UCLA Element of Media Literacy Discussion Question

A primary stream of inquiry in political science works to understand and measure what citizens know about politics and governance. Pollsters gauge political
knowledge by asking, for example, whether someone can correctly identify the
sitting vice-president by name or say which branch of government determines
the constitutionality of laws or tell which political party is more conservative.1
These knowledge questions are different from the more familiar type of public
opinion polling that asks about attitudes and opinions regarding specific political candidates or toward specific policies such as those related to immigration
or health care or military action. The more foundational fact-based approach to
political knowledge seeks to identify what people know about government and
how it works. This kind of contextual knowledge, the thinking goes, is key to
being able to navigate political affairs and contribute effectively to a self-governing
society. Citizens with higher levels of political knowledge are more likely to be
informed and engaged participants in democratic life and are more likely to feel
like they have a say in what happens.
But what do citizens know about news media? What should they know? These
are underappreciated questions, considering the central role news plays in democratic life. If the research on political knowledge tells us anything—that contextual
knowledge about government and the political system is important to informed
participation—then the same should hold true for knowledge about news media.
Because news media is the chief method for citizens to learn about public affairs
and democratic governance, it makes sense to suppose that people need to know
factual information about how the system works beyond their general opinions
about the best and worst sources of news or their vague notions about how journalists do their jobs. Knowing basic facts about the structures and institutions of
34 Why News Literacy?
the information environment should help citizens be more engaged and informed
participants in democratic life and should feel like their voice matters.
The emerging research in news literacy is both disappointing and encouraging. Our levels of knowledge about news media—that is, our news literacy—are
not great. For something that consumes so much of our time and attention, many
of us know surprisingly little about the information environments we live in. At
the same time, research suggests that, first of all, it is possible to increase people’s
levels of news literacy through a range of educational interventions (like this book
and the class you might be reading it in). And, second, research has found that
higher levels of news literacy correspond in general to the kinds of positive social
outcomes we would hope to see: higher levels of political participation, greater
knowledge of current events, lower endorsement of misinformation, and higher
levels of political self-efficacy, or the idea that people can have a say in the world
around them. Seeing this connection between news literacy and positive political engagement helps scholars identify and assess the goals and functions of news
literacy education.
In this chapter, to learn more about news literacy and its role in democratic
life, we’ll first review the ways people access news and learn about the world. After
that, we’ll examine the theoretical and empirical foundations of news literacy and
look at the research that measures various types of news knowledge and motivations as well as the connections between news literacy and political engagement.
Although this literature reveals a significant lack of knowledge about the news
media system and a general lack of engagement in the face of an overwhelming
high-choice media environment, research also has found positive relationships
between news literacy and participation in democratic life. The emerging evidence suggests that news literacy is important not just because it seems like stuff
people should know but because it is positively linked to the goals most of us have
for democratic society. In light of this, it can be seen as a major problem that only
some citizens have access to news literacy education; a news literacy gap could leave
some citizens behind when it comes to effective participation in democratic life.
Finally, this chapter discusses how low levels of news literacy can be connected to
an underperforming news media system that fails to provide information citizens
really need; in other words, an insufficient supply of quality news and information
can be linked to a lack of public demand for it.
What Is News Good For?
Before diving into research on news consumption and news literacy, it’s useful
to consider the role of news in society—not just the theoretical role it plays in
democracy but the way people actually use news in day-to-day life. Why do we
consume news in the first place, and what is it good for?
For starters, news is not necessarily the best place to look for an accurate portrayal of reality. Our perceptions of what is important or problematic or risky are
What Citizens Know About News 35
easily skewed by the representations of reality that appear in the news and information environment. As cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker argues, “News is a
misleading way to understand the world. It’s always about events that happened
and not about things that didn’t happen.”2 The stuff that gets attention can make
it seem like everything is constantly terrible. In his recent work on social progress,
Pinker shows how the use of reason and evidence as ways of understanding the
world has improved social conditions almost universally over past centuries and
decades. Data suggest that life on planet Earth has generally gotten better based
on major metrics of progress, such as levels of violence and poverty, which are
down, and life expectancy and leisure time, which are up.3 Some people have a
hard time with these conclusions, noting that suffering still continues and progress
is hardly inevitable. These points are true, of course; if they were not, there would
be no need for this book because everything would be great and news would have
nothing to report. I don’t think Pinker aims to undermine or belittle the suffering that goes on in the world, but his point is a good one. While there will always
be work to do if we want to improve the human condition (and we should), it’s
important to note that if we really look back, we can see how humans have been
pretty good at making things better overall. This is some helpful context we can
bring to our news consumption in order to remember that news is not reality
itself but only a representation of it.
