When people get all their news from Facebook, Twitter and blogs, how will they know what’s factual and accurate? Will it even matter to them?
If those questions alarm you, then check out the News Literacy Project, a program that tries to teach students “the critical thinking skills to sort fact from fiction in the digital age.” Indeed, the organization’s tag line – “how to know what to believe” – sums up its mission succinctly.
The worry: that in the age of Google, Wikipedia and seemingly limitless online information young people are losing the important skill of discernment, that they view all information – regardless of source or bias – as equal in value, and that they will therefore be incapable of making well-informed decisions. Not only will journalism suffer, but such a citizenry could damage, even ultimately destroy, our democratic society.
I had never heard of the organization, even though it has a pilot program at a local school – Walt Whitman Senior High School in Bethesda, Md. I discovered it when a fellow journalist forwarded me an e-mail announcing that the project was sponsoring a panel discussion at Whitman on “The Future of Journalism in the Digital Age.” That would be my future, so of course I went to hear what they had to say.
On the panel were seasoned journalist Ray Suarez, senior correspondent of the PBS NewsHour, and the heads of two major news organizations – Vivian Schiller, president and CEO of NPR, and Katharine Weymouth, publisher of The Washington Post. Although they talked about journalism’s present and future, they didn’t say anything we in the profession haven’t heard before or experienced first-hand. Ironically, the panel served as an exercise in critical, analytical thinking for those of us in the audience. The News Literacy Project teaches kids to question what they read (or hear) and to consider the bias of the source. Both Schiller and Weymouth insisted on extolling the virtues of the digital age of journalism, while refusing to discuss the downside, such as how it has decimated the staffs at most news organizations. Suarez, the moderator, tried to raise these issues, but got nowhere. In fact, they flat-out ignored a question from an audience member about whether either of them planned to farm out research and basic reporting to workers in India, as some news organizations have already.
They kept stressing the importance of quality journalism, the value of good reporting and the crucial need for students to appreciate these values and learn how to pick the wheat from the chaff. All the while I kept thinking, “OK, but who’s going to pay for that quality?” I could barely contain a chortle when the Post’s Weymouth said she tells aspiring young journalists that the most valuable skill is “to be a good reporter.” The Post has laid off hundreds of staff in the last few years. It essentially killed its business section last year. I’m pretty sure they were all good reporters.
Nevertheless, the News Literacy Project seems a worthwhile endeavor. It may not save our jobs, but it may save our society. To learn more, take a look at this video.