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Howie Schneider: Navigating the Rising Tide of News

At a time when YouTube users upload 48 hours of video and Twitter users send over 10,000 tweets each minute, how can students wade through this flood of information to become discerning consumers of the news? We asked Howie Schneider, a veteran newsman, about teaching the nation's first course on News Literacy at the Journalism School at Stony Brook University. (Interview posted: June 4, 2013)

howie schneider1The school received a $1.7 million dollar grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in 2007 to teach 10,000 students—from all disciplines—the course Howie had developed. Today, the Stony Brook News Literacy model is being taught at about two-dozen other colleges and universities. Last fall, a version of the course was taught to students at the University of Hong Kong.

We interviewed Howie in May 2013 to discuss what it takes to be news-literate in today’s mercurial media landscape and what works for teaching the next generation of college graduates how to be critical evaluators of news and informed citizens.

PIL: What does news literacy mean in the context of today’s media ecology? How does news literacy differ from other literacies, such as information literacymedia literacy or digital literacy?

Howie: It’s really pretty straightforward. News literacy focuses like a laser beam on news, which is the currency of citizenship. We’re not primarily concerned with broad questions like stereotypes in media messages, or the portrayal of violence in popular culture, or issues of framing unless they inform the process of judging the reliability of news reports.

I guess the best way to describe news literacy is this way: we’re a newly-mapped civic tributary of media literacy. Our goal is to give news consumers tools to discern for themselves which news reports they can rely on and why. In essence, we want them to answer three questions every time they encounter the news: What do I know? How do I know it? Can I act on this information?

To the extent that some of the specific critical thinking skills we teach — how to evaluate sources, or differentiate between assertion and verification — can be translated more broadly to all kinds of information, we flow powerfully into the information literacy stream, as well. In fact, a librarian at Stony Brook was instrumental in helping us develop our curriculum.

But the emphasis on building citizenship skills really differentiates us from the suite of other literacies.

PIL: You began a 2010 presentation by saying, “it’s never been easier to get information, never been easier to misinterpret information, and the consequences have never been higher.” In our research at Project Information Literacy (PIL), we have found students we’ve interviewed struggle with evaluating the credibility of Web sources, whether they are using them for course work or in their everyday lives. Why has it become so difficult to determine whether news is accurate?

Howie: In some respects, or course, it’s always been a challenge to sort out accurate news reports from hype, spin, sensationalism or just sloppy and incomplete reporting, even before the digital revolution. But it’s much harder today. For starters, the hyper-accelerated news cycle and unprecedented competition for our most valuable commodity — our attention span — has put even more of a premium on speed, with accuracy often being the first casualty. We witnessed some shameful examples of that during the coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing.

But there are other crucial reasons why I think it’s much harder, beginning with changes to the mainstream media. Digitally-hip media critics are often way too dismissive — if not downright condescending — about the role of the “legacy media,” especially newspapers. For more than a century, trained, professional journalists, as imperfect as they might have been, served as gatekeepers to filter unverified or raw information. Underlying their role was a key assumption. They believed, if not in absolute truth, than in the proposition that it was possible to establish a set of verifiable or stipulated facts that could serve as the basis of a common conversation in a democracy.

Today, the number of those gatekeepers has shrunk dramatically. The latest Pew Report on the State of the News Media reports that newspaper newsroom cutbacks put the industry down 30 per cent since 2000 and below 40,000 full-time professional employees for the first time since 1978. And it’s not only their fading role as gatekeepers that troubles me, but also their declining role in ferreting out important news stories—especially news stories that powerful people do not want ferreted out. We suffer as a society from a deficit of accuracy by omission as much as by commission.

In his TED talk on the “filter bubble,” Eli Pariser is one of the few contemporary thought leaders to recognize and laud the role of the newspaper gatekeepers in providing a news diet to the public that balanced the personally relevant and the globally important.

On the Internet, of course, news consumers — and information providers — can choose to ignore or bypass the gatekeepers. Untutored “citizen journalists” — my wife is fond of asking acquaintances how they would like to be operated on by a “citizen surgeon”— can claim equity with professional journalists. Digital nihilists can proclaim there is no such thing as a common truth anyhow. Instead, if I choose to believe it — and if it’s re-enforced somewhere on the Internet — than I have the right to accept it, and repeat it, as the truth.

I worry that our standards for even defining what is accurate or truthful are eroding. Many of our students enter our News Literacy class, for example, falsely believing that if a story or website scores high on a search algorithm, it is reliable. And certainly there are those who now fervently believe that if the “wisdom of the crowd” collectively rules something to be accurate or true, then it must be true!

Amidst this confusion and ambiguity, a growing number of self-interested information hucksters, propagandists, and partisans of all stripes have rushed in to peddle their wares to a vulnerable audience. In the process and by design, many of the purveyors find it easy to blur the lines between reliable journalism and infotainment, paid-for commercial content and uninformed assertion and opinion masquerading as stipulated fact.

Is it any wonder, things have gotten harder?

PIL: What are the consequences for your students?

Howie: Let me tell you a story.

