News literacy, defined as “demonstrating the critical thinking ability and awareness necessary to access, filter and evaluate credible news from diverse sources” (Powers, 2014), is a topic with a small but increasing presence in high school and college curricula, thanks to a range of nonprofits, foundations and international organizations.
Journalists and researchers have also championed this educational movement. My doctoral dissertation, an in-depth study of 244 undergraduates at the University of Maryland, contributed to the understanding of what digital media concepts, cognitive strategies and evaluation criteria warrant targeting or greater emphasis in news literacy curricula.
This page visualizes my research — specifically the challenges facing digital news audiences and solutions for training students to be discerning news consumers.
College students are wired. They are awash in information.
And — despite common perception — they are avid news consumers, most often through their computers and cell phones.
Being an engaged, well-informed citizen in the digital age requires a heightened ability to navigate the maze of online information portals, assess the reliability of sources, check the veracity of information, and understand the difference between promotional material and news, opinion and fact, original reporting and recycled content.
Filtering the glut of information to find credible and diverse news from trustworthy sources requires a distinct set of critical thinking strategies, as well as an awareness of how choices when accessing news can shape what is consumed.
Critical thinking can be demonstrated by understanding the ways in which websites filter and rank news items. However, students were often unaware that the sites at which they begin their news search tailor news to them, which potentially affects the credibility and diversity of news consumed.
They rely heavily on portal sites such as Google, Twitter and Facebook that are typically not transparent about how they select and filter the news items and news sources displayed.
Reliance on top-ranked or listed news items by habit or the assumption that prominent placement reflects newsworthiness suggests a lack of understanding of how information is selected, distributed for publication and ordered in the digital age.
Students evaluated news outlets most commonly by perceived reputation or brand name rather than criteria that represent higher-order thinking.
Similarly, they evaluated news items based upon reputation of the news outlet rather than specific attributes of the item such as authoritativeness of sources cited, factuality, depth of reporting, and evenhandedness/balance, all of which represent higher-order critical thinking.
When asked to explain the thought processes underlying their news searches, a significant percentage of students lacked a conscious awareness or understanding of the strategies and evaluation criteria that potentially affect the credibility and diversity of news consumed.
At a time when news consumers have more choices than ever before, journalism educators are turning their attention to training news audiences. Courses in news literacy teach high school and college students with little in-depth exposure to news media in a classroom setting to think critically about the purpose or value of media content.
Given study results, the following are recommendations for news literacy curricula:
- Students need to understand the potential drawbacks to living in a news silo and the importance of thinking critically when using technology and their social networks to identify news.
- Students need to know the attributes of the online portals through which they access news and the source of the news, both of which potentially affect the credibility and diversity of news consumed.
- Students need to better understand how the strategies and evaluation criteria they use or could employ while accessing news online potentially affect the credibility and diversity of news consumed.
- Curricula should cover criteria for evaluating the credibility of news items accessed that demonstrate higher-order thinking, such as: Identification and authoritativeness of content producer identified; evidence of factuality, attribution/identification of sources and their authoritativeness; and depth of reporting, content’s evenhandedness/balance.
- Educators should adopt learning outcomes and assessments that measure whether students are using what they have learned by thinking critically about their strategies for filtering online news rather than remaining in a state of automaticity.