By Jane Regan
In schools and campuses across the country, tens of thousands of students are in the midst of media and news literacy courses.
Employing online tools with names like Checkology, Allsides and The Trust Project, following online courses like “Making Sense of the News,” or like scores of classrooms across the nation and around the world, using materials from Stonybrook University’s Center for News Literacy, students are busy learning how to verify sources, detect falsified photos, trace Twitter hoaxes and determine the difference between “news” and “fake news.”
While inappropriately named, “fake news” is real. And while hoaxes, yellow journalism and propaganda have been around for centuries, starting a few years ago, and thanks to the “everybody’s a communicator” online world and social media platforms, “fake news” has become pernicious and dangerous.
The academy—and the funders—have stepped up with analyses, books, centers, tools and many millions of dollars. Fighting “fake news” is not only urgent, it’s also a big business.
But are students being taught to think critically? And what kind of news consumers are produced by these courses and tools?
Let’s look at just two of the many news-focused media literacy tools.
Checkology, from the News Literacy Project (NLP), offers middle and high school teachers online exercises and lessons. The project also has an excellent quiz page, Get Smart About News, and a weekly newsletter,The Sift, with usually superb and useful “teachable moments,” analyses and potential classroom exercises.
Funded by grants from corporate publishers, foundations, an audio technology company and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the NLP raised almost $1.5 million in 2017 and $2.8 million the year before. (The 2018 Form 990 has not yet been released.)
The Checkology course offers four of its “lessons” for free; for a fee, there are another six, with exercises and other resources.
Corporate media journalists from NBC, the Washington Post and Noticias Univision introduce the first three lessons. They emphasize the importance of “verification,” “multiple sources,” “context” and “fairness.” In the third lesson, the student is a reporter “on the scene” of an accident, and has to gather facts, verify details and report. In another lesson, students learn about investigative journalism and the importance of “questioning authority.” All of that is great.
But the lessons also reveal a very status-quo, middle-of-the-road approach to journalism and its roles in society.
A reporter covering almost any subject has to research and report and then decide where the truth lies, even if that truth is not the currently accepted truth.
For example, while NBC’s Tracie Potts tells students to beware of information that might be designed to deceive, she also draws divisions between information meant to “inform” and two other purposes: meant to “document” and to “persuade.” She implies that one ought to be wary of stories that aim to convince a person “to adopt a particular perspective,” even when the arguments are based on facts. Given the historic importance of politically committed journalism, from Thomas Paine through Ida B. Wells to I.F. Stone, this compartmentalization does no favors to students or journalists.
A reporter covering almost any subject has to research and report and then decide where the truth lies, even if that truth is not the currently accepted truth. Even the Society of Professional Journalists calls on reporters to “seek the truth and report it.” That might include laying out new facts and arguments in a way that is meant to persuade a viewer or reader, to convince him or her of the correct version of an issue (like climate change) or an event (like the search for Iraq’s alleged chemical weapons).
In another lesson, Univision’s Enrique Acevedo reinforces the middle-of-the-road approach, stressing the need to avoid “bias” and the importance of “presenting the facts and context in a neutral manner,” and by emphasizing “balance,” which he describes as “representing multiple sides of an issue, event or controversy without giving unfair weight to one side or point of view.”
That kind of advice might be useful and important when covering the scene of an accident, but what if—for example—a journalist is reporting on a more complex issue, like conflict in Iraq, protests over food prices in Latin America, or the opioid crisis in the US? In all three of those examples, the context chosen by the reporter will depend on ideological and political orientations, of both the reporter and the news outlet.
Will the context stick to raw data, like protest deaths or price hikes or overdoses? Or will it go further—probing, for example, the role of US imperialism and the “War on Terrorism,” draconian tariff policies imposed by the International Monetary Fund, or how the commodification of just about everything, neoliberal capitalism and extreme individualism in the US might be at least partially responsible for addiction and “deaths of despair”?
In a recent plea to leave “objectivity behind,” journalism educators Mark Lee Hunter and Luk Van Wassenhove decried media outlets and journalists who shy from taking a stand.
“Whatever their objective truth, the facts do not speak for themselves,” they wrote. “Someone must give them meaning and impact.” Arguing for facts and context, they added: “We will never be ‘objective’ again,” and insisted that instead journalists “must make clear what we stand for, and how.”
