, in teaching media literacy and story-telling skills, is a tool to influence and have acess to power—creating a stronger democracy. News literacy, as a movement that is growing, is a resource and skill set that is useful to the youth media field and a potential arena to build collaboration and partnerships.
Alongside YMR editors Ingrid Hu Dahl and Christine Newkirk, I hope this edition of Youth Media Reporter sparks the kind of dialogue that can move both fields forward.
Special thanks to all eight contributors (written and podcast), YMR’s Peer Review Board, Lynn Sygiel, and to the Journalism Program at the McCormick Foundation.
Dean Miller
Director, Center for News Literacy
Stony Brook University
Photo credit: Kristi Sheriff Photography

Youth Media Reporter is managed by the Academy for Educational Development