Veteran journalist Alan Miller tells the story of the high school students who, years after the fact, didn’t know that Osama bin Laden had been killed. These were seniors, no less — in a journalism class at a well-regarded New York City charter school.
“Their reaction was ‘Wait, what? He’s dead?’ ” said Miller, who won a Pulitzer Prize as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.
His story, though, has a happy ending. After immersion in the News Literacy Project, a Bethesda-based nonprofit organization that Miller founded to give teenagers the tools to know what to believe in the digital age, the students became news junkies. They were seriously annoyed if their classroom copies of the New York Times didn’t show up on time.
Every bit as dead as bin Laden, it sometimes seems, is many American citizens’ basic knowledge of news. Young people, especially, get their news in isolated bursts on their phones (the experts call this disaggregation). That makes it harder than ever to tell established truth from opinion, propaganda or pure fiction.
In this fact-challenged presidential campaign, these skills are needed more than ever.
You could see that last week when, during NBC’s commander-in-chief forum, moderator Matt Lauer didn’t even raise a skeptical eyebrow as Donald Trump claimed — again, and falsely — to have opposed the war in Iraq from the start. Although, as a broadcast pro, Lauer should have been far better prepared to parry this and other politically expedient flights of fancy, his ailment — apparent ignorance — is a common one. (Consider Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson’s query in an MSNBC interview: “What is Aleppo?”)
“There’s a cacophony of untrue information out there,” and it’s drowning out what’s dependable and accurate, said Leonard Downie Jr., former Washington Post executive editor, whose new book, “The News Media: What Everyone Needs to Know,” provides some help in question-and-answer form. (For example: “How dependent is journalism on leaks?” and “How are private interests trying to manage news now?”)
“We’re surrounded by more news options than ever,” said Downie, whose co-authors are C.W. Anderson and Michael Schudson. That’s far more than the couple of local Cleveland newspapers and three TV networks that he grew up with. All those new options don’t add up to people being better informed, but more likely cosseted by information that confirms their biases.
One leading corrective is happening at Stony Brook University’s Center for News Literacy, founded by former Newsday editor Howard Schneider, where the first news literacy course was taught in 2007. More than 16,000 students have taken the course at the university and elsewhere, including in 11 countries. Soon, a six-week MOOC (massive online open course) will spread the word much further.
“We’re teaching students to evaluate the evidence and the quality of the sources, and to actively seek out information that doesn’t confirm their world view,” said Richard Hornik, who joined Stony Brook after many years at Time magazine.
The growth of truth-seeking efforts like The Post’s Fact Checker or Politifact is great, he said, but these efforts don’t do much good if news consumers are unable to decide who or what to believe. Or worse, don’t care.
Another New York-based effort, the Lamp, tries a different approach: It encourages students to “break the news” through what DJs would call a remix: They create videos using bits and pieces of political ads, blog posts and their own researched commentary.
What ties all these efforts together is encouraging critical thinking and skepticism: What’s true? What’s spin? Which sources can be believed?
A few weeks ago, one of Facebook’s “trending topics” was the reported firing of Fox News star Megyn Kelly. A breathless report had circulated that Kelly was a secret liberal who wants Hillary Clinton to be president. The story hit the top of the “trending topics” list and was shared widely before being debunked elsewhere (and then removed from the trending list with no explanation) — once again proving the adage that “a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth puts on its shoes.”
If you were versed in news literacy, you might have checked out the source, looked around in vain for a reputable outlet that was also reporting it, and decided not to believe it.
Rumors about a TV personality may not matter much. But what about the reporting of the number of civilians killed by American drone attacks? What about a candidate playing fast and loose on foreign policy?
“News literacy is an urgent mission,” Miller told me, pointing out that even the best news organizations may find it impossible to get people to pay for their expensive news-gathering if they can’t distinguish real news from rumor and hoax.
And there’s a price to pay: Citizens who don’t know much, and don’t care to find out, will get the government they deserve. And that would be even worse than Megyn Kelly getting fired.
For more by Margaret Sullivan, visit wapo.st/sullivan