Well, duh, you might say. Of course, news is about bad stuff—that’s what makes
it news! Well, yes, to some extent, but why? There are a number of reasons for this
that we will explore in the chapters to come. But one reason is our own desire
to know what’s going on around us and to be attuned to any threats or dangers
that might come our way. This is what has been called our “awareness instinct,”
which helps us stay safe and live life.4 At one time, humans had an understandable
need to know about things, like the proximity of a roving band of saber-toothed
tigers or a rival tribe planning a village invasion. Today, our concerns are different,
but we still have an instinct to be aware of threats in our environment, such as
wildfires, toxic drinking water, child kidnappers, terrorism, corporate fraud, government embezzlement, and other violations of legal and social contracts. Having
an awareness of these threats is important, and we should be grateful to those
who work to keep us informed. At the same time, it’s good to remember to view
threats in proportion to the danger they actually represent and to understand that
this is not something news outlets are always interested in. For example, terrorism,
because it is terrifying, gets loads of attention, but the actual risk it poses for most
humans is insignificant compared to other issues we face.
Our instincts for awareness are part of our DNA as humans. To satisfy these
instincts, news or something like it has been around as long as humans have
lived. Most of human history has been dominated by an oral tradition of sharing
knowledge and information through word of mouth, often by poets and storytellers. Even as written language developed, literacy rates were extremely low as
monks and scribes recorded religious texts and philosophical treatises. The first
36 Why News Literacy?
public message boards were used by ancient Romans more than 2,000 years ago,
but the arrival of the printing press around 1450 is what allowed news media and
mass communication to really take off. With what was essentially the world’s first
Xerox machine, sharers of information could now make mechanical copies of
documents rather than having to copy by hand. The world’s first newspaper came
along in Germany in 1605, and newspapers spread rapidly after that.
The functions of early newspapers fluctuated based on the tensions posed by
state control, commercial pressure, and the desire of publishers to provide a public
forum free from outside influence. The early days of print media were marked by
state and religious control of information and low levels of literacy. As Enlightenment ideals of liberty and reason arrived, many publishers were free and eager to
engage in political discourse and to participate in what German scholar Jurgen
Habermas calls the “bourgeois” public sphere, which flourished in the 17th century.
For the first time, ordinary private citizens could discuss public life without fear
of reprisal as public forums gained autonomy from state control and as literacy
spread. Newspapers were often aligned with specific political candidates and parties and engaged in fierce ideological debates about social and economic policies.
But conditions changed as industry and commerce began to take root in the
1800s, and the bourgeois public sphere floundered. By this time, according to
Habermas, the press “could abandon its polemical stance and concentrate on the
profit opportunities for a commercial business. In Great Britain, France, and the
United States at about the same time (the 1830s) the way was paved for this sort
of transition from a press that took ideological sides to one that was primarily a
business.”5 Modern news media evolved only with the arrival of the 20th century,
as pressures toward commercialization and professionalism gave rise to modern
ideals of neutrality and objectivity.
Today’s news media and our consumption of it reflects these contradictory
origins. While commercial imperatives remain central, some news looks more
like the partisan press of the early 1800s. We sense that news plays some central
but undefined role in our shared civic life, so we choose our preferred outlets and
passively consume what is presented as the news of the day. Some people have a
sense that news is not supposed to be biased, so they are on guard against spin and
propaganda. But just as many of us choose not to consume news at all, or we limit
our consumption to a quick scan of headlines that appear in our newsfeeds or at
the top of our homepages. There is no shortage of available information; indeed,
the glut of news we are forced to contend with presents a paradox.We have access
to more information than ever, but we hardly know what to do with it.
