Truth citizens: Media literacy in the digital age

On deadline: Owen High journalism students work to produce the high school paper, The Hoofbeat. Adrienne Hollifield (center) serves as the journalism adviser. Courtesy of Monroe Gilmour
On deadline: Owen High journalism students work to produce the high school paper, The Hoofbeat. Adrienne Hollifield (center) serves as the journalism adviser. Courtesy of Monroe Gilmour

“It’s the media’s fault,” the student declared. “It’s the media’s fault for sensationalizing, overblowing and distorting the news!”

It was the first day of Michael Gouge’s newswriting class, and the UNCA lecturer was momentarily stunned. It wasn’t the first time he’d heard such sentiments from students, though perhaps not so vehemently expressed in the middle of his lecture. But the unsettling experience drove home just how much the media landscape has changed since he studied journalism at the school more than two decades before — and what those changes mean for today’s (and tomorrow’s) citizens.

“It’s not just the hometown newspaper, the hometown TV station, the major broadcast network anymore,” says Gouge, a former editor for the Hendersonville Times-News. “Today’s student has literally received messages from millions of channels, all with varying standards and styles.” And the result, he maintains, is a generation that’s been inundated with information — without being taught how to read between the lines.

It’s essential “to evaluate the credibility of information and the sources the journalist is relying on,” says Gouge. Who’s paying for what’s being presented? Whom did the reporter choose to interview — or not interview? Are the assertions being backed up with facts? Does the piece include multiple viewpoints? Is the writer or speaker using language that’s designed to elicit an emotional reaction rather than a thoughtful response?

Failure to consider such questions, he says, leaves people vulnerable to manipulation, disinformation and outright deception.

Even before the Internet revolutionized access to information, iconic American journalist and news anchor Walter Cronkite shared those concerns, arguing, “In order to preserve our democracy and protect ourselves against demagogues, we should have courses in schools on how to watch TV, how to read newspapers, how to analyze speech — how to understand the limitations of each medium and make a judgment as to the accuracy or the motives involved.”

But as Cronkite noted, media literacy isn’t something one is born with. It takes guidance and practice to assemble the tool kit and critical-thinking skills needed to produce more discerning media consumers — and more engaged citizens.

“There’s a learning curve,” says Gouge, “to separating unsubstantiated opinion from attributed fact. … These are issues that we struggle with in our classes. The challenge is breaking through the clutter.”

The rapid pace of change, however, has left schools at all levels scrambling to catch up. Top-down mandates take an ever larger bite out of precious classroom hours, many teachers say, and at UNCA, the mass communication department is in the early stages of a major curriculum makeover.

“We’re going to be spending a lot more time talking about the role of a free press, the role of journalists in a democratic society as protectors of rights,” Gouge explains. “We want people to use critical thinking in evaluating the messages they receive — especially in a day and age where anyone with a computer can be a quote-unquote journalist.”

Core curriculum

One place where media literacy has at least gained a toehold is the Common Core State Standards governing K-12 education in the public schools. Adopted by the State Board of Education in 2010, they’ve been fully implemented during the current school year.

Fifth-graders, for example, are supposed to be analyzing multiple accounts of the same subject or event and identifying key similarities and differences in point of view. Fourth-graders, meanwhile, should be learning how to bolster their written arguments with facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations or examples — much the way a newspaper article would.

These “English and Language Arts” standards, however, merely lay out expectations concerning student learning. How those concepts are actually taught is left up to individual districts, schools and, especially, teachers.

Adrienne Hollifield, who teaches English and journalism at Owen High School, says she does her best to squeeze media literacy into her lesson plans.

“They keep putting more and more and more stuff on us, and we barely have time to scratch our heads or comb our hair during the day,” she reports. “But media literacy is part of the core curriculum, so we all do our best to teach it in all our subjects.”

In her AP English IV class, for example, Hollifield has her students dissect actual YouTube ads to get them thinking about propaganda. Who’s the intended audience? How is the material presented? What kind of reasoning is used? The idea, she says, is to make them more aware of how emotional appeals, rather than fact-based arguments, can be used to induce people to behave in a desired way.

“If they’re writing something, I constantly say to them, ‘Opinion does not mean just your gut reaction,’” Hollifield reports. “Opinion means your ideas based on research and fact.”

A study by the National Newspaper Association looked at more than 30,000 students across the country who took the ACT between 2003 and 2008. High school students with journalism experience scored higher than their peers who lacked that experience in the following categories: overall high school GPA, ACT composite score, ACT English score, ACT Reading score, college freshman English grade and college freshman GPA.

Training for tomorrow

In an October poll by the Pew Research Center, only 38 percent of more than 3,000 respondents nationwide said they regularly read a daily paper — down from 54 percent in 2004. Despite that sharp drop, however, Sandy Cook believes the medium is still a great way to teach critical-thinking skills.

