A New Literacy for Civil Society in the 21st Century
By Richard Hornik, Stony Brook University
This latest communications evolution has transformed society anew by making it possible for everyone with access to a computer or a smartphone to publish information. It is a positive development that the public is now empowered to share knowledge with others, but as Uncle Ben of "Spider-Man" told Peter Parker: “With great power, comes great responsibility.” A major element of our course is to convince our students that they have a major role to play in the quality of information on the Internet and in social media.
These challenges have created the demand for a new kind of literacy. A healthy civil society can exist only if the public is well-informed. If people can be easily led to believe rumors or gossip, the consequences can be quite dangerous.
The Stony Brook course helps students understand how journalism works and why information is such a powerful force for good and ill in modern societies. The goal is to help them build critical thinking skills that will allow them to:
- Recognize the difference between journalism and other kinds of information and between journalists and other purveyors of information;
- Separate news from opinion in the context of journalism;
- Analyze the differences between assertion and verification and between evidence and inference in a news report;
- Evaluate and deconstruct news reports based on the quality of evidence presented and the reliability of sources, and to understand and apply these principles across all news platforms;
- Distinguish between news media bias and audience bias.
Underlying these skills, the course presents and reinforces four key concepts:
- Appreciation of the power of reliable information and the importance of the free flow of information in a democratic society;
- Understanding why news matters and why becoming a more discerning news consumer can change individual lives and the life of the country;
- Understanding of how journalists work and make decisions and why they make mistakes;
- Understanding how the digital revolution and the structural changes in the news media can affect news consumers, and our new responsibilities as publishers as well as consumers. 1
The goal is for our students to sense when something is "too good to be true” – like those outlandish photos of sharks in New York City that appeared after Hurricane Sandy. Once that alarm has gone off, then the news literate consumer can either disregard the information or pursue other sources in the information-rich world in which we live.
Thus far, more than 10,000 undergraduates have taken this course at Stony Brook, and more than 50 U.S. universities have adopted or adapted all or part of the course. In the past two years, universities in Hong Kong, mainland China, Vietnam, Israel Russia and, most recently, Poland have partnered with Stony Brook to develop curricula appropriate for their students.
Richard Hornik is the director of Overseas Partnerships at the Center for News Literacy.