Post-conference dispatch: NAMLE 2017

By Glendora Meikle | July 18, 2017 | United States

In 2002, I wrote an op-ed for my college newspaper in which I cited a statistic I’d found in an article from The Onion.

I won’t try to defend it, other than to note that in 2002 The Onion was still a fairly unknown entity, as was The Internet itself; Facebook was still years away. But more concerning than my outright ignorance was the fact that the phrase, “According to The Onion…” made it through two rounds of copyediting, got the final OK from the senior editors, was published, and resulted in zero blowback for me. No one noticed.

It wasn’t until a few months later – when an off-hand comment by a colleague about the satirical news outlet led me on a guilt-laden fact-finding mission – that I realized I’d quoted a shoddy source. I vaguely recalled having thought at the time that the article was kind of weird, but it was one of many sources I scanned while doing research and I’d cherry-picked the statistic that supported my argument and ignored the rest of the piece. My mistake – and my credulousness – went unpunished.

Such ignorance and sloppiness feels newly significant today, since it’s a 15-year-old example of falling victim to fake news. I was among the minority of Americans earning a bachelor’s degree (around 30 percent, as of 2012), a budding journalist, and yet I still hadn’t honed my critical thinking skills. I look back on it as a professional failure, but it’s also led me to re-examine the education system that allowed me to get so far without learning to adopt a healthy skepticism and spot dubious claims.

The stakes are higher now, which is one of the reasons a cohort of people from across the United States came together in Chicago last month for the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE)'s annual conference. Its attendees are a collection of educators, librarians and media-savvy professionals who want to see us get better at connecting the dots between being news-literate and being an informed citizen.

I’m a newcomer to this whole scene, so I attended as an observer, trying to get up to speed on a conversation a lot of smart people have been having for years already. With that outsider’s perspective in mind, a few thoughts I had after an engaging couple days at the conference:

- We need to better serve the majority of Americans who will not continue with education past high school. Though there was some talk of higher education, the focus of the conference participants’ efforts was – rightly – on middle- and high school-aged students. Peter Adams, of the News Literacy Project, talked about the importance of arming teens with the skill to ask good questions, and noted that with social media, we’re all producers of content, too. “There's an ecosystem between news consumers, content producers, and platforms,” he said. “The more news-literate the consumers are, the healthier that ecosystem is.”

- We’re putting a lot on teachers. Of the 300 or so participants at this year’s conference, the vast majority were educators. It was a gathering that included very few working journalists. I was struck by what that said about our expectations of educators: without some kind of national initiative or support, where do we expect that today’s teachers themselves are supposed to learn about how the news is made? To have such a strong understanding of the process of creating a news story that they can guide their students through it as an everyday practice? I’m the daughter of a teacher and a friend to many teachers in my peer group, but I know none who has a deep grasp of how professional journalists work. Why should we expect them to? With the exception of Woodward & Bernstein’s All the President’s Men, we’ve never prioritized helping the public understand the process.

Newsrooms should make outreach a part of their work. The journalistic process is rarely on display, though when it is it can be a good teaching tool. I’m thinking of the Serial podcast, where Sarah Koenig makes the reporting process a part of the narrative, or David Fahrenthold’s reporting for the Washington Post over the past year, in which he invites his Twitter followers to witness his methodology. Transparency isn’t practical for most reporting, so when it’s laid out for public consumption, we should take note.

- We cannot let news literacy become a partisan issue. I don’t think there were a lot of Trump voters at this conference. This worries me. Wanting to make sure our kids – and ourselves – are well-informed should not be a political statement. Issues like climate change are already proving thorny in classrooms, and talking about trust and media could set off alarm bells for parents. Our efforts should be all about teaching how to ask questions, not pronouncing things right and wrong. We’re not asking them to trust the information, but the process. We’re not telling them what to think, but how to think

- Fun fact: there are more public libraries in the United States than there are Starbucks. A participant noted this factoid during a discussion of public trust in institutions (low for government and media; high for libraries). Given that my baseline is New York City, where you can see a Starbucks on one corner while enjoying your latte from another Starbucks half a block away, I was a little worried that we were spreading fake news at the media literacy conference. I ran it by a library-literate colleague at IREX, though, and she pronounced it accurate: 17,000 public libraries across the country, compared to just 11,000 Starbucks coffee shops.

