Understanding news? We’re not even close

“… the basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter, but I should mean that every man should receive those papers & be capable of reading them.”

— Thomas Jefferson in a letter from Paris to Edward Carrington, Jan. 16. 1787 (emphasis added)

By Eric Newton

Two hundred and thirty years after Thomas Jefferson wrote to Virginia continental congress delegate Edward Carrington, the universal news and civic literacies he describes remain but an aspiration.

Not everyone today has ready access to factual news. Nor does everyone understand, create or act on news for constructive civic ends. Nor can many navigate cyberspace, learn a new device without help, or even copy a file. More to Jefferson’s point: not everyone can read.

It is easier to teach oneself than ever before, yet a recent international report says adult literacy and numeracy levels may be declining in some of the world’s high-income countries. In the United States, a full 17 percent of all adults — more than 30 million people — lack proficiency in reading.

The issue of America’s literacies could not be more relevant to the work of the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy. The situation is dire, whether we are talking about the millions who do not read, or, even worse, the collective failure to teach new literacies required to tell truth from falsehood.

Our democratic republic cannot exist without facts, logic or rational thought. We must subscribe to a body of common knowledge or we become a nation imprisoned by its own prejudices, unable to learn anything new, to make anything better.

The catchphrases of the past year — “alternative facts,” “fake news,” “truth decay,” and a “post-truth world” — speak to why the journalistic metaphor of shining a light is no longer sufficient. Scoundrels are hiding in plain sight, protected by the glare of the daily information streams.

To see, we need filters to block the glare, and the greatest of those is the human mind. Literacies, old and new, activate the mind. People are at the center of today’s interactive news systems. Nothing short of Herculean effort will ensure our minds are upgraded and up to the task.
But what exactly does the literate citizen look like, now and in future years? Literacy is not limited to reading and writing anymore, if it ever was.

All literacies come from the same family tree, different branches but with common roots. The themes of all media-related literacies are reflected in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted nearly 70 years ago by the United Nations. It says:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

The four elements of literacy — the ability to find, understand, create and act on information — are part of the “new literacies” of the modern era: information literacy, digital literacy, media literacy and news literacy. Their cousin, civic literacy, represents a key way of acting on information: using it to improve our governments and our lives.

In the News Literacy Project’s 2015–16 annual report, for example, students reported they gained a greater appreciation of the First Amendment; understood the role and standards of quality journalism and how it is different from other news and information; learned how to find news that will make them more knowledgeable; learned civility in online communities, including how to create social media posts on issues that concern them (such as correcting errors in media reports). All in all, they were more likely to act on information by becoming civically engaged.

Despite such projects, the astounding advances of the digital age comes with a sobering truth: technology may have been upgraded, but people have not been. Most of American shares articles before really reading them. Too often we believe information based on feelings about the person who shared it and not what it says. We are suckers for misinformation when we share without care.

Most of the suggested remedies focus on the “supply side” of news and information. If only the technology platforms had media-company ethics, and better filtered malicious content. If only they returned the advertising revenue they took from journalism. If only the news outlets were more innovative, finding new ways to pay for the factual reporting needed by self-governing people. If only the news was more more fair, accurate, contextual and truthful. If only cable television would stop packing “news” programs with political hacks. If only people would stop lying for personal, economic or political gain.

“If only” is not a plan. Studies show Americans are having a hard time distinguishing news from opinion, news from advertising, actual news from fabricated news. A fifth are willing to admit it, saying they are “eager and willing” to learn. We should help them. “The way to have an informed citizenry,” writes media literacy professor Dan Gillmor, “is by having citizens who think for themselves.”

Dan and I founded the News Co/Lab at Arizona State’s Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication to work on the “demand side” of news. Among our projects: helping journalists and communities collaborate to better understand how news works in the digital age.

Whose job is it to help a community understand news? Teachers? Librarians? Technologists? Journalists? We think it’s everyone’s job, and doing it well will help us all. Journalists, for example, are more not just more understandable, they are more credible, when they really listen, and are open about how and why they do what they do.

Universal literacy is not a small project. The nation’s education problems run deep. We need sustained effort across disciplines, teaching modules, adaptive on-line learning, games and literacy promotion on the tech platforms. We can’t shame people into 21st century literacy. We need to promote its many benefits — not the least of which is a good job in today’s digital economy.

Some say America should have a moonshot goal: that every elementary school graduate is fluent in the new literacies before engaging social media. Or every 18-year-old goes to the polling place for the first time as a well-informed digital citizen. Or that the United States becomes the most literate country on earth, using its newfound literacy to live longer, better, happier lives. Today, we are not even close to any of those goals.

The cost of success will be huge. We have a K-12 education system that already spends many hundreds of billion dollars every year. But the cost of failure will be even larger. Jefferson knew it: to govern themselves, people must be “capable.” A nation incapable of telling fact from fiction is a nation about to fall.