History of a Fourth Estate Movement to Empower Citizens

The godfather of the News Literacy movement was a newspaper editor.

After leading Newsday to multiple Pulitzer Prizes, Howard Schneider embarked on a new career in public education as Dean of the newest journalism school in the country.

At a time when the traditional newspaper business model was collapsing and the audience for online journalism exploded, Schneider went to work with Stony Brook University President Shirley Kenny to build the first School of Journalism in the 64-campus State University of New York system.

While teaching a course in the ethics and values of the American press, Schneider realized that a large cohort of students were either lost in the digital flood of information or had adopted a defensive cynicism, unwilling to trust that information could be anything other than spin.

By late 2005, Schneider had built the first stand-alone course in News Literacy. Seeing connections, he collaborated with hard science, social science and humanities experts at Stony Brook to build a course that helps students understand their own biases as well as the importance of reliable information to their inherited role as stewards of a democracy.

Thus emerged Stony Brook Journalism’s unique mission: training the next generation of citizen news consumers is at least as important as training the next generation of journalists.

Schneider was certainly not alone in finding students adrift in the flood of information and by 2006-2007, several of America’s largest private foundations looking to solve the same problems selected the Stony Brook model for and invested millions of dollars to expand it.

The campus news literacy movement spun a creative counterpart in secondary schools. About the same time Stony Brook’s News Literacy program launched, Los Angeles Times investigative reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner Alan Miller began talking to sixth graders at his daughter’s middle school in Bethesda and discovered a connection: though newspapers were in decline, students awash in media were receptive to learning about the values and value of journalism.

By 2008, Miller had sufficient funding, primarily from the Knight and Ford Foundations, to launch formal pilot projects in the 2009-2010 school year. The News Literacy Project worked with English, history and government teachers in seven middle schools and high schools in New York City, Bethesda and Chicago. More than 75 journalists worked with more than 1,200 students. The McCormick Foundation became the project’s third major funder.

But a great deal of work lies ahead. Curriculum adoption is a barrier to the academic outsiders who comprise News Literacy’s leadership.

The final draft of the Common Core Standards proposed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers emphasizes civic engagement and critical thinking to such a degree that teachers are now finding it easier and easier to win approval of courses built on the DNA of the Stony Brook model course.

Lately, the news literacy effort has attracted interesting allies.

National Endowment for Humanities Chairman Jim Leach, a Republican who represented Iowa in the U.S. House for 30 years, has embarked on a “civility tour” of the nation, in which he sounds many of the key themes of news literacy, most notably the importance of reading a wide range of news sources and engaging with those of contrary minds.

At the University of Michigan’s commencement in May of 2010, President Obama devoted the last third of his remarks to ideas familiar to news literacy students.

“…If we choose only to expose ourselves to opinions and viewpoints that are in line with our own,” he said from the bully pulpit. “ studies suggest that we become more polarized, more set in our ways. That will only reinforce and even deepen the political divides in this country.

But if we choose to actively seek out information that challenges our assumptions and our beliefs, perhaps we can begin to understand where the people who disagree with us are coming from.

“Here’s the point. When we don’t pay close attention to the decisions made by our leaders, when we fail to educate ourselves about the major issues of the day, when we choose not to make our voices and opinions heard, that’s when democracy breaks down. That’s when power is abused. That’s when the most extreme voices in our society fill the void that we leave. That’s when powerful interests and their lobbyists are most able to buy access and influence in the corridors of power—because none of us are there to speak up and stop them.”