- News literacy is the shiny new thing in the journalism world, so let’s keep an eye on donor fatigue. Of course, news literacy isn’t new at all – NAMLE’s been holding a version of its bi-annual conference for about two decades, the News Literacy Project has been around for years, and several universities have had projects going on long enough to have impressive track records in the field. But the mainstream is just starting to wake up to this crucial niche in the system, and while there may be some support for existing organizations, we’re also seeing the launching of brand-new operations working on very similar issues. This should be a sustained effort, not a quick burnout because there were too many cooks in the kitchen. Maybe the varied voices will bring us progress sooner. But I hope we don’t forget – especially in competition for funding – to listen to the people with institutional knowledge, rather than trying to start from scratch.

- The Department of Education should incorporate news literacy into the curriculum in a concrete, meaningful way. Journalism is such an integral part of our lives as informed citizens that I worry we’re not thinking big enough. From the sessions I attended, it was clear that individuals and even some school- or region-wide efforts are working to address news literacy in interesting ways. But I think we need to be bigger and bolder, and that an understanding of how a credible news story comes together should be a basic component of any civics, social studies, history or even English class, nation-wide.

- Educators and journalists are the most prominent sources of information in our lives, so a coalition between the two is a natural fit. When we think about where we get information throughout our lives, we rely on just a few basic sources: when we’re kids, we learn about the world from school and from our parents; as adults, we learn what’s going on from the media and from our peers. A lifetime of decision-making relies on these sources.

*****

During the conference, I kept thinking about when I first read The Catcher in the Rye. I was probably about 12, and my dad – the English teacher – “assigned” it to me one summer. At that age, I wasn’t thinking of books much beyond the basic question: did you like it? So when I finished it and my dad asked if I liked it, I said yes. Then he asked me another question: What did you think of Holden? Did you like him? Did he seem like the kind of guy you could rely on to tell you the truth?

It may have occurred to me when I was reading it that Holden Caulfield had some character flaws, but at that age I needed those prompts to get me to consider the concept of an unreliable narrator for the first time.

In the rest of my public-school education, I don’t think another teacher ever helped me to connect this concept to anything beyond English literature. We get bogged down in the specifics of a class on Dostoyevsky or Dickens, and then we switch on a completely different part of our brain to learn about European history in the 1800s. We’re not taught to think across disciplines and connect the dots – a myopic, limiting perspective.

The real world is less inclined to divide lessons into neat, single-topic bites, so we should probably spend more time teaching kids how to process the mess of information whizzing at us from every angle, 24/7.

Thinking critically about information is relevant to the rest of our lives. It deserves a real platform in our education system. We can’t relegate it to an afterthought and hope that a few conscientious teachers across the country will hear through the grapevine about news literacy and decide to invest time and effort of their own accord (and bank account) to give a leg up to their students.

Learning how to be an independent thinker is the most critical issue facing the next generation of voters.

*****

I’ll end on a few useful resources for those who want to dig deeper:

PBS NewsHour recently ran a Q&A with NAMLE’s executive director, Michelle Ciulla Lipkin.

On the Media’s Bob Garfield interviewed former FCC Chairman Newt Minow at one of the conference’s plenary sessions. OTM included the conversation in that week’s podcast. (Pull quote from Minow, to the audience of news literacy advocates in the room: “What you’re doing is the cure for the phenomenon of alternative facts.”)

The latest issue of the Journal of Media Literacy Education is hot off the presses.

View All Posts By Glendora Meikle

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