A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Constance Alexander: Three little words are crushing America’s news literacy, clouding fact and fiction

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

“From social media” is the most prevalent response.

Those three little words line up with data from the Pew Research Center that says, “Today around seven-in-ten Americans use social media to connect with one another, engage with news content, share information and entertain themselves.”

In the U.S., according to Pew, the most widely used online platforms are YouTube and Facebook, with Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and LinkedIn coming up in the rear.

Clearly, digital technology plays a leading role in the way people are navigating an increasingly complex information environment. As a result, many Americans are basing important decisions on their own haphazard research, rather than expert advice. That kind of personal initiative could be admirable if one were confident of people’s ability to discern the difference between what information can be trusted and what sources should be ignored.

In 2019, a Stanford History Education Group study found that nearly all high school students surveyed did not consider the validity of a source and over half could not correctly rate the strength of the evidence presented. Added to that disconcerting conclusion, another Pew study found that only a minority of adults could differentiate between fact and opinion.

Faced with such gloomy evidence, journalism professors have become relentless in their quest to provide rigorous training in responsible reporting and writing, based on reliable sources. At MSU, Wright and her journalism department cohorts recently dug in and redesigned a required Journalism course, Media Literacy and Society. Beginning this fall, JMC 168 will be listed 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 member of the team that revised the course, “It is for everyone.”

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

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

Founder of the Hoptown Chronicle, a hyper-local news source out of Hopkinsville, Ky, veteran journalist and Chronicle editor Jennifer P. Brown is an ardent advocate and consistent exemplar of accurate, in-depth reporting. Also, co-founder of Kentucky Open Government Coalition, Brown believes that the public bears some personal responsibility to recognize when opinions “masquerading as reporting” are accepted as fact.

“Being a good consumer of the news is not a passive pursuit,” she said. “You can’t sit back and expect the truth to come and find you.”

Using the analogy of a grocery store to amplify her point, Brown explained that processed food is easy to find but not necessarily part of a good diet. Healthy choices, on the other hand, are on the outer edges, and they also require some special attention to prepare a balanced meal.

“I agree there is plenty of stuff from the news media today that qualifies as junk food,” she said. “But we shouldn’t consume very much of it.”

To get the most from the news they consume, therefore, the public has plenty of media options that approach journalism as a process of verifying the truth, 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 required to summarize it and narrate their own story over photos or a video.

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

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

“If students use social media for finding their news, they need to learn how to use social media for reporting,” she explained.

January 24 – 28, National News Literacy Week, is an appropriate time to remind all of us – newsmakers, news reporters, and news consumers — that engaged and informed citizens are the foundation of democracy. Their website offers a range of tools, such as Checkology, which helps develop skills associated with evaluating and interpreting information. In addition, there are tips, tools and quizzes available, including a Viral Rumor Rundown blog.

Related Posts

Leave a Comment