Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


In Demand: News Literacy

By Shawn Healy
The collapse of the economic model for print journalism has been well-documented here and elsewhere. Simply stated, readers have migrated online, and the advertising that subsidizes traditional reporting has failed to follow, at least on a proportionate scale. As Thomas Mitchell of the Las Vegas Review Journal often writes, “information wants to be free,” but “reporters want to be paid.” As a result, major dailies have scaled back on staff and printed pages, and some have stopped the presses altogether.

Band-aids of every variety have since surfaced, from a non-profit model financed by an endowment to micropayments for pageclicks similar to Apple’s iTunes. News aggregators like the Huffington Post, the Drudge Report, and Real Clear Politics have evolved alongside local beat reporting (see the Chi-Town Daily News) and investigative journalism on a national scale (see Pro Publica). Each is elevated as a potential panacea, but I am increasingly convinced that a single solution is unworkable. Rather, an all-of-the-above approach is a more likely indicator of journalism’s future.

Moreover, missing from these conversations is a focus on the counterpart to the form and quality of media offerings, namely those who did, do, or will consume these products. Any basic economics student knows that price and quantity are determined by the intersection of supply and demand curves. While the supply side has been analyzed to death, demand for media has been all-but-ignored.

Let's begin with an analysis of the problem. David Mindich, in his 2005 book Tuned Out, makes a case that two generations of Americans have literally abandoned media consumption as a daily habit. True, intensity of attention to media grows over time in proportion to the responsibilities we assume as adults, but never in recorded history have we witnessed such a drop-off between generational cohorts. Media habits are learned at a young age, and the numbers suggest that they are too often ignored in today’s classrooms and kitchen tables.

According to a 2007 Shorenstein Center study titled “Young People and the News,” a small minority read newspapers (9%) or tune into radio (25%) or TV newscasts (31%) on a daily basis. A full 46% never or hardly at all pick up a daily paper. News consumption, if it occurs at all, is often accidental; a 60 second news brief at the top of the hour on a local top 40 station, for example. Additionally, the Internet, while a regular drain of young peoples’ time, is a daily news portal for only 20% of adolescents, and nearly a third (32%) never use the Web as a source for news.

More recently, a 15-year old intern in London “shook the world” by filing a report to his bosses at Morgan Stanley. Mathew Robson wrote, “No teenager that I know of regularly reads a newspaper, as most do not have the time and cannot be bothered to read pages and pages of text while they could watch the news summarized on the internet or on TV.” His frank assessment encompasses all forms of traditional media, and though largely anecdotal, bears an uncomfortable truth that the industry has to date been loathe to address.

Enter the news literacy movement. Situated in the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University and the DC-based News Literacy Project, these entities, according to Stony Brook Dean Howard Schneider, seek to nurture “a generation of news consumers who would learn how to distinguish for themselves between news and propaganda, verification and mere assertion, evidence and inference, bias and fairness, and between media bias and audience bias—consumers, who could differentiate between raw, unmediated information coursing through the Internet and independent, verified journalism.”

The movement is attempting to combat young peoples’ assumption that “If the news is important, it will find me.” The so-called “9-11 Generation,” and more recently the “Obama Generation,” is socially and politically engaged, yet lacks the basic information for more substantive civic engagement. In a Columbia Journalism Review article titled “Leap of Faith,” Megan Garber argues that news outlets themselves need to join the effort to help their cause and combat blind faith. This means meeting young people “where they are,” namely in classrooms and on the Web.

More than anything else, news literacy is “distinguishing—and appreciating—excellence.” It requires confronting consumers’ cynicism about media, where only a fifth of Americans believe “most or all” reporting. The industry must push back against ideological criticism on the left (“the corporate media”) and the right (“the liberal media”), transcending an industrywide reluctance to trumpet its own cause. This means articulating the importance of a free press to the very sustenance of democracy. Garber writes, “Citizenship relies on commonly accepted modes of taking in and talking about the world—on a shared vernacular that is premised on a shared reality.”

By bringing the demand side of the equation to the discussion taking place at the proverbial altar of traditional media, the news literacy movement is performing a great service in promoting quality journalism and savvy consumers. Here’s hoping that the sick patient can help save itself.


Blogger McCormick Fields said...

The concept of news literacy is similar in approach
to the various forms of youth exposure to art and music classes and sports for initiating interests and passions that can be developed as they mature.

I would encourage classes for all ages in reportage and story telling to sharpen skills and interest in verbal and written word forms. Literacy and fully formed word usage could become extinct without a full multigenerational investment in communication of substance.

It is education and edification of literacy that may best save our planet from grunts and groans. Help please.

1:31 PM  

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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at