While our tools for representation have grown more sophisticated, our depictions and our perceptions have not. Our information environment certainly
includes a broader range of subjects and voices, but we are collectively worse
than ever at creating, consuming, and sharing accurate or reliable information.We
are not growing more informed, and we are no more engaged.6 You might think
that the increase in news and information in the digital age would translate to an
What Citizens Know About News 37
increase in democratic participation, but this is not the case. According to a report
by Sweden’s International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance,
global voter turnout was fairly stable between the 1940s and the 1980s,
falling only slightly from 78 per cent to 76 per cent over the entire period.
It then fell sharply in the 1990s to 70 percent, and continued its decline to
reach 66 per cent in the period of 2011–15.7
In general, data show widespread low levels of and declines in knowledge and
participation, which has major implications for democratic theory.8 As political theory scholar Phil Parvin notes, “Empirical trends strongly suggest that any
model of democratic decision-making and legitimacy needs to contend with the
fact of widespread political disengagement and low levels of political knowledge.”9
So what is news good for if it’s not making us more informed or engaged? The
fact that people continue to consume news in various forms suggests that, in some
sense, the news media environment does an excellent job of satisfying our awareness instincts. But the fact that democratic outcomes related to knowledge and
participation have not fared better suggests that something is wrong with news, or
with us, or both. Our awareness instinct may be satisfied by learning about house
fires and political scandals, but those stories aren’t going to do much to make
us better citizens. That’s why the best news content often focuses on trends and
patterns and puts seemingly random daily occurrences into larger contexts that
provide meaning. Unfortunately, few news providers are set up to operate like this.
When news outlets and web platforms depend on your attention for ratings and
clicks, it’s often easier and more important to produce results by publishing news
that will accomplish these goals.
The basic question of the role of news media and its capacity to inform citizens
is not a new one. As I mentioned at the outset, in his 1922 book, Public Opinion,
journalist and political pundit Walter Lippmann pointed out the basic disconnect
between the realities of the world and the representations that appear in news
media. “The world outside and the pictures in our heads” is the phrase he used
to describe the gap between empirical reality and what we conjure in our minds
based on the information we have access to.10 Lippmann was quite down on
democracy and didn’t hold much hope for informed citizen participation. Ultimately, he proposed that government be run primarily by experts who were best
equipped to make informed decisions about difficult issues. Lippmann’s prescription is not that far off from what we have today—limited participatory democracy
with a heavy reliance on administrative agencies staffed by unknown bureaucrats
who carry out the day-to-day affairs of government.
One of Lippmann’s contemporaries was John Dewey, a philosopher and education reformer who also grappled with the difficult realities of democracy.The two
are sometimes presented as having been engaged in a debate over the possibility of
democracy, which isn’t quite accurate, but they did offer divergent perspectives.11
38 Why News Literacy?
Dewey agreed with Lippmann’s concerns about the role of news media in
democracy and called Lippmann’s work “perhaps the most effective indictment of
democracy as currently conceived ever penned.”12 Democracy was fundamentally
flawed, as news—with its narrow focus on decontextualized events—could not
accurately depict reality and citizens could not accurately perceive it. As a solution, Dewey suggested that news media should depict daily events “in the light of
a continuing study and record of underlying conditions.”13 By putting daily life
into broader social contexts, citizens could gain a more complete picture of reality. Dewey rejected Lippmann’s vision of elite management of public affairs and
instead called for “continuous reporting of the news as the truth, events signalized to be sure, but signals of hidden facts, of facts set in relation to one another,
a picture of situations on which men can act intelligently.”14 In other words, news
should truthfully present events in contexts that give meaning to daily occurrences so citizens are poised to make good decisions and act intelligently.
As we will see, the kind of reporting Dewey calls for is increasingly hard to
come by. It is expensive and time-consuming, and when it is produced, it is not
widely consumed. However, serious investigations boldly situated in meaningful
contexts can end up having major effects on society. For example, reporting by
the Boston Globe and others beginning in 2002 led to significant changes in the
Catholic Church when patterns of sexual abuse by priests were brought to light.
Similarly, many factors led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974,
but years of reporting by the Washington Post and others brought attention to the
abuses of power that led to his downfall. In the 1950s and 1960s, bold newspaper
editors in the American South covered racial conflict and the Civil Rights movement in ways that influenced American attitudes and contributed to increased
equality for African-Americans.These are just a few high-water marks in journalism history, moments where reporters, editors, and owners worked against difficult odds to ascertain and share the best available version of the truth.
