By Vicky Camarillo
Eleven years ago, Howard Schneider, founding dean of the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University in New York and former editor of Long Island’s Newsday, identified a problem among college students that, if not addressed, could be harmful to the future of journalism and democracy. He noticed that students were either over-trusting of news sources, skeptical of all media outlets or entirely unaware of what constitutes journalism. And this was more than a decade ago — before Russians created and spread fake news to influence the 2016 presidential election or President Trump called legacy media “fake news.”
So Dean Schneider embarked on a plan to address his students’ news literacy deficiencies by creating one of the first college-level news literacy courses. His goal was to teach students across all disciplines how to become more discerning news consumers. Since the first course, Dean Schneider has taught more than 10,000 students at Stony Brook and he has partnered with several dozen colleges and public schools to implement news literacy curriculums.
As journalists, educators and students around the world prepared for the fourth year of News Engagement Day activities to encourage engagement with real news and increase understanding about the principles and process of journalism, the Center for News Excellence and Engagement interviewed Dean Schneider to get his insight about news literacy in today’s media landscape. In addition to discussing the origins of Stony Brook’s news literacy course, he spoke about the news-consuming habits of digital natives, the need to educate preteens on news literacy and why he feels news literacy is a response to a threat.
Howard Schneider addresses the audience at the Global News Literacy Conference hosted at Stony Brook University in August. (Photo by Gary Ghayrat for the Center for News Literacy)
Q: Why did you feel a news literacy program was needed at Stony Brook?
A: The genesis of this course goes back to the founding of the (School of Journalism), and … our original intent was to create a program that would focus exclusively on the supply side, the journalists of the future, as you would imagine, but a couple of months into the planning process, we took a detour. I taught a course here to get a feel for the students, in the Ethics and Values of the American Press. I discovered that about a third of the students, even back then, tended to accept anything they consumed from a news outlet; another third were very cynical about the press and the information they got and were reluctant to accept or believe almost anything; and a third were totally confused and asked me questions like, “Is Michael Moore a journalist?” “When Oprah Winfrey interviews survivors of Katrina”— that was back in the Katrina days — “is she a journalist?” “When I go on YouTube and I see these clips of the war in Iraq, do you consider that journalism?” So that when I gave the president of the university a plan for the school, I decided it was no longer sufficient for journalism schools in the 21st century just to train journalists, that if those schools didn’t take on a second mission — of equal importance, by the way — to train the consumers of the future, then quality journalism would not survive and, in my view, democracy would suffer.
We started a small course called news literacy. We taught up to 80 or 90 students, and then we went to the Knight Foundation and we told them that we were doing something we thought was important and innovative, if they gave us some funding maybe we could expand the program, and they came back and said, “Not only expand it — how much money would you need to teach it to everybody at Stony Brook?” We’re a big university — we had 18,000 undergraduates at the time — and they gave us $2 million. … We couldn’t get the course required, but we did get it insinuated into the general education options here at the university, and over the next seven years, we taught 10,000 students.
Q: What specific skills do students gain from the course?
A: The overall goal of the course is to have students be able to use critical thinking skills to judge the reliability of the news and information they get wherever and however they get it. And that’s changed over time as they have migrated in greater and greater frequency to social media, but the principles are the same. Reliability is defined in this course as “actionable information.” How do students know when the information that they are consuming is actionable? When is it sufficient for them to be able to reach a conclusion, make a decision, take an action or, increasingly, share it with other people, which is an action?
The first goal is to be able to say: What neighborhood am I in? If I’m looking for information and news that I can trust, I need to be able to find it. So one goal is to be able to find the journalism neighborhood.
The second goal is to be able to, within that journalism neighborhood, distinguish between opinion and news, between verification and assertion, to be able to evaluate sources within stories and news. Another goal is to be able to distinguish between news media bias and audience bias. A huge obstacle for many of our students and news consumers in general is being able to stay open to information that challenges their current belief systems. … There’s a biological basis to that in our brains, and there’s cognitive dissonance. We brought in neuroscientists to help us inform our curriculum. We have students do aerobic exercises to slow down. One of the big messages of this course is that we’re not going to be able to slow down the news cycle — it is going to even get, believe it or not, probably faster and more intense — but you can slow down the way you process the news and make decisions about the news.
Q: Have you seen whether the skills that students learn in the class stick with them in the long term?
A: There was one study done a year or two ago by some researchers at the University of Illinois that tracked our students before and after they took the class and a year later, and found that some of the things we were hoping to accomplish, we did accomplish, and a year later they stick. The students who take news literacy are more engaged in the news a year later. They critically think about it, and they seem to retain some of the benefits they get from the course. We get a lot of positive anecdotal feedback from students. There have been these studies that seem to suggest we’re in the right direction.