Stonybrook’s Center for News Literacy is arguably the most influential news literacy educator out there. Over 10,000 people, including this author, have enrolled (but not necessarily finished) in the six-module Making Sense of the News: News Literacy Lessons for Digital Citizens on Coursera, according to that website. It was designed in part by the Center.
More importantly, the Center offers a full 15-module, college-level course which it says has been taken by “over 10,000 students” at Stonybrook, and has also been used or adapted by over 30 US universities. (I used parts of it for a course at Boston University last spring.) The Center also says it collaborates with universities or programs in eight other countries.
Like the Checkology course, the Stonybrook course offers a myriad of useful tools, guiding the student (and the teacher) through—for example—the definition and importance of facts, context, verification, “journalistic truth,” sourcing, indirect and direct evidence, and transparency. The course also takes on more complex issues like cognitive dissonance and filter bubbles. Each module comes with slides and documentation, using examples from recent, everyday social media and newsfeeds to which students can relate. All of that is great, and many elements of many of the modules very useful.
But there are also some troubling aspects to the course.
For example, Lesson 6 repeatedly stresses that reporting can only be considered reliable journalism if it’s verifiable, and if the journalist and media outlet are accountable, both of which are good guidelines. But it also emphasizes that they must be “independent,” defined as free “from the control, influence or support of interested parties.” Native advertising, for example, is not independent because it is “trying to sell or promote something,” one slide notes.
But aren’t shareholders and hedge funds and for-profit media outlets also trying to “sell something”? Corporate outlets can and do produce good journalism, but mega-companies like GateHouse Media, which owns over 600 papers in 39 states [including the Daytona Beach News-Journal], and Digital First Media are both owned by hedge funds, and have both proven that profit is the bottom line. For example, GateHouse regularly earns double-digit returns for shareholders while also slashing budgets for reporters, editors and even closing down newsrooms. A 2018 report from University of North Carolina on the “new media barons” that looked at hedge fund– and private equity–owned newspapers noted that the “standard operating formula” has included “aggressive cost-cutting, the adoption of advertiser-friendly policies” and “the sale or shuttering of under-performing newspapers.”
Where are the alternative, progressive and radical outlets doing excellent, law-changing and life-saving work?
The course also emphasizes the need for sources to be, among other things, “independent” and “authoritative/informed.” What are the definitions of those terms? That depends on who uses them. Would a reporter from a mainstream outlet be likely to quote an “authoritative” economist who is not a cheerleader for capitalism in a story about a hike in the minimum wage? Maybe even an avowed socialist? Probably not.
Also troubling (but unsurprising) are the slides illustrating “journalism,” like one where a student sees that journalism equals outlets like NBC, the Washington Post and National Public Radio.
Where are the alternative, progressive and radical outlets doing excellent, law-changing and life-saving work? A brief list from this country might include Democracy Now!, The Intercept, The Nation and In These Times. These nonprofit outlets and/or their journalists have regularly won awards for journalistic excellence, uncovered “truths,” rigorously verify and supply context.
Both Checkology and the Stonybrook courses also reinforce tired tropes of what is and what is not “newsworthy.”
While the Checkology’s “What is News?” lesson lies behind a paywall, a News Literacy Project article explains that Chicago Sun-Times’ Paul Salzman hosts it, and that he stresses four factors: timeliness, importance to “the public,” whether a subject is “interesting” and whether it’s “unusual enough to warrant attention.” The Stonybrook course and its online Coursera spinoff emphasize ten “universal news drivers,” including “importance,” “prominence” and “conflict,” and also “unusualness” and “relevance.”
But in both cases, the approach is quite limited. For example, who is or are “the public,” and what is “important” to it/them?
Is the “public” the older folks (above 65) who are mostly likely to get news from TV or cable news shows, according to the Pew Research Center? Or younger people, who look at Vox and Vice on their telephones? Or immigrants of varying backgrounds who might listen to Spanish-language radio (local or international) and read a local weekly?
Do a non-union waitress working three jobs and a hedge fund manager have the same news and information “interests”?
