Constance Alexander: Three Little Words Are Crushing America’s News Literacy, Clouding Fact and Fiction

At the beginning of each semester, Leigh Wright, an associate professor of journalism at Murray State University, asks her students where they get their news.

“From social networks” is the most frequent answer.

Those three little words align with data from the Pew Research Center that says, “Today, about seven in ten Americans use social media to connect with one another, engage with news content, share information, and be entertained.”

In the US, according to Pew, the most widely used online platforms are YouTube and Facebook, with Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and LinkedIn bringing up the rear.

Clearly, digital technology plays a leading role in how people navigate an increasingly complex information environment. As a result, many Americans base important decisions on their own random research, rather than expert advice. That kind of personal initiative might be admirable if one had confidence in people’s ability to discern the difference between what information can be trusted and what sources should be ignored.

In 2019, a study by the Stanford History Education Group found that nearly all high school students surveyed did not consider the validity of a source, and more than half were unable to correctly rate the strength of the evidence presented. Adding to that puzzling conclusion, another Pew study found that only a minority of adults could tell the difference between fact and opinion.

In the face of such grim evidence, journalism professors have become tireless in their quest to provide rigorous training in responsible reporting and writing, based on trusted sources. At MSU, Wright and his colleagues in the journalism department recently excavated and redesigned a required Journalism, Media Literacy and Society course. Starting this fall, JMC 168 will be included in the University Studies curriculum, available to those interested in becoming educated news consumers, regardless of their major.

According to Dr. Melony Shemberger, a colleague of Wright’s and a member of the team that reviewed the course, “it’s for everyone.”

“Technology has guided the media toward dynamic and positive change,” Shenberger said, “but it has also created challenges for news consumers because access to information is immediate and personal.”

Founder of the Hoptown Chronicle, a Hopkinsville, Ky. hyperlocal news source, veteran journalist and Chronicle editor Jennifer P. Brown is a fervent advocate and constant example of accurate and insightful reporting. Additionally, a co-founder of the Kentucky Open Government Coalition, Brown believes the public has some personal responsibility to recognize when opinions “disguised as reporting” are accepted as fact.

“Being a good news consumer is not a passive activity,” he said. “You can’t sit back and wait for the truth to come looking for you.”

Using the grocery store analogy to amplify his point, Brown explained that processed foods are easy to find but aren’t necessarily part of a good diet. Healthy options, on the other hand, are on the outer edges, and they also require special attention to prepare a balanced meal.

“I agree that there are a lot of things in the media today that qualify as junk food,” he said. “But we shouldn’t consume too much.”

Therefore, to get the most out of the news they consume, audiences have many media options that approach journalism as a truth-checking process, rather than as a source of entertainment that fuels shock or outrage.

Hands-on learning strategies help MSU students develop professional news writing skills. Students choose to follow a specific story in the news, for example, and are asked to summarize it and narrate their own story with photos or a video.

“Students told me they felt like real reporters when they did this exercise,” Wright said. “The exercise encouraged them to engage with the news and read it critically.”

Other assignments require listening to podcasts like NPR’s Up First or The New York Times’s The Daily. For News Engagement Day, Wright students watched the whistleblower’s testimony on Facebook and live-tweeted the hearings.

“If students use social media to find their news, they need to learn how to use social media to report,” he explained.

January 24-28, National Information Literacy Week, is an appropriate time to remind all of us newsmakers, reporters, and news consumers that engaged and informed citizens are the foundation of democracy. Its website offers a variety of tools, such as Checkology, that help develop skills associated with evaluating and interpreting information. Additionally, tips, tools, and quizzes are available, including a Viral Rumor Rundown blog.

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