News Literacy and Democracy

Photograph of Woman Holding Her Head while looking at her laptop It seems fitting on the day before the U.S. national election day to review what we know or don’t yet know about teaching news literacy and how that instruction is related to democracy.

Last week during Media Literacy Week, I participated in the University of Maine Fogler Library’s week-long “Friend, Enemy, or Frenemy? News Literacy Challenge.” (It is not too late to participate in this activity. The Challenge links are live and will be accessible into the future.)

Below is a summary of each day’s information and activities and my takeaways.

Day 1: Does News Matter?
On the opening day, participants were asked to identify a news article that piques their interest and categorize it in one or more of these three functions: inform about daily life, report on one or more topical trends, and/or socialize readers/viewers in some way. Reading the range of articles on the comment board was a good exercise in itself. There were a number of COVID-19 articles and a few related to the Supreme Court confirmation.

From my own perspective on 10/26/20 and even though I am currently in northern California and have been under threats of wildfires, I was surprised to note that people found anything besides these two trending topics compelling and competing for their attention!

Day 2: Fact or Fiction
On Day Two, we were given four “news” stories to “guess” if they were real or fake without doing any research or background digging. This reminded me of guessing on a standardized test. I thought these examples were interesting because they could uncover participants’ biases as reflected in news headlines alone.

We were given sources to review including the Stanford History Education Group’s research: “Educating for Misunderstanding: How Approaches to Teaching Digital Literacy Make Students Susceptible to Scammers, Rogues, Bad Actors, and Hate Mongers.”

Coincidentally, I also received this link from the School Library SmartBrief that day. It totally aligned with the Day 2 activity: “Can Your Students Tell the Difference Between Fact and Fiction?” by Kimberly Rues (EdSurge Columnist).

Day 3: Deconstructing the News
How news stories are constructed is determined and influenced by individual people, organizations, and the cultures in which they are produced. The challenge noted how people (reporters), organizations (policies and priorities in terms of audience/revenue streams), and culture (including format, norms, and values) frame the news.

Challenge: “Find and link to a news story that demonstrates how people, organizations, or culture construct the news. Explain the connections you’re making. How might this affect what gets told and what’s left out of a story?”

Has Hunger Swelled? (In the U.S. During the Pandemic). This American Enterprise Institute (AEI) brief article summarizes research that suggests reports of “food hardship” during the pandemic are based on exaggerated data. (Thanks to John Chrastka at EveryLibrary who encouraged Lilead Project Fellows and Mentors to regularly read outside their bubbles, I have been receiving and reading the AEI digest for several years now.)

The AEI has a reputation for being pro-business and suspicious of reporting that shows the growing wealth gap. The .pdf file that includes AEI’s research is intended to add credibility to their perspective. Their conclusion: “We believe the share of households with insufficient food over a month is closer to 5 or 6 percent than 12 percent. Six percent is higher than at any point in 20 years.”

As a former educator who continues to see how our local school district scrambles to feed kids during school closures and as a contributor to local food banks, my own experience makes me question the validity of AEI’s “research” and “reporting.” The fact that they even use the word “believe” suggests that reliable data is really not available. As a result, I “believe” AEI would prefer to underreport food insecurity at this time when congressional decision-makers are considering pandemic relief funds.

Day 4: Deconstructing Bias
For this day’s activity, we were asked to compare two headlines and articles—one from CBS News, the other from the Washington Examiner. My practice in determining which reading news articles I will take the time to read involves reading both the headlines AND the first sentence (or two) in the article. If there is a disconnect between the two, I am inclined to not read on (unless it is so outrageous and I am in a “mood” to confirm my bias). In this case, the Washington Examiner reporter lost my readership for a sensationalized headline that misrepresented his own topic sentence.

On day 4, we were given two videos to watch: “Why Do Our Brains Love Fake News?” a video that describes cognitive bias.

How news feed algorithms supercharge confirmation bias” by Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn.org, which focuses on how online data collection shapes the “news” that we are fed in our online searches.

Day 5: Constructing the News
On the final day, we were given a scenario, a series of photographs, and an assignment to construct a headline for a specific news outlet. I was assigned the Wall Street Journal. I used the WSJ’s news bias rating from Allsides.com to justify my headline and photograph selection.

As they did with their August, 2020 Racial Justice Challenge, the News Literacy Challenge organizers at the Fogler Library asked participants to complete an anonymous online survey.

Connection between News Literacy and Democracy
I suspect that, like you, I am not alone in my concern for the present and future of an informed electorate. Participating in the News Literacy Challenge with educated adults was illuminating. Participants’ understanding of news bias was wide ranging and their comments were not always as informed as I would have hoped.

The Pew Center conducted a nonscientific canvass based on a non-random sample of the individual tech leaders who responded to their query: “Tech Experts Say Digital Disruption Will Hurt Democracy.”

As reported in the article, Christopher Mondini, vice president of business engagement for ICANN, summed it up for me: “The decline of independent journalism and critical thinking and research skills resulting from easy reliance on the internet make citizens more susceptible to manipulation and demagoguery.”

Bottom Line:  We need U.S. and global citizens who will make informed decisions when we vote, take action, and influence the course of our collective future. We, in K-12 and higher ed, have work to do.

Works Cited

Anderson, Janna, and Lee Rainie. 2020. “3. Concerns about Democracy in the Digital Age.” Pew Research Center, https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2020/02/21/concerns-about-democracy-in-the-digital-age/

Berry, Alan, Judith Rosenbaum, and Jen Bonnet. 2020. Friend, Enemy, or Frenemy? News Literacy Challenge. University of Maine Fogler Library. https://libguides.library.umaine.edu/c.php?g=1062054&p=7722052

Image Credit:
Piacquadio, Andrea. Search: “News Literacy.” Pexels.com, https://www.pexels.com/photo/young-troubled-woman-using-laptop-at-home-3755755/

This entry was posted in Civic Education, Digital Literacy, Media Literacy and tagged , , by Judi Moreillon. Bookmark the permalink.

About Judi Moreillon

Judi Moreillon, M.L.S, Ph.D., has served as a school librarian at every instructional level. In addition, she has been a classroom teacher, literacy coach, and district-level librarian mentor. Judi has taught preservice school librarians since 1995. She has taught courses in instructional partnerships and school librarian leadership, multimedia resources and services, children’s and young adult literature, and storytelling. Her research agenda focuses on the professional development of school librarians for the leadership and instructional partner roles. She has published four professional books; the most recent is Maximizing School Librarian Leadership: Building Connections for Learning and Advocacy (ALA 2018). (See the book study on this blog.) Judi earned the American Library Association's 2019 Scholastic Library Publishing Award. She is currently editing and contributing to Core Values in School Librarianship: Responding with Commitment and Courage (Libraries Unlimited 2021).

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