What about “conflict”? Do corporate media outlets cover protests and “conflict” in some poor country that doesn’t much interest the US, such as Haiti these days, the same way as they cover them in a place where Washington is happy to spar with a semi-nemesis (China), like Hong Kong (FAIR.org, 12/26/19)? Do the approved-of journalists and outlets dig deep to expose the roots of those conflicts, even if that might involve exposing some uncomfortable truths?
These two news literacy educational assets, and many others, offer tools that can be useful to teachers and students, but they are also dangerous.
At the very moment when the digital universe offers students access to news and information from hundreds of sources in the US and worldwide, the courses present extremely middle-of-the-road approaches. They are a far cry from the media literacy concepts promoted and taught in what is arguably the birthplace of modern media literacy: Ontario, Canada, where media literacy has been required since 1987.
One of the eight key concepts reads:
Media messages have commercial implications. Media literacy aims to encourage awareness of how the media are influenced by commercial considerations, and how they impinge on content, technique and distribution. Most media production is a business, and so must make a profit.
But neither Checkology nor the Stonybrook courses bring up the issues of ownership, commercial implications and profit. Not surprisingly, these days—in the US, at least—there are a whole slew of media literacy education groups that steer clear of the “commercial implications” concept. (In a recent International Journal of Education study—2016—Zoë Druick talks about the split between those who see media literacy as “a critique of capitalism” and those who do not. Druick also notes that “capitalist interests have long aimed to use media to train students as well as consumers,” and offers a fascinating exploration of the origins and uses of “media literacy,” for those wishing to explore further.)
The political economy–shy orientations do students a great disservice. Even the most basic communication theory textbooks at least mention how mass media can (and often do) reinforce the political, social and economic status quo. In the oft-used Media & Culture: Mass Communication in a Digital Age textbook, the authors note the exponential gap in the wages of a CEO to the average worker. One reason, they explain, has to do with the mass media and its reinforcement of status quo, “common sense” thinking and discourse:
In convincing consumers and voters that the interests of the powerful were common sense and therefore normal and natural, companies and politicians created an atmosphere and context in which there was less challenge and criticism.
Unfortunately however, the two main news literacy tools do not explore what basic, middle-of-the-road textbooks do. Instead, they limit their critical thinking lessons and tools to much narrower margins.
And that’s not surprising. As Noam Chomsky and other media critics have pointed out repeatedly, one of the ways to control people’s thinking is by “creating the illusion that there’s a debate going on, but making sure that that debate stays within very narrow margins.”
Charts like one from Allsides confirm Chomsky’s thesis and reinforce the idea that trustworthy journalism takes place between those margins, implying that the middle of the road is the safest place to be. For example, Allsides tells visitors that a “Center” rating means “the source or writer rated does not predictably show opinions favoring either end of the political spectrum.” Is that really true for the Wall Street Journal, The Hill and Bloomberg, all of which are rated “Center”? The chart also diametrically opposes outlets like New Yorker and The Nation (“Left”) to the “Right,” which features, for example, Fox News Opinion and Breitbart. But are the latter two outlets as consistently fact-based as New Yorker and The Nation, both of which publish award-winning journalism?
The media outlets that Allsides could call “Center,” “Lean Left” and “Lean Right” are more are more accurately called “mainstream,” and with good reason. The publishers, editors and journalists do not question the status quo or so-called “common sense.” Indeed, as the New York Times editorial page editor acknowledged, they are unblinkingly “in favor of capitalism,” even though it has had so many negative outcomes. Allsides nevertheless lumps together the Times’ opinion section with outlets like the The Nation and Jacobin as “Left,” which suggests that the political spectrum used by this media literacy project does little or nothing to help news consumers understand the ideologies of news media.
Until the many well-funded news literacy and anti-“fake news” websites, tools and courses take a truly critical and open-minded approach, and teach students to really question authority all the way up the chain, including economic systems, foreign policy, accepted history and more, they will have to be used with caution.
Learning how to detect faked photos is great, but without teaching our students how to think critically about where they get their news, and about the orientations of those outlets, we are simply channeling them towards status quo journalism. While mainstream outlets can and do provide critical contributions, their investigations and outrage are mostly only poking at the edges of structural causes.
Jane Regan is a multimedia journalist and scholar with a special focus on community and alternative media, and on Haiti. This article first appeared in Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.