Media Literacy 101: Power to the People

with Eric Newton

The G-20 leaders are looking to save the world. What are the levers to get us out of the global financial crisis? They are not just fiscal. Reforming the US education system is critical to the long-term health of the US economy, said Obama in a policy speech last month.

There's a proposal afoot in the UK, for instance, to completely revamp primary school education. No longer would students probe fusty tomes to learn about the Victorians or World War II. Instead, the government's draft plan would require children to master Wikipedia and Twitter.

Imagine the uproar in the United States if a national taskforce said No Child Left Behind means every child has to learn to tweet.

Over here, Americans believe kids learn such things on their own. As a professor of journalism and as a foundation officer who funds media innovation, the two of us hear all the time about how "tech-savvy" the young already are. We hear this from people more or less our own age, digital immigrants who struggle to manage their own Blackberries and iPhones.

We call our children digital natives. But a digital generation is made, not born. Certainly middle-class teens are "tech-savvy." But opening up the cell phone or the MP3 player or game controller is only like opening up a door to a larger world. Children must learn not just how to surf, link, load and click, but how to ask, judge and think to understand our world.

In world of infinite information, there's a difference between being tech savvy and life savvy? Why is one piece accurate and another one wrong? Why is this news and that advertising? Why is this fair and that unfair? How does context change a story's truthfulness? Why show that photo and not this one? Those are not tech questions. Those are life questions.

That's why we believe that students today -- not just students, actually, but everyone -- need to become news literate.

How do we know what to believe about Obama is saying? Or Tim Geithner? Or Rush Limbaugh? Or Fox's new "Fox Nation" opinion site? News literacy -- also called "media literacy" -- is being able to separate fact from opinion. In its absence we get news laziness: seeking out only the news that seems to agree with your own pre-fixed opinion. But because today's politicians and commentators are talking directly to us -- the many communicating to the many -- it falls directly upon us to become better at sorting the wheat from the chaff.

Understanding how news and information flows in the modern world is a first step toward demanding the kind of fair, accurate, contextual search for truth that we need to be the best kind of citizens we can be. And that is a step toward finding better ways to communicate across national and cultural borders, a step toward humanity solving its most difficult problems -- economic and otherwise.

The defining question of several decades of presidents -- starting with the Nixon-Watergate years -- was "What did he know and when did he know it?" (Actually, for Clinton the question was "What did he do and where did he do it?")

Today the question is: "What do you know and how do you know it?"

The way we the public found out about Nixon and Bush and Clinton and the rest was because a bunch of dogged reporters in the mainstream media -- known to some as "legacy" media, or when talking about newspapers, "dead tree" media -- got on to a story and didn't give up. But we are losing many of those reporters and editors.

After 100 years the Christian Science Monitor is leaving the world of paper and moving online. The New York Times announced a 9-month pay-cut of 5 percent for all its employees and the loss of 100 people on its business side, with a possible 60-70 more from the reporting staff. The Washington Post announced another round of buyouts, with layoff to come if sufficient numbers of people don't voluntarily leave. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer shut down its print operations, and like the Monitor has moved entirely online. And the Rocky Mountain News published its last paper Feb. 27.

Original ventures such as The Huffington Post Investigative Fund, announced on Sunday, are welcome responses to those losses. The end is not so near as some think. Many new journalism formulas are being tried. But as our complex media environment becomes ever richer, deciding what to believe becomes ever more challenging.

William Orme, former policy advisor for the United Nations Development Program, has the right of it. He noted that in the digital age it is better to teach news literacy than to try to control the ever-exploding supply side of news and information. "It's more useful and practical," he said, "to try and educate the citizenry to be on guard against hate speech and rumor-mongering or whatever, and have them report it."

News Literacy -- like the old, traditional kind of ABCs literacy -- is about access to and understanding of information. It is not telling people what to think or do. It is giving people tools that allow them to be active citizens. The goal of news literacy, and its most modern form, digital literacy, is to give people the knowledge to decipher the messages they receive and to give them the power to use their rights of free expression to defend their access to information, to secure their participation in the process of governing, to help all voices be heard.

People who are news literate understand the role of news and information in civic life. People who are digitally literate understand how they can use the new digital tools to engage with the news and information ecosystem, to become part of it. The UK isn't the only place where education should be revamped.

This post is the first in what we hope will be a series about how the public can become more news literate. Susan Moeller is director, International Center for Media & the Public Agenda (ICMPA), University of Maryland and faculty chair, Salzburg Academy on Media & Global Change. Eric Newton is vice president, journalism program, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.