Understanding news? We’re not even close

by | Feb 6, 2019 | Blog

This blog post is an updated excerpt of News Co/Lab co-founder Eric Newton’s report to the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy. Newton helped the commission develop its recommendations on literacy, including that all Americans by age 18 be “digitally literate citizens.”

“… 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

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.

Every American can’t navigate cyberspace, or understand the news they encounter there, or how best to act on it.

More to Jefferson’s point: even in the 21st Century, not everyone can read. Adult literacy and numeracy levels may be declining in some of the world’s high-income countries, says a key international report. In the United States, a full 17 percent of all adults — more than 30 million people — lack proficiency in reading.

This week, the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy tied what it called a “crisis in citizenship” to a call for revitalized education around literacies new and old.

Yes, the situation truly 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.

“Having a literate public is critical to the health of the body politic,” the commission said. “Abundant information does no good if users are not capable of using that information effectively. In the 21st century, literacy has multiple dimensions: news, media, digital and civic.”

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

Our catchphrases  — “alternative facts,” “fake news,”  a “post-truth world” —  describe information glare so bright our biggest scoundrels can hide in plain sight.

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. Our machines have put people are at the center of our interactive news systems. But our minds, not our machines, are our salvation.

But what exactly does a “digitally literate citizen” look like, now and in future years?

Obviously, 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 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.

No one is born with these literacies. Education matters: Research from ASU’s News Co/Lab and the Center for Media Engagement shows, for example, that more educated people are harder to fool with fake news.  The News Literacy Project has shown that students can be taught specifically to better find and understand news.

But here’s the challenge: Education marches on, but technology flies. Phones are regularly upgraded. People aren’t.  So we fall behind. We see news that looks real, but it isn’t. We share without care.  In Charlotte, a digital media literacy index shows the percentage of residents who say they can “identify reliable information” dropping from 85% in 2012 to 62% in 2018.

Many remedies focus on the “supply side” of news and information. If only technology platforms filtered malicious content. If only they supported real journalism. If only news outlets show their work and better engage with the whole community. If the information were only better…

Supply is important. But so is demand. Americans still have a hard time distinguishing news from opinion, news from advertising, actual news from hoaxes or propaganda. One in five adults 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 each other, and 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 we should work together. 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.

The Knight Commission encouraged “moonshot goals.” My favorite:  every 18-year-old going to the polling place for the first time as a well-informed digital citizen. Today, we ‘re not even close to that goal. We’re still on the launching pad.

Said the commission: “America does not simply face a deficit of trust in technology or the media or politics. Underlying the current loss of faith in shared truth and democratic processes is a crisis of citizenship.”

Revitalizing American citizenship through education is a critical element of success. The cost of that success will be huge. 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.