The other feedback we get that suggests this works is that it’s grown from Stony Brook. The curriculum in some form is implemented in several dozens other universities and colleges. The very big surprise to us is that it’s now being taught in 10 countries. The course is now being taught in Poland, Russia, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Australia, Israel, India. In fact, this past summer we had the first Global News Literacy Conference here at Stony Brook, and we had academics from eight countries who shared what they’re doing. What’s really fascinating is they come from different political systems, and yet there’s a lot of commonality in what they’re trying to do, which is, in a world in which their students are being overrun by social media, overrun by people bombarding them with information, how do you get them to be more dynamically attentive to what information is reliable and what is suspect? So, to that extent, we think we’re successful.
Howard Schneider lectures about news literacy during a forum at the Communication University of China, one of the universities that partners with Stony Brook University. (Stony Brook University School of Journalism)
Extending news literacy to a younger demographic:
We are trying, as well, to take what we’re doing and share it vertically. I think it needs to be insinuated in high schools and even middle school. We are working with a middle school in Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York. Ten-, 11- and 12-year-olds get one hour of training in news literacy and vetting information and news every week for three years. … My real hope is that every 12-year-old in America will get inoculated with these skills and concepts before they leave junior high school, but that’s very aspirational.
Q: Why is it necessary to introduce news literacy to younger children before they get to the university level?
A: I think that when students get to college, they’ve already developed bad habits. They’ve already been overwhelmed by social media in many ways. I think they’ve also become politically calcified, so their political attitudes and their personal attitudes begin to become barriers in staying open to news and information that challenges their belief system. When you’re 12 years old, you’re just ready to begin to look beyond your neighborhood in the world. Even if your parents feel a certain way, you haven’t developed a political ideology, a personal ideology yet that’s set in stone. When I go visit the school in Coney Island, the students really seem to be enthusiastic and excited.
(The) ability to be dynamically attentive to what you’re consuming and to ask key questions has got to be second nature. It’s got to be developed over time. It’s got to be almost instinctive so that it’s not so self-conscious and the benefits don’t disappear after one course. So that’s another reason I think you have to start early, but that’s a huge challenge. If you’re going to want to do something like that, you’ve got to change the way students are educated in America. You’ve got to change curriculums, you’ve got to train teachers. It’s a massive test, but I think it’s the only real way to deal with this problem in the long term.
Panelists speak during the Global News Literacy Conference hosted at Stony Brook University in August. (Photo by Gary Ghayrat for the Center for News Literacy)
Q: How do you think levels of news literacy vary among different demographics? Does the older generation respond to news differently than digital natives do?
A: Stanford University did a study recently about digital natives and their ability to identify reliable information online. They presented high school and college students — it was the largest study, I think, of its kind — and even some middle schools with exercises in which they wanted to find out if they could judge what was really bogus stuff and what was real. And they were stunned at the deficits, far greater than they imagined, and concluded that the so-called digital natives are totally unprepared to be able to exercise their critical thinking judgments when it comes to online information. I was stunned. They concluded that digital natives have great facility with digital devices, they have great screen stamina, but they are really, really bereft of the kinds of skills they need to navigate a world in which they’re going to be faced with lots of information that’s reliable but lots of it that’s junk and deceptive and misleading and dangerous.
I don’t know if there have been studies done of older people, but I can certainly say, based on that study, that the generation that’s emerging, the digital native generation, is not prepared for this at all.
Q: What are some ways that parents can foster news literacy in their kids at home, away from the classroom?
A: There are online resources. The News Literacy Project, which is designed mostly for high school students, has material online. We have a MOOC, a massive open online course, that’s free. But if schools begin to introduce this material, I think it’s important that they expose parents to it, as well. My concern about parents going online and getting tips is it’s not the same as really understanding over time how we have to change the way we even think about news and information; it’s got to be second nature to us. But certainly, parents can be responsible in having students begin to ask themselves questions about what they share and what decisions they’re making based on information; some of it is just common sense.
The need for a “national conversation” about news literacy:
News literacy is a response to a threat, and I think we all recognize the threat. I think it’s akin to a public health emergency, what’s happening in terms of information — pollution, deception. … In Vietnam, of all places, because it’s still an authoritarian country, all 8,900 students entering the National University of Vietnam were given a workshop in news literacy. We can’t get that done in America. So I worry that the speed of change is going to be too slow and that we need a national conversation to accelerate this, and we need some large donors to come forward or we need some bold, innovative school systems to take the lead.
Additional reading on news literacy:
Colleges turn ‘fake news’ epidemic into a teachable moment — Washington Post
In an era of fake news, teaching students to parse fact from fiction — The New York Times