In Demand: News Literacy

News literacy is "distinguishing--and appreciating--excellence." It requires confronting consumers' cynicism about media, where only a fifth of Americans believe "most or all" reporting.
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The collapse of the economic model for print journalism has been well-documented here and elsewhere. Simply stated, readers have migrated online, and the advertising that subsidizes traditional reporting has failed to follow, at least on a proportionate scale. As Thomas Mitchell of the Las Vegas Review Journal often writes, "information wants to be free," but "reporters want to be paid." As a result, major dailies have scaled back on staff and printed pages, and some have stopped the presses altogether.

Band-aids of every variety have since surfaced, from a non-profit model financed by an endowment to micropayments for pageclicks similar to Apple's iTunes. News aggregators like the Huffington Post, the Drudge Report, and Real Clear Politics have evolved alongside local beat reporting (see the Chi-Town Daily News) and investigative journalism on a national scale (see Pro Publica). Each is elevated as a potential panacea, but I am increasingly convinced that a single solution is unworkable. Rather, an all-of-the-above approach is a more likely indicator of journalism's future.

Moreover, missing from these conversations is a focus on the counterpart to the form and quality of media offerings, namely those who did, do, or will consume these products. Any basic economics student knows that price and quantity are determined by the intersection of supply and demand curves. While the supply side has been analyzed to death, demand for media has been all-but-ignored.

Let's begin with an analysis of the problem. David Mindich, in his 2005 book Tuned Out, makes a case that two generations of Americans have literally abandoned media consumption as a daily habit. True, intensity of attention to media grows over time in proportion to the responsibilities we assume as adults, but never in recorded history have we witnessed such a drop-off between generational cohorts. Media habits are learned at a young age, and the numbers suggest that they are too often ignored in today's classrooms and kitchen tables.

According to a 2007 Shorenstein Center study titled "Young People and the News," a small minority read newspapers (9%) or tune into radio (25%) or TV newscasts (31%) on a daily basis. A full 46% never or hardly at all pick up a daily paper. News consumption, if it occurs at all, is often accidental; a 60 second news brief at the top of the hour on a local top 40 station, for example. Additionally, the Internet, while a regular drain of young peoples' time, is a daily news portal for only 20% of adolescents, and nearly a third (32%) never use the Web as a source for news.

More recently, a 15-year old intern in London "shook the world" by filing a report to his bosses at Morgan Stanley. Mathew Robson wrote, "No teenager that I know of regularly reads a newspaper, as most do not have the time and cannot be bothered to read pages and pages of text while they could watch the news summarized on the internet or on TV." His frank assessment encompasses all forms of traditional media, and though largely anecdotal, bears an uncomfortable truth that the industry has to date been loathe to address.

Enter the news literacy movement. Situated in the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University and the DC-based News Literacy Project, these entities, according to Stony Brook Dean Howard Schneider, seek to nurture "a generation of news consumers who would learn how to distinguish for themselves between news and propaganda, verification and mere assertion, evidence and inference, bias and fairness, and between media bias and audience bias--consumers, who could differentiate between raw, unmediated information coursing through the Internet and independent, verified journalism."

The movement is attempting to combat young peoples' assumption that "If the news is important, it will find me." The so-called "9-11 Generation," and more recently the "Obama Generation," is socially and politically engaged, yet lacks the basic information for more substantive civic engagement. In a Columbia Journalism Review article titled "Leap of Faith," Megan Garber argues that news outlets themselves need to join the effort to help their cause and combat blind faith. This means meeting young people "where they are," namely in classrooms and on the Web.

More than anything else, news literacy is "distinguishing--and appreciating--excellence." It requires confronting consumers' cynicism about media, where only a fifth of Americans believe "most or all" reporting. The industry must push back against ideological criticism on the left ("the corporate media") and the right ("the liberal media"), transcending an industry-wide reluctance to trumpet its own cause. This means articulating the importance of a free press to the very sustenance of democracy. Garber writes, "Citizenship relies on commonly accepted modes of taking in and talking about the world--on a shared vernacular that is premised on a shared reality."

By bringing the demand side of the equation to the discussion taking place at the proverbial altar of traditional media, the news literacy movement is performing a great service in promoting quality journalism and savvy consumers. Here's hoping that the sick patient can help save itself.

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