“New literacies” — can we agree on the basics?

by | Feb 25, 2019 | Blog

It’s all about the capacity to find, understand, act on and create digital news and information. Agreement on the basics is a first step toward collaborating to expand 21st century literacies.

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.” Read the first post in the series here.

News stories in the digital age travel cyberspace as independent units, often divorced from the context of a newspaper or newscast. When everything looks more or less the same, it becomes harder to tell the difference between factual journalism and deliberate misinformation.

Most people are not news literate. Most can’t say where the news comes from. News travels increasingly to us through social media, where most people share things without reading beyond a headline. People tend to trust stories not because of what they say but because they trust the person who sent them. They happily deliver falsehoods to each other.

Digital tools can help us deal with an impossibility of daily news and information choices. Yet most people don’t know how to use them. This brings us to education: the long game. The Knight Foundation this month issued an important report calling for “moon shot” goals to increase the 21st century’s “new literacies” and, to its credit, followed up with a major grant to the News Literacy Project.

But here’s the rub. Roughly a decade ago, a different Knight Commission also found that the ideal of an informed and engaged community was not possible without literacy. It recommended the nation “integrate digital and media literacy as critical elements of education at all levels through collaboration among federal, state and local education officials.”

That national initiative never happened.

Aside from the obvious roadblocks — political polarization, gridlock, money, a lack of popular support — some scholars argue that literacy proponents themselves present a roadblock because they do not, as a general rule, work together. Instead of a national push to master the new fundamentals of 21st century literacies, we see a variety of specialized approaches.

Yet all literacies come from the same family tree. They occupy different branches but have common roots. The fundamental themes of all the communication-related literacies are reflected in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

“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.”

Article 19 contains three of the four core elements of the “new literacies.” We’re talking about a world in which everyone, everywhere should be able to find, understand and create information and ideas in any media. The fourth element? To fulfill and maintain all other human rights, we must be free to, and know how to, act on information and ideas.

In the definitions below, the core activities — being able to find, understand, act on and create various forms of communication — are highlighted, an exercise to show that they exist in almost every definition. Agreeing on what the “new literacies” have in common would be, I think, a good step toward collaborating.


Information Literacy

Here’s how the Association of College and Research Libraries, a division of the American Library Association, defined information literacy in the 2017 Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education:

“Information literacy is a set of abilities requiring individuals to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.”

Why do we need information literacy? Because, the ALA says, information increasingly “comes to individuals in unfiltered formats, raising questions about its authenticity, validity, and reliability … information is available through multiple media, including graphical, aural, and textual, and these pose new challenges for individuals in evaluating and understanding it. The uncertain quality and expanding quantity of information pose large challenges for society. The sheer abundance of information will not in itself create a more informed citizenry without a complementary cluster of abilities necessary to use information effectively.”


Digital Literacy

In 2011, the American Library Association’s Digital Literacy Task Force defined digital literacy as “the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills.

The task force focuses on communication as the way a person might act on information. A digitally literate person:

  • Possesses the variety of skills – technical and cognitive – required to find, understand, evaluate, create, and communicate digital information in a wide variety of formats;
  • Is able to use diverse technologies appropriately and effectively to retrieve information, interpret results, and judge the quality of that information;  
  • Understands the relationship between technology, life-long learning, personal privacy, and stewardship of information;
  • Uses these skills and the appropriate technology to communicate and collaborate with peers, colleagues, family, and on occasion, the general public; and
  • Uses these skills to actively participate in civic society and contribute to a vibrant, informed, and engaged community.


Digital and Media Literacy

In her 2017 book, scholar Renee Hobbs, leader of the Media Education Lab at the University of Rhode Island, defines “Digital and Media Literacy” as: “the constellation of knowledge, skills and competencies necessary for thriving in a technology-saturated culture.” She continues: “As information, entertainment, and persuasion are now shared digitally, and personal, social and professional relationships are developed through interaction with social media as well as mass media and popular culture, people of all ages need the ability to access, analyze, create, reflect and take action using a wide variety of digital tools, forms of expression and communication strategies.”

Hobbs added the word “digital” to media literacy before many of her colleagues. She provided a similar and more detailed view of the “constellation of life skills” years earlier, saying “digital and media literacy” means a person can:

  • Make responsible choices and access information by locating and sharing materials and comprehending information and ideas.
  • Analyze messages in a variety of forms by identifying the author, purpose and point of view, and evaluating the quality and credibility of the content.
  • Create content in a variety of forms, making use of language, images, sound, and new digital tools and technologies.
  • Reflect on one’s own conduct and communication behavior by applying social responsibility and ethical principles.
  • Take social action by working individually and collaboratively to share knowledge and solve problems in the family, workplace and community and by participating as a member of the community.