In the fall of 2009, the H1N1 flu pandemic was sweeping northward from Mexico. The 18-24 cohort, our student population, was a key target of the epidemic. As a physician, our new university president publicly urged students to take the H1N1 vaccine. A few weeks later, I asked my class of News Literacy students how many of them had taken the vaccine. Of the 225 students in the class, nine students raised their hands.

When I asked the others why they had refused, here’s what some said. The epidemic doesn’t affect me. It affects only young people and old people…My mother said it is a conspiracy by the drug companies…The vaccine can harm me.”

To support the last comment one student cited a viral YouTube video of Desiree Jennings, a cheerleading ambassador for the Washington Redskins football team who had taken a flu shot and then reported a series of bizarre symptoms. The video portrayed her walking forward with a twisted, halting gait, although she could walk backwards and run normally. Jennings also developed a strange foreign accent.

Only Jennings never took a H1N1 flu shot. She took a routine, seasonal flu shot. It was mislabeled on YouTube. And there was no conclusive evidence presented that the shot had any direct impact on her condition anyhow.

So here were bright students, many of them studying science, making decisions about their own health on the basis of unreliable information.

They were not alone. That year, only 29 per cent of children were vaccinated against the H1N1 virus and only 20 per cent of the overall population. So the consequences aren’t only whether informed or uninformed citizens will choose the next president. In extreme cases, it could mean life and death.

PIL: But the Internet provides an unprecedented number and variety of news outlets and authoritative sources. Shouldn’t that make it easier to find reliable information?

Howie: Absolutely, but here’s what I worry about. Are our students able to exploit these advantages?

I think several factors conspire against them. The first factor is the sheer volume of information that descends on us each day. It is a staggering tsunami propelling a mix of reliable information and authoritative scholarship with half-baked ideas, conspiracy theories, gossip and disinformation. A few years ago, Eric Schmidt then the CEO of Google, noted, “Between the birth of the world and 2003, there were five exabytes of information created. We now create five exabytes every two days.”

So what do psychologists universally tell us what we do when faced with sensory overload, or too much choice? We have a tendency to shut down.

So here is the ultimate irony. At a time when we have unprecedented information choice, when we need to become dynamically vigilant in separating reliable information from misinformation, we are becoming more passive news consumers. It’s easier to accept and believe a story emailed from a friend or posted on Facebook, or a wildly popular video on YouTube, than it is to check the story out on multiple news outlets to determine if it’s reliable. And why not, since we have a predilection — totally misplaced — that if the information comes from someone we trust it is probably true anyhow. The most dangerous person to receive an email from is not a scammer, but a close friend or your mother.

Add to this our brain’s evolutionary tendency to readily accept only information that conforms to what we already believe and you can see it is not a pretty picture. We are letting our critical thinking guards down.

PIL: In a 2012 “Shorenstein Discussion Paper” on news literacy, Renée Loth, a longtime Boston Globe editor, writes “the propaganda, hoaxes, guerrilla tactics, and sheer falsehoods that infect the new media are at pandemic levels” (pg. 4). Do you agree? You teach students in your courses the acronym VIA. What does it stand for and how is it helpful for critically evaluating the news? What’s a news example about how VIA works?

Howie: Yes, I agree with Renée. It’s one of the downsides of democratizing how we create and distribute information. So to help students navigate through the information landscape, we created the acronym VIA. It stands for the three attributes we believe that responsible journalists add to unprocessed information: A process of Verification; Independence from political or commercial influence; and Accountability for what they do. We believe these three qualities separate the legitimate journalism neighborhood from all the other information neighborhoods, from propaganda, entertainment, publicity, advertising and raw, unfiltered information. We tell students if they can’t find all three qualities, and they are looking for legitimate news, they are in the wrong neighborhood.

The recent controversy over the “native” advertising — sponsored content — in the Atlantic singing the praises of the Church of Scientology illustrates how easy it is to get lost. In fact, it’s never been easier to wander — or be lured — into the wrong information “neighborhood,” especially now with more and more self-interested sources, ranging from sports teams to corporations, publishing their own websites complete with a category, subject to no outside vetting, called “news.”

PIL: Why is news literacy such a critical competency to master at a time when so many students not only consume news, but create and share news?

Howie: It adds another layer of responsibility for the students, and all of us. Every time we post a photo, forward an email, share a news story, re-tweet, or create an online video, we are acting as publishers or producers. As a result, we formulated our own Golden Rule of sorts in News Literacy: "Send unto others what you would have them send unto you.” In other words, consider what you look for as a critical news consumer — verification, fairness, transparency, accountability — and apply those same principles before you publish. It’s equally important.

For example, it seems obvious that no one should forward an online petition or chain email without vetting it first. I can’t tell you how may emails my wife and I bounce back to earnest friends and relatives who send these along asking them: Did you check this out first? And we’re getting more strident about it, and as a result probably becoming less and less popular. Almost invariably the petitions and emails contain bogus information, easily checked out on Snopes or other fact-checking sites. Of course, it takes work to do this. But it starts with consciousness-raising and then probably a News Literacy tutorial.

