Image is illustrative. Gerd Altmann (Pixabay)

The need for news literacy

Mass media is in crisis. With emerging online platforms and communities, we simply consume news differently than we did 10 years ago: more people consume news on their smartphones than via other mediums, and social media plays an increasingly significant role in the spread of and discussions around current events (Newman, Fletcher, Kalogeropoulos, Nielsen, 2019). The traditional one-to-many dissemination of news has been replaced with sophisticated recommendation algorithms that offer personalised news to users (Beam and Kosicki, 2014), and online news publications are increasingly dependant on social clicks – the traffic social media networks produce for online pieces (Gabielkov, Ramachandran, Chaintreau, Legout, 2016).

As news organisations were mostly dependant on advertising revenue in the past, they have had to adjust their financial strategies to these changes in our digital environment and to what is now being referred to in the media and technology industries as the attention economy – human attention is a limited resource that all mediums and content creators compete for (Wu, 2017). As more and more information is directed towards us as consumers, our own knowledge on how to critically assess the messages should improve as well. We should be more news literate than ever before, meaning we should be able to: 

  1. Understand the purposes of any given news message
  2. Evaluate the quality of the evidence. 
  3. Distinguish between facts and opinions. 
  4. Identify possible biases. 
  5. Have basic knowledge of media content, the industry and the impact on society, as well as the motivation to engage with journalism (Fleming, 2014; Jang, Mortensen and Liu, 2019; Ku, Kong, Song, Deng, Kang, & Hu, 2019; Maksl, Ashley, & Craft, 2015; Mihailidis, 2014; Potter, 2010)

Unfortunately, research does not show a spike in news literacy; in fact, it reveals quite the opposite: adolescents are particularly susceptible to being misled by unreliable news sources (Potter, 2010) and university students cannot distinguish between news stories from native advertising or recognise hidden political agendas and actors in social media (Wineburg, McGrew, Breakstone, Ortega, 2016). If trusting information that is circulating on social networks makes us more susceptible to being misled, the rise of Whatsapp as a primary network for discussing and sharing news in non-Western countries such as Brazil (53%) Malaysia (50%) and South Africa (49%) (Newman, Fletcher, Kalogeropoulos, Nielsen, 2019) is also a worrying trend. 

New practices in journalism

Of course, if a friend of yours posts on Facebook about an event they have witnessed, you should not automatically deem it untrustworthy because it was posted on social media. When assessing the information, keep in mind it is the discipline of verification that distinguishes professional journalism from other news making (Kovach and Rosenstiel, 2010) and that journalism aspires to higher standards of truth-telling as well as ethics of public trust (Ireton and Posetti, 2018).

 Changes in the media landscape – such as the 24-hour news cycle, which puts pressure on news organisations to be constantly publishing with ever-increasing speed and new angles to keep the attention of their customers – have brought with them some potentially harmful new practices in journalism. 

First, the production of news has become a process that the auditorium can observe and comment on in real time (Karlsson, 2011). The breaking news format, where a news story is being researched, updated and changed as the story develops, means that if any of the information the journalist first publishes is wrong, the auditorium has seen it already. It also has to be considered that some news consumers might never see the story again and may never be informed that the first assessments of the story did not turn out to be true, whilst others will see the story being changed so many times that their trust in mass media will diminish (Hennoste, 2008; Klaassen, 2018).

  • “…journalism has become a collaborative exercise, an ongoing participatory conversation among those who produce news and those who consume it.” (Kovach and Rosenstiel, 2010)

Second, the obsession with speed obviously harms the verification process (Himma-Kadakas, 2017; Klaassen, 2018; Silverman, 2015). Consider the following on any given topic – what quality of information can you produce when you research in 10 minutes compared to if you spent a whole day conducting research? With speed to the fore, even experienced journalists can make mistakes under the pressure of competing to be the first to publish. For example, after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, CNN falsely announced that the bomber had been caught live on air, simply because the editor-in-chief wanted to be the first to run the story and did not wait for verification (Carr, 2013; Himma-Kadakas, 2017).

Third, with news organisations striving towards new subscription-based models and pay walls becoming increasingly popular (Newman, Fletcher, Kalogeropoulos, Nielsen, 2019), even more attention needs to be paid to news messages being direct and honest, as sensationalist headlines or misleading photos could be the only thing that relays the story to the auditorium (Klaassen, 2018; Silverman, 2015).  

Alongside this traditional “journalism of verification” concept, where news items are vetted and journalists do not accept things at face value, journalism of assertion also enters the fray – that is journalism where reporters, hosts or anchors pose questions and arrange discussion, often between those who are from polarised sides of the debate, but rarely examine these talking points for accuracy (Kovach and Rosenstiel, 2010). Critical thinking should be applied when consuming unvetted news.

How to spread news literacy?

So, we have established that the changes in our digital environment and media landscape mean that we as news consumers must change too. But what can we do as educators and role models? 

We should keep in mind that very little curriculum time is currently allotted to news literacy and critical thinking (Farmer, 2019) in general. Including news literacy in the curriculum of formal education has worked wonders on both the capacity for critical thinking and on a wider range of digital competences for students in Finland, where media and information literacy is seen as a civic competence and included in the school curriculum from a very young age (MEKU, 2018). However, such changes start with policy-makers and took Finland the best part of 10 years to implement. Following the Finnish example should be a goal in media education in Europe, but the first priority is to educate and train educators on news literacy (Farmer, 2019).

So, for now, we must rely on non-formal education, resources and projects. Cooperation between youth workers and formal educators, NGOs and government agencies to lobby for change might sound like a priority, but first we must ask ourselves – how news literate are we ourselves?