Media and Information Literacy

Globally, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization combined the fields of information and media literacy to develop its global Media and Information Literacy program. Instead of defining the term, the program guidelines outline “learning outcomes” and “main elements”  that align with the fundamental four present in other definitions: the ability to find, understand, act on and create digital information. UNESCO also incorporates other new literacies: the overall context of information (media literacy), organizing and processing information (information literacy) and applying technological skills (digital literacy).


News Literacy

None of the preceding definitions emphasize the information Thomas Jefferson worried about, the independent information essential to self-government: news. A decade ago, current and former journalists created the specialty of “news literacy.” Why another literacy? Many reasons. “Teaching to the test” was driving news out of the classroom, as was the country’s increasing polarization. Newspaper in Education programs were being cut. The digital disruption of traditional media caused mass job losses and led to a local news crisis. Media literacy, while valuable, did not seem to appreciate the role of an ethical, independent, truth-seeking journalist.

A pioneering K-12 program, The News Literacy Project, sums up news literacy as the ability to tell fact from fiction, and says it has four “enduring understandings”:

  • The ability to filter information is an essential skill for journalists and consumers.
  • The First Amendment and a free press are vital to American democracy.
  • Today’s news and information ecosystem presents great challenges and enormous opportunities.
  • Knowing the standards of quality journalism empowers students as consumers and citizens.

The Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University in New York offers its own definition, its mission statement echoing Thomas Jefferson: “a healthy civil society can exist only if the public is well-informed.”

The center helps students understand a great deal about news, including to:

  • Recognize the difference between journalism and other kinds of information and between journalists and other purveyors of information;
  • Separate news from opinion in the context of journalism;
  • Analyze the differences between assertion and verification and between evidence and inference in a news report;
  • Evaluate and deconstruct news reports based on the quality of evidence presented and the reliability of sources, and to understand and apply these principles across all news platforms;
  • Distinguish between news media bias and audience bias.

Underlying these practices, says Stony Brook, are concepts such as understanding how smart news consumption can change lives, and our new responsibilities as publishers as well as consumers. The language is different, but the elements of finding, understanding, acting on and creating digital news and information are present in News Literacy.


Civic Literacy

Civic literacy is perhaps the most widely discussed (and widely defined) literacy. Generally, civic literacy involves understanding the role and functions of different levels of government, but also being able to act upon one’s knowledge by participating in civic processes.

In 2003, the seminal Civic Mission of Schools report said civic education should help young people become “competent and responsible” citizens who are informed and thoughtful; participate in their communities; act politically; and have moral and civic virtues.

A 2011 follow-up report, Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools, said six “proven practices” make up a “high quality” civic learning experience: classroom instruction, discussion of current events and controversial issues, service-learning, extracurricular activities, school governance and simulations of democratic processes.

Of course, none of the above can happen without communication. Observing that media literacy is consolidating and “stretching” to include civic education — a topic widely discussed in the Knight Commission report — some scholars believe civic literacy can be reframed as a series of social practices along the lines of media literacy, such as “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and create civic cultures.


Other Literacies

Increasing civic literacy may well save America’s democracy. But it is hardly the only topic-based literacy. Educators hope environmental literacy will save the planet, for example, and financial literacy will save the economy. And health literacy is literally a life and death matter. All of these specialties, and the many others that exist, focus on the find, understand, create and act on model.


Definitions: How they work together

Literacy definitions are moving closer together. In becoming more similar, each literacy is recognizing the importance of the others. Information and media literacy have added elements of each other and of digital literacy. Civic literacy and health literacy have added media literacy. News literacy and media literacy emphasize civic and social literacy.

Each one in its own way is trying to adapt to three realities: first, that the information explosion has created so much content that almost anything is available, if you know how to find it; second, that the interactive digital age of communication has turned consumers into people who share and create content, if you know how to do it well; and third, that information alone changes behavior only if you know how and desire to act on it.

It’s understandable that the digital age definitions are growing. But that doesn’t mean it is right or smart.

Each field that lays claim to a literacy is good at one of the fundamentals — librarians at finding information, for example, or civic teachers at showing how people can act on information. Despite what it thinks of itself, no field is good at the “literacy of everything.”

An important question becomes whether each literacy’s ambition to be the most comprehensive and important hinders efforts to work together to study and teach the “new fundamentals” of 21st-century literacies.

Suppose for a moment that what all students need in all grade levels are the four fundamentals of finding, understanding and acting on digital news and information. How does a debate over which literacy is “better” help them?


In the next post: Are the “controversies” about new literacies real?