PIL: One in three people between 18 and 24 years old in the US received their news from a social media site yesterday, according to Pew’s 2012 People & the Press survey. In a recent TED talk, Eli Pariser cited Mark Zuckerberg as saying, “A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” What are the implications for lifelong learning and civic engagement when social media sites are the primary source for both finding and sharing news? Are you concerned about what Pariser calls the “filter bubble”?

Howie: I thought Pariser’s TED talk was terrific, but in two ways I would take issue with his concept of the “filter bubble” — that we all live in a personalized information bubble invisibly managed and censored be a new class of algorithmic gatekeepers at Google and Facebook. First, I would challenge his characterization that we are all helpless and hapless captives of the bubble. This is a dangerous idea. We are not characters in the Truman Show; it’s an illusion that we are trapped in the bubble against our will.

To be news literate in the digital age means to be an active news consumer, to take control of your own information life, to learn how to break out of the bubble. It means seeking out multiple news sites and news feeds; it means challenging your assumptions be seeking out alternative points of view. God knows, there is a robust flow of responsible news and informed opinion available every day for people who know how to seek it out.

This is part of what we teach and what we have our students practice. Ultimately, it needs to be embedded in the education of all students, probably beginning in elementary school. Each year we run a summer institute for high school and college teachers interested in teaching our course. A few years ago, to my surprise, a second-grade teacher enrolled. She told us that she had her students read the True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith. It tells the story from the point of view of the Big Bad Wolf. She told us she wanted her students to learn now to seek out an alternative narrative, another point of view, before judging the evidence. This is news literacy.

Pariser also implores the masters of Google and Facebook to embed in their algorithmic gatekeepers the kind of journalistic ethics that governed the old newspaper gatekeepers. Sorry, I don’t buy it. These computer programmers may be smart and savvy, but I don’t want them making news choices for me. I want people who have a passion for the public interest. I want journalists.

PIL: Do your students find the News Literacy course difficult?

Howie: Surprisingly, yes. I say surprisingly because we have enrolled thousands of students from across every discipline on campus, mostly freshmen, many among the best and brightest students at the university, many studying biology, physics, chemistry, computer science, advanced math and engineering. Yet each year we get the same results in our end-of-the-year evaluations. Many students describe News Literacy as the most demanding course they have taken so far at the university.

At first, this mystified me. But then it underscored for me just how much hard work it takes to be an effective news consumer in the digital age. Our brain is always looking for an easy way out, to default to System One, our automatic pilot, in the words of Daniel Kahneman in his bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow.

In the course, we start with self-awareness. Our first assignment is a 48-hour news blackout; students can’t watch, read, listen or share any news, or weather or ball scores, for 48 hours. Then we focus on a series of concepts and skills that we want the students to master. But this is not a theoretical course. It’s all about applying critical thinking principles and there’s lots of practice across all media platforms. The news of the day serves as our oxygen.

In the end, our overriding message to students is that you can’t slow down the news cycle, and you can’t hold back the information tide, but you can change the way you think about the news. You can slow down. One of my favorite testimonials was from a student a few semesters ago. She wrote that News Literacy made her think not once, but twice about all the news she watched and read.

Not every student gets it, but she did.

PIL: What happens next?

Howie: We’re trying to export the course to an expanding community of universities and high schools. The big surprise has been the growing interest in what we’re doing overseas. Israel will launch a course next fall. We’ve received invitations to go to China, Vietnam, Kuwait and Russia, which presents a set of unique challenges, but also underscores a universal concern with navigating through the new information landscape.

PIL: One last question. What are your thoughts about the future of journalism?

Howie: I am an optimist. When we began the School of Journalism at Stony Brook six years ago it was a vote of confidence that journalism does have a bright future. But we also decided it was no longer sufficient for journalism schools to just train future journalists. We had to take on a second mission: to train the news consumers of the future. I don’t know what new business models will stick, but I do know this: if we don’t have readers and viewers who can identify and value reliable, independent journalism, it won’t matter. And it won’t be good for democracy either.

For more than 35 years, Howie Schneider was a reporter and editor at Newsday, one of the largest daily papers in the country. Under his leadership of the newsroom, the paper was awarded eight Pulitzer Prizes for investigative reporting, art criticism, and foreign affairs reporting.

At Stony Brook, Howie has also launched the Center for Communicating Science in collaboration with actor Alan Alda. The latter is training a new generation of scientists how to be more effective communicators in order to share knowledge about science with the public and media.

In collaboration with the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, the journalism school has helped to develop an online self-directed course, "Watching TV News: How To Be a Smarter Viewer.”

Smart Talks are informal conversations with leading thinkers about the challenges of conducting research and managing technology in the digital age. The interviews are an occasional series, produced by Project Information Literacy (PIL).

PIL is an ongoing and national research study about how college students find and use information in the digital age, and is conducted in collaboration with the University of Washington’s Information School. A special thank you to Kirsten Hostetler, a member of the PIL Research Team, who has made useful suggestions for this PIL Smart Talk interview.

Smart Talk interviews are open access and licensed by Creative Commons.

Creative Commons License

Howie Schneider: Navigating the Rising Tide of News (email interview), by Alison J. Head, Project Information Literacy, Smart Talk Interview, no. 15 (4 June 2013), is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.