Why — and how — media literacy must show how good journalism works

Media literacy programs that do not include lessons on how quality journalism works and why it is important do a disservice, and even damage, to democracy.

Without that component, those programs risk encouraging a hostility to the key role attentive reporting plays as a counterforce to political power.

Indeed, that’s exactly what an unmatched seminal study found a decade ago. The author, a leading global scholar on media literacy, hasn’t seen a replication since and hesitates to do one himself as he’s “afraid of what I might find.”

However, it is hard to know what to emphasize and how to teach media literacy skills without instilling or enhancing such hostility.

Very few media literacy programs reveal the sometimes deadly threats journalists face in many countries just to do their jobs. When programs do include that element, it’s gamechanging because to hear the matter-of-fact recounting of the unbelievable is rivetingly memorable.

Recent research about involvement in two kinds of programs indicates that such approaches have merit in assuring that young people learn to understand the vital role of professional newsgathering and dissemination and of the people who do that work. Those efforts focus on letting young people see the news process close-up and also experience the process themselves with the help of professional journalists.

ACTING LIKE A JOURNALIST

Since 2013, PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs have matched Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) station newsgathering mentors throughout the United States with classrooms, after-school clubs and other community groups for teenagers to produce video news reports.

There are about 150 Labs in schools and after-school programs in the U.S., South Korea and Bahrain, mostly at secondary schools. Participating teachers and the teenage students can use a tailored journalism and production curriculum (anyone can access a sample set).

Local TV journalists and technicians get a small stipend to provide practical coaching. The resulting reports appear regularly on local stations and sometimes nationally on the PBS NewsHour. For example, in 2018, PBS NewsHour used content from a 6-student team that traveled to Washington, D.C. from California to cover the March for Our Lives demonstration promoting gun control and the interviews of young people by Lab students all over the country in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections.

Researchers from the University of Rhode Island found in a pre-and post-test study over three years that the student lab reporters made statistically significant improvements on several media literacy skills including “wanting to learn about all sides of an issue,” “questioning things that I hear or read,” “showing respect for people’s ideas and feelings even when I disagree with them,” and a willingness “to express my opinion even if I know it is unpopular.”(Hobbs, 2016). Also HundrED chose SRL as an inspiring education innovator for 2019.

MORE — Studies remain rare for this kind of activity, but descriptions of several experiential journalistic programs in partnership with news publishing organizations can be found in Report #3 of News Literacy & News Publishers: Create Ways to Try Journalism

Research from Stanford University (California, USA) indicates that adopting the skills of journalistic fact checkers means becoming a much better judge of content. A 2017 study challenged historians, Stanford undergraduate students and journalistic fact checkers to scrutinize information online. “The fact checkers got to more warranted conclusions in a fraction of the time it took the two other groups,” said Professor Sam Wineburg, who directed the research. They used a very different approach than did the other two groups, moving quickly “laterally” to look at other sources about the original source. The others went “vertical,” looking for clues within the original source.

Surprisingly, the fact checkers included the much maligned Wikipedia in their next lateral moves, largely because of the relatively recent TALK feature (a tab next to the Article tab at the top of the entry) that allows addition of context and the LOCK feature on articles describing some controversial topics that prevents changing the content. They also used what Wineburg calls “click restraint” by going beyond the sources that appear at the top of search results.

The Poynter Institute’s Mediawise project has adopted such “lateral reading” as a key strategy.

MORE — Sam Wineburg described this work in detail during the Google Media Literacy Summit in November 2019. See the captivating (really) 30-minute video here.

The France-based News Decoder makes reporting a core part of its program with 19 academic partners in 14 countries. Potential student writers for its news service follow a pitch/report/draft/revise protocol that their teachers say also strengthens a general research skills

In Brazil, three media literacy projects are having success at taking a journalistic approach, according to this report from The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

WITNESSING JOURNALISM AT WORK

Watching the process of good reporting can help create a basic understanding of the role of journalism. For example, Kenya’s Top Story reality television show features an investigative reporting competition for journalism students that has had a documented impact on the media literacy of its audience.

Founder Joseph Warungu, former head of the BBC African News and Current Affairs department, says Top Story’s aims to show the public how journalism works and tell stories and the struggles involved.

Teams of three students from 20 journalism schools do some common training then have 14 hours to complete their real investigations, followed by a camera and critiques by an expert jury. Judging reduces the field each week until a winner emerges. The show, which started its third season in late 2019, attracts an average of 25 percent of Kenya’s population each week.

Research in 2018 concentrated on that audience with a representative survey of 1000 Kenyans. More than 75% of those who watched the show agreed that it gave them “a deeper understanding” of how news media work and of the importance of press freedom.

MORE: Al Jazeera did a report about about the Kenya show, including also the version that preceded it in Armenia and the one that it inspired in Bolivia.

Another variation in this strategy holds promise even if it does not yet have research support: face-to-face conversations with working journalists. When done right, such sessions can enrich students’ understanding of professional journalism and give journalists myth-busting insights about young people. When done badly, however, due to lazy preparation or the visiting journalist’s reliance on boring “war stories,” it can be waste of time. From the start, The News Literacy Project in the United States made visits by volunteer journalist the core of its work to help students use a journalistic approach to tell the difference between fact and fiction.

MORE: A guide the author edited for journalists visiting classes is downloadable here. • The Pulitzer Project reported on The News Literacy Project’s continuing search for volunteers to visit classes, now also virtual as part of its Checkology initiative.

Conversations with journalists who have risked jail or worse to do their jobs can be even more powerful. CLEMI, the French Education Ministry’s liaison unit for news media and education, helps classes meet with exiled journalists. One example was for a countryside classrooms of teenagers. “It is a very boisterous group of students normally,” said the teacher after the class had listened to a reporter from Burundi. “I’ve never seen them so intensely attentive.”

The author directs the Global Youth & News Media Prize. This piece is an extension of her keynote address for the national conference of Media Literacy Ireland.

Based in France, I love to encourage and help news media worldwide to better serve, support and engage young audiences.

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