Thoughts on the News Literacy Summit

Sep 16, 2014

I am writing this just a few hours after the conclusion of the News Literacy Summit held this past Sunday and Monday in Chicago. I am grateful to the McCormick Foundation for bringing together an impressive group of people passionate about news literacy. I appreciated hearing innovative ideas about how teachers and journalists are bringing news literacy into education and the vital need to help young people feel connected to the news of their community and their world.

But the summit also left me frustrated.

As a media literacy educator and advocate*, I couldn’t help but notice the frequently voiced goal of many attendees to have news literacy become an integral part of K12 education. Attendees spoke about the need for students to understand authors, audiences, and genre. They spoke about the need for students to understand fact vs. opinion, how to evaluate a source for credibility, and the importance of understanding how economic incentives impact information flow. I couldn’t agree more! But to me, these concepts are at the very heart of media literacy, not just news literacy. Even a quick glance at the website of the National Association for Media Literacy Education yields resources in which educators are encouraged to have students ask about author, audience, intent, genre, and credibility. Scholars have been researching its impact and educators have been bringing it into classrooms for decades. The massive increase in children’s (and adults) digital media consumption over the past ten years has underscored the vital need to bring media literacy education into all schools.

So while I sat at the summit listening, I kept asking myself why some in the news literacy community wanted to frame news literacy in a separate space; apart from media literacy, apart from digital literacy, apart from information literacy. During a discussion towards the end of the first day, I decided to give voice to that concern. “I wonder what is at the heart of the need to separate news literacy from media literacy?”

Several discussions focusing on the semantic and substantive differences between media literacy and news literacy ensued. But for most of the rest of the summit our discussions walked around this important issue. Once or twice our discussions veered into these sensitive waters and our conversations were re-directed to other areas by well-meaning facilitators and leaders.

When the official summit concluded I still felt a need to share a few thoughts. So here goes.

1. I want to see news literacy succeed. I agree with many of the points made throughout the summit about the need for developing engaged citizens in our young people. I do not see this goal as counter to media literacy, I see this as a major goal of media literacy.

2. The goals of news literacy are highly aligned with the goals of media literacy and digital literacy and information literacy. Yes, news literacy has some specific and unique goals, but we share much more in common. Separating our goals will make our efforts in advocacy, funding, and support that much more difficult.

3. When I look at the list of summit attendees, I notice many media literacy colleagues; people who have been practicing, researching and teaching media literacy for decades. One third of the board of the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) and its executive director were present (plus two former board members). And all of these people were invited to the summit because of their work in the news literacy field. Surely, this reflects a strong connection between media literacy and news literacy.

4. If I brought together a group of media literacy practitioners and educators and asked them for examples of activities they use to teach media literacy, they would likely show news literacy examples. They would show activities in which students deconstruct a newscast, evaluate the source of an online news story, and trace the truth of a social media chain. In the day-to-day reality of the classroom, media literacy educators are often teaching news literacy.

5. I believe we have a responsibility to help administrators and teachers see the connections between these “literacy” areas. There was strong agreement among attendees that while we want teachers to bring these important topics into their classrooms, we know that teachers are dealing with many such requests. Classroom time is at a premium when teachers must focus on integrating requirements from the Common Core Standards or other testing. Are we honestly going to present teachers with two or three (or more) separate curriculum areas? “Come on, teachers, find time for media literacy and news literacy and information literacy and digital literacy and…” If these areas are indeed so important, we have a responsibility to help teachers and administrators understand their value and see how these areas align with one another and with their educational goals for their students. We cannot do that if we are each vying for separate class time.

6. We need support from the funding community to help us explore ways to build on our commonalities. The summit may have focused on news literacy, but every speaker would have been just as welcome at the NAMLE media literacy conference. I see that as a good thing: not a negative. It reflects that we share many common goals.

During one discussion Mark Newton, a high school teacher and president of the Journalism Education Association said, “We want to play with you. We want to help you.” I echo that sentiment. Those of us working in media literacy, digital literacy and information literacy are your colleagues. We’re the teachers in the classrooms and the practitioners in the field that are most likely to bring news literacy topics to students. We “get” it.

I hope we can find a way to work together; to see the value not just in the individual “literacy” subject areas and approaches, but the value in working together to get these subjects embedded in public education. Our students deserve nothing less.

*I serve as president of the National Association for Media Literacy Education and direct the Center for Media and Information Literacy at Temple University.