On the other hand, when the press fails, the consequences can be just as significant. Reporting after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack closely followed
the narrative of the George W. Bush administration and failed to ask tough questions about how to respond. In the patriotic fervor that followed, the military
response went unquestioned, and the role of Saudi Arabia, home to 15 of the 19
hijackers, received hardly any attention, partly because of the otherwise friendly
relationship between the United States and the Saudi government. News media
went on to provide overwhelming support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, asking virtually no tough questions about the rationale for war or the evidence on
which it was based.15 Another missed story was the 2009 economic collapse and
the recession that followed. Few saw the impending crisis coming despite reliable
predictions, and the subsequent bailout of corporate giants received relatively
little scrutiny. The causes of the crisis went largely unreported, and the markets
remain relatively unregulated, paving the way for yet another collapse. The general trends toward deregulation of various industries across the developed world
What Citizens Know About News 39
deserve more attention from news media because of the potential implications for
the citizens they purport to serve. This is especially true as major issues such as
climate change and global inequality loom large on the horizon.
These are extraordinary examples of the impact of news, both positive and
negative.They are perhaps the stories that matter most—on abuses of institutional
power, military intervention, economic stability—but they are not the day-to-day.
Daily journalism is more likely to be centered on the diligent gathering of facts
by hardworking reporters who, rather than hawking an agenda or grinding an axe,
are most interested in collecting and sorting through mundane details in order
to provide a comprehensive account of significant events and issues. They cover
city council meetings, state government, court rulings, and so on. Reporters are
constrained by many factors, as we will learn, but newsgatherers are more likely
to be “biased” toward finishing their story by deadline and making it as complete
as possible. As Washington Post columnist David Broder once put it,
I would like us to say—over and over, until the point has been made—that
the newspaper that drops on your doorstep is a partial, hasty, incomplete,
inevitably somewhat flawed and inaccurate rendering of some of the things
we have heard about in the past 24 hours—distorted, despite our best efforts
to eliminate gross bias, by the very process of compression that makes it
possible for you to lift it from the doorstep and read it in about an hour.16
News is never perfect, but when hardworking journalists do their jobs well, citizens benefit.
Now a key point: news that contains inaccuracies or omits a relevant source
or neglects a perspective is not the same as “fake news.” It’s somewhat devastating that this needs to be explained, but this is the information environment we
are in. “Fake news” is an oxymoron. “News” is never “fake.” Real news—the
kind that aims to faithfully represent major events and issues of the day—if
nothing else, is truthful, at least to the best of human ability. It might contain
errors, but that doesn’t make it fake. For example, even when The New York
Times failed to question some key pieces of evidence in the case for the 2003
invasion of Iraq, this omission—to which their editors later fessed up—did not
make the reporting fake.17 It was real reporting based on real newsgathering
and real sources. It was certainly flawed, and the consequences were significant,
but that doesn’t discount the other high-quality journalism the organization has
produced. To the contrary, the fact that the organization admitted their errors
demonstrates accountability and transparency, which are hallmarks of trustworthy news organizations. In today’s environment, it’s more important than ever
to learn the difference between organizations and individuals who have at least
some public service objective—even if they are also commercially driven—and
those who have no purpose other than to gain power or profit to serve their
ideological and financial goals.
40 Why News Literacy?
Where Do People Get News?
Believe it or not, most Americans still say television is their number one source
for news, but the internet is catching up fast, especially for young people, and
is likely to overtake television soon. A 2017 Pew report found 43 percent of
Americans say they often get news online compared to 50 percent who say they
often get news on television, including local, network, and cable television news.
But strong trends show all demographics increasingly prefer online news. Among
18- to 29-year-olds, the internet is the preferred source at 50 percent, while
television is a common source for only 27 percent. Radio remains a common
news source for 25 percent and print newspapers for 18 percent.18 Another 2017
report found Americans saying they turn to a variety of social media sites for
news. Twenty percent said they “often” get news from social media, and another
27 percent said they “sometimes” do. Twitter,YouTube, and Snapchat are growing
as news sources, while Facebook and Reddit remain popular favorites for news.
