Technology has made the world increasingly interconnected, but not necessarily better informed. One of the key roles of technology today should be to help learners better understand the world we live in, and this means teaching news litearcy in schools. Yet despite some efforts by those championing media and news literacy, Gretchen Schwarz (2006, pp. 255) writes that its proponents are still dealing with ‘all the problems of a young field – becoming visible in the academic world, acquiring credibility among educators and others, developing a strong research basis, and finding funding’.
The challenges facing media literacy education become even more pronounced when one looks specifically at its subset, news literacy education.
As media scholar, Fifi Schwarz (2012, pp. 1) points out,
‘The most relevant sources for informing citizens about social, economic & political affairs – news media – are often overlooked in media literacy education. This seems rather odd, considering that interest in news media among (young) citizens clearly relates to their civic engagement’.
Similarly, media educator David Buckingham (2003, pp. 3) writes,
‘It is quite extraordinary that the majority of young people should go through their school careers with so little opportunity to study and engage with the most significant contemporary forms of culture and communication. Clearly, there is an argument here that still needs to be made’.
There are several possible reasons why news literacy has received little scholarly attention and has been underrepresented in education curricula. First and foremost, news literacy has been overshadowed by the more popular subject, media literacy. Schwarz (2012, pp. 2) suggests this is to do with the fact that news media is generally associated with, or falls into the category of what he refers to as “old media”, which is not as popular with young people, especially in the digital age. Buckingham (2000, pp. 9) supports this claim with data, reporting that young people frequently express indifference, or even considerable dislike, towards the news. This is a significant point given the underlying philosophy of media education in general as a form of inoculation. Buckingham (2003, pp. 19) explains that this idea comes from the belief that students should be partly exposed to the debilitating forms of media influence in the classroom so as to ultimately enhance their immunity from manipulation. In terms of news media however, this notion of inoculation can be seen to not apply – after all, it does not make sense to spend time teaching students news literacy in order to “inoculate” them if they are not interested in news itself. For this reason, other areas of media literacy education have held greater importance in the eyes of educators.
As an ephemeral and potentially contentious subject, news by its very nature can also be seen as a difficult, if not an unnecessary media, to bring into the classroom. Laufenberg (2010) states that:
‘There is tons of news out there, and you need to interact with it at an analytic level as it happens. You cannot plan ahead for current events, and it makes some teachers uncomfortable to plan lessons around things that have not yet happened. They want to control the content’.
Hobbs (2010, pp. 7) adds to this point by suggesting that, ‘where competition and fragmentation of news audiences reign, no easy assumptions can be made about the nature of what counts as trustworthy and authoritative when it comes to news and current events’.
The result is that however relevant or useful it might be, most teachers are reluctant to use the news as part of their daily pedagogy. This situation is not helped of course, by the fact that there is no training given to teachers on how to teach news literacy. Hobbs (2004, pp. 53) writes that:
‘Based on my experience as a teacher-educator, I have observed that it takes about three years of practice, supported by staff development and peer critique, to enable teachers to develop the new skills and knowledge they need to effectively use media texts in the classroom to promote critical-thinking and analysis skills’.
According to Powers (2010, pp. 37) though, education schools that prepare today’s teachers do not offer instruction on how to incorporate news literacy instruction into the classroom or test teachers on this content area. One possible explanation for such barriers to bringing news literacy into the classroom are arguably systemic, rooted in society’s fundamental perceptions and attitudes towards the news media.
For example, Altschull (1990, pp. 53) suggests that news literacy has consistently been viewed as a discipline of practice, ‘not one of deep and reflective thought’. Similarly, Hobbs (2004, pp. 51) writes,
‘Although the use of popular-culture materials is becoming more and more common, there is little widespread public enthusiasm for the use of popular mass media texts among education and business leaders, and even less among parents and community leaders’.
An obvious reason for this is that news literacy might be seen as a tool by some for propagandising by the teacher. In other words, there may be concern that news literacy lessons come with political judgments. As Powers (2010, pp. 43) writes though,
‘While maintaining absolute political objectivity is impossible for teachers introducing any classroom lesson, proponents of news literacy emphasise that the instruction is about teaching skills rather than ideological values’.
Indeed, news literacy education is not about teaching students what to think when it comes to news – quite the contrary, it is about teaching students how to think critically about the news they read. Nonetheless, misconceptions about the pedagogy underlying news literacy needs to be taken into account as a widespread barrier for its inclusion into curricula.
A final factor to consider is that many classrooms may be ill-equipped with the technological resources necessary to facilitate lessons on news literacy. According to the report “The Internet and the Threat It Poses to Local Media: Lessons from News in the Schools”, one-third of teachers said they are not making as much use of Internet-based news as they would like, because their classrooms are not equipped for it (Patterson, 2010, pp. 5). The necessity of computers and Internet access is particularly apparent when one refers to global news literacy, in which the reading of news from international outlets online would be a prerequisite. As some schools lack computers, wireless access, or the projection technology necessary for teachers to effectively draw on digital news as an educational resource, this problem is an immediate barrier to the inclusion of news literacy lessons. That being said, there are approaches that teachers can take to respond to such technological obstacles, which might include rationing students’ access to equipment or applying a “bring your own device” (BYOD) policy in the classroom. Such approaches to overcoming technological resource constraints are not necessarily ideal and may present their own problems. As a result, the inclusion of news literacy curricula needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis, specifically taking account of the school’s access to relevant technologies.
Given all of the barriers to news literacy education in schools, its advocates face an important task ahead. Hobbs (2010, pp. 8) suggests greater efforts needs to be made to help educators see the value of employing news and current events into K-12 and higher education. Powers (2010, pp. 45) writes recognition is needed ‘that news literacy involves critical thinking skills, a commonly listed learning objective, and that acquiring the ability to critically analyse news and public affairs information promotes good citizenship’. In this way, it is much more likely that news literacy education will be represented in educational standards, which reflect the policy consensus of what teachers are expected to cover and what students are expected to learn.
Altschull, H. 1990. From Milton to McLuhan: The Ideas behind American Journalism. White Plains, NY: Longman.
Buckingham, D. 2000. The Making of Citizens. Young People, News and Politics. Routledge.
Buckingham, D. 2003. Media Education. Literacy, Learning and Contemporary Culture. Polity Press, USA.
Hobbs, Renee. 2004. A Review of School-Based Initiatives in Media Literacy Education. American Behavioral Scientist, Vol. 48, No. 1 (2004): 42-59. Print.
Hobbs, R. 2010. News Literacy: What Works and What Doesn’t. University of Rhode Island.
Laufenberg, Diana. Telephone interview. 28 May 2010. Quoted by Powers, 2010.
Patterson, Thomas E. “The Internet and the Threat It Poses to Local Media: Lessons from News in the Schools.” Carnegie-Night Task Force on the Future of Journalism, 2007. Web. 17 July 2010.
Powers, E. 2010. Teaching News Literacy in the Age Of New Media: Why Secondary School Students Should Be Taught to Judge the Credibility of the News They Consume. Washington University in St. Louis.
Schwarz, G & Brown, P. 2006. Media Literacy: Transforming Curriculum and teaching. Oklahoma State University: Wiley-Blackwell.
Schwarz, F. 2012. Media Literacy and the News. Windesheim School of Media in Zwolle, the Netherlands.