Are You News Literate?

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A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a vibrant conference on News Literacy at the United Nations. The panel was composed of a number of journalistic big fish from the field and the academy, representatives from Facebook and other social media giants, as well as the founders of a couple of like-minded organizations that have recently sprouted and begun to mobilize in American politics with a new message.

It takes a moment to speculate on the meaning of the term News Literacy, and I have come across many people active in the issue who would opt for something different. What it means is the ability to read the news critically, and to use it exclusively for your own purposes of gathering truthful information. The word literacy evokes the idea that this ought to be a standard skill, and its proponents will sometimes say they are seeking to take literacy to the level demanded by the 21st century. More concretely, organizations like Alan Miller’s “News Literacy Project” have been developing interactive online courses targeted at adolescents and young adults. “It’s important to catch them young,” that is, before people settle too comfortably into a political stance from which they will not budge for the next six or seven decades.

Users are trained to ask the kinds of questions that a professional journalist looking at a piece of news may ask herself. Lesson 4 in the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brooks tells you to remember V.I.A: Verification, by an Individual who is Accountable. For example, if there is a problem with something you read in this blog, it should be possible to call Nonviolence International and speak to me about it, holding me accountable for my facts. Why are lessons like these particularly important in 2017?

Why is this issue important? Why is an increasing number of journalists passionately advocating the inclusion of such training in the high school syllabus? Are you really the problem here?

Misinformation is emphatically not a new phenomenon. Information has always been a source of power, and at different times has served as a sword or a shield for government and citizens alike. Adolf Hitler blamed Germany’s economic troubles on the Jewish and Gypsy populations to legitimize the Holocaust [sword]. Later generations of Germans would famously repeat “we did not know anything,” when asked about the atrocities [shield]. One could say religious information incited thousands of medieval crusaders to violence [sword]. We do not have to look much further than recent American history for examples of governmental secrecy for the purposes of self-preservation [shield]. These are firmly established notions, but the interesting question is how is that power distributed now?

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For most of history it was the dominant political coalition, which through a combination of military and economic resources with a dash of consumer illiteracy, had a firm grip on information. Freedom of the press and universal education shifted some of that power to individuals who could now read and freely discuss current affairs, and to news companies, who were further strengthened by the development of radio and television in the 20th century. Becoming large news conglomerates as the century marched on, it is easy to see how these organizations came to share opinion-creating powers with governments, and, provided governments were benign, these decades of informal partnership are sometimes thought of as the golden age of journalism. The explosion of the Internet is now quickly eroding the power these companies hold, but where does their influence go instead? One answer is back to governments, and if we consider the 2016 US Presidential election, this may even mean foreign governments. The other answer is that influence may tip even further towards the individual, and this is what the News Literacy folks believe we must focus on as a culture.

We have access to more information than ever, and we even have a good amount of control over what we expose ourselves to. In our view, this is both a threat and an opportunity. The latter dimension is obvious enough, if we are better informed our political discussions and decisions will be supported by facts and therefore have more impact. But access to diverse information does not mean we will use it, nor does it mean that we are well equipped to do so.

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