Recently, Margaret Sullivan wrote in The Washington Post about a number of efforts to increase what some have called “news literacy,” for lack of a better term.
A dwindling number of smarty pants who seem to care about such things say that many Americans (and one would assume this is true beyond our borders) don’t know much about, well, much of anything. Sullivan points to an anecdote about college students not knowing Osama bin Laden had been killed, but I imagine you could ask lawyers about Iran-Contra, househusbands about Clinton’s email troubles or high schoolers to name their senators and you would likely prove the same point. Heck, you can even ask a presidential candidate about one of the world’s terrible hotspots – Aleppo – and you are likely to get the blank stare you see above.
Some of us think the problem is associated with the decline of newspapers and the serendipitous things you learn by turning those ink-smudged pages. It is also a byproduct of the way we consume news now. In an effort to give the people what they want and thus thrive in today’s media environment, respected media outlets and rapscallions alike have created hollow echo chambers in which the consumer’s own bias is continually reflected back.
Look, it’s downright blissful to have your suspicions confirmed. Breitbart does it by blasting a particular viewpoint to true believers. ESPN uses customizable notifications that make it seem like everyone in the world cares about your favorite women’s basketball team. You can consume the New York Times by slicing out only the things that interest you and that might not be the death of Osama bin Laden, even though that is the sort of thing every American should know. Who among us doesn’t have a bunch of Google alerts to filter out all but those few things we care deeply about. …
Sullivan calls this “disaggregation” and if you asked me why I think America is more “dis-united” than ever before, I would suggest you look no further.
Some good folks are working to turn the reader-ship around. Some of them are at the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University in New York. The center’s program includes lesson plans to teach news literacy in classroom environments and beyond. This is a really cool thing that deserves your attention.
What can we do? Well, for one, we can provide context in our stories. Tell readers how the failing bridge in your town connects with the nation’s larger infrastructure problems. When the kid on your high school team gets a concussion, put it in context with concerns for athletes in many sports. Connect dots that can seem disconnected and promote “aha” moments among readers. In addition, we can point out untruths. We can promote science. We can do better.
The lack of news literacy is a cancer that is tearing our nation apart and endangering our business. Those are two things that should concern us.