“Problem-solving is a text structure that can be found throughout a newspaper,” says Cook, the state coordinator for the North Carolina Press Foundation’s Newspapers in Education program. “What’s the problem? What are its causes? What are the effects, solutions, barriers and obstacles? Investigative reporting does that kind of interpretive writing.” Besides providing lesson plans and in-class activities that help students become more media-savvy, Newspapers in Education also offers workshops for teachers. Similar programs operate in various states, and the materials they produce are used in schools, homes, adult-education programs, colleges and libraries worldwide.

Local educators say they’re using newspapers in various ways. Emma Elementary teacher Sarah Knowles asks her fourth-graders to distinguish between opinion and nonfiction content in the Asheville Citizen-Times. Jim Gardner Jr., who teaches humanities at the Asheville School, says he sometimes incorporates newspapers and things like The New York Times’ “Learning Network” blog into lessons.

For Cook, though, her program’s goal goes beyond helping educators meet state benchmarks, or newspapers provide their product to classrooms at reduced cost. For her, the core of the mission is cultivating an informed and active citizenry.

“One of the things we’re trying to say to students is, ‘It’s going to be your world, and you’re going to have to commit to being active in some of these hard things,’” she explains. “And to do that, you’re going to have to be well-informed.”

Panacea or Pandora’s box?

Carolyn Comeau‘s daughter, Louise, works on Weaverville Elementary’s paper, The Talon. And due to the sheer volume of information — and misinformation — now available to her children, confesses Comeau, “Part of it is scary to me." As a freelance writer, however, she understands the importance of media literacy, and she knows it will take more than Newspaper Club to educate them.

“Part of me wants them to be empowered citizens, to be part of this century’s, this generation’s and this future’s civic presence,” she reveals. The Internet is simultaneously “Pandora’s box and a fantastic tool,” notes Comeau.

At home, she tries to integrate media into the household environment: Comeau leaves the Sunday papers lying around the house, listens to NPR while doing household chores, and even reads parts of articles aloud to her kids.

“I’ll say, ‘You guys, listen to this.’ Then I’ll read a paragraph of something and ask, ‘What do you think?’ or other open-ended questions,” she explains. “It’s kind of a job that parents have to take on.”

Hollifield shares those concerns, noting that Owen High, in compliance with federal law, uses filters to screen out pornography, social-media sites, chat rooms and other material that’s potentially harmful to minors. “An authorized person,” she explains, “can disable the filtering to enable access for bona fide research or other lawful purposes.”

“We wind up teaching media literacy in terms of what’s an authentic website for something they’re doing for a research project. When they’re doing their own surfing around, I don’t know how much they pay attention to that,” she points out.

An informal survey of 55 of Hollifield’s English and journalism students found them pretty evenly split over whether there’s enough emphasis on media literacy in the classroom.

“I think [the Internet] can be a double-edged blade,”  Lucas Rumney wrote. “Using smart practices and learning by failing are keys to success when evaluating data. Our access to information has accelerated sciences, whistle-blowing efforts and shedding light on various human rights atrocities. Without knowledge, what are we?”

Yasemine Akquman, meanwhile, wrote: “The Internet and news are what you make them out to be. Trustworthy sites are great tools, but getting lost in information that’s untrue is another possibility.” Both are senior AP English students.

On the other hand, Max Alford, who’s 17, said, “I think people who view [the Internet] as a Pandora's box are the people who fear the informed.”

Sarah Gilmour is co-editor in chief of The Hoofbeat, the Owen High newspaper. Gilmour says she pays plenty of attention to such concerns, whether she’s doing research for a class assignment or simply trying to understand current events. Still, the 16-year-old has mixed feelings about the role of media literacy in the classroom.

“I don’t think there’s nearly enough emphasis placed on defining what’s a trusted news source in school,” says Gilmour. At the same time, she continues, “Teachers inevitably have their own opinions, especially on politics. Teachers have to be careful not to offend the students, and calling one news organization out on a biased point of view can quickly turn into a political argument.”

Pursuing truth

The pending revamp of UNCA’s mass communication curriculum, says Gouge, may involve things like additional credit hours for courses, to allow more class time to discuss key media literacy concepts. The scope of Gouge’s newswriting class, for example, would be expanded to include the theoretical underpinnings of a free press alongside things like basic interviewing skills.

That’s fine for college-level journalism students. But media literacy is an essential part of genuine education at every grade level, Cook maintains.

“What I fear,” she reveals, “is that we now have the tools to seek out the information, the opinion, that we want to hear. But do we have the habit of mind to really pursue truth, no matter where it takes us? To hear differing opinions without resorting to violence of some kind — or just shutting down?

“How do we use the tools that we have to build truth citizens? We have to be people who are pursuing information, who know that truth is not known and that it’s not one single story, one single source.”

— Caitlin Byrd can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 140, or at cbyrd@mountainx.com.

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