Facebook is dominant, with 66 percent of American adults saying they use the
site, and 45 percent of those say they get news there.19 However, despite this heavy
social media usage, people report extremely low trust in what they see there; only
5 percent of adults who use the web say they have a lot of trust in the information
they get from social media.20
Globally, these trends are relatively consistent, although some differences
appear from one country to the next. Around the world, large majorities say
they closely follow national news (86 percent) and local news (78 percent).21 The
2018 Digital News Report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism,
which surveyed thousands of people from nearly 40 countries across 5 continents,
found that 71 percent of people overall get news from television, but that ranges
from 55 percent for 18- to 24-year-olds to 82 percent for those age 55 and up.
The internet, including social media, is a news source for 82 percent of all people
surveyed, while print comes in at 36 percent and radio at 33 percent. Reliance
on social media for news has declined slightly from a 2013 peak at 51 percent to
45 percent in 2018. Nearly two-thirds of people access news through a “side door,”
meaning they are referred to news sites by social media, search engines, email, and
alerts. Only 32 percent access news by visiting a news site directly. Messaging apps
such as WhatsApp, which afford greater privacy, are on the rise in countries such
as Malaysia and Brazil. When it comes to trust, 44 percent of people trust news
overall, 51 percent trust the news that they themselves use, 34 percent trust search
engine results, and only 23 percent trust news that appears on social media. More
than half (54 percent) say they are concerned about sorting real from fake online,
and the numbers are higher in more polarized countries such as Brazil (85 percent), Spain (69 percent), and the United States (64 percent).22
When looking at news use, all of these numbers are self-reported, so we have to
take them with a grain of salt. Survey respondents can be inclined to inflate their
reported news consumption because they want to see themselves as responsible,
What Citizens Know About News 41
informed citizens even if they’re not. Many people scan the headlines in their
news feeds without clicking on or reading actual articles, so they might report
this as news consumption even though it’s really just a passive and superficial act.
People routinely share articles they haven’t even read. So the way people view
their own news consumption can be quite subjective. Many social media users
simply encounter news rather than seeking it out. Young people especially often
say, “If something is important, it will find me.”This is a form of incidental exposure,
where people encounter news when they’re doing or looking for something else.
This is not strictly an online phenomenon; when people read a print newspaper,
they often encounter front-page news they might not have been looking for
on their way to the sports section or the crossword puzzle. Incidental exposure
certainly affects how much news people end up seeing online, especially among
18- to 29-year-olds, of whom 88 percent say they use at least some form of social
Critics have suggested that the online environment creates filter bubbles, where
the computer algorithms behind Facebook and Google are customized so that
users only see information that will interest and please them. Other evidence suggests that internet and social media users are actually exposed to a greater diversity
of information, particularly when compared to someone who just watches cable
television or sports all day. Most social media and search sites are aggregators that
collect and display related items based on proprietary algorithms that change
over time. (More on all of this in Chapters 5 and 6.) While users have some
control over their news feeds, the behind-the-scenes calculations are generally
hidden and are hard to know unless the companies who deploy them decide
to reveal their secrets (which they typically don’t). Facebook occasionally makes
vague announcements about changes to their news feed algorithms, as when they
announced in 2018 that they would begin showing more posts from friends and
family, which meant less exposure for news outlets.
Like all social and search sites, Facebook is continually updating its algorithms
to increase time spent on the site. Because “free” sites like Facebook and Google
are funded primarily by advertising, they need to find ways to keep your eyeballs
glued to the screen. Overall time spent on Facebook was down slightly in 2018,
which means changes will continue to come. Facebook even began airing their
own television ads to help convince users to keep coming back. Even with some
decline in use, Facebook still has 1.4 billion daily users worldwide, so it’s hard to
underestimate the power of the company’s influence and reach as well as its ability to collect and share data on its users. Together, Facebook and Google soak up
two-thirds of all online advertising revenue and virtually all of the year-to-year
growth in ad revenue, which means they have essentially monopolized the online
environment. Of course, they produce no original content of their own; they
merely aggregate. It’s a valuable service, and it can even be good for incidental
exposure, but it’s been fairly bad news for news organizations who invest resources
in original newsgathering only to have it monetized by others.
42 Why News Literacy?
Even with customized news feeds and search results, many web users do not
find the online experience entirely useful. Research and surveys demonstrate
widespread confusion over the news media landscape. A 2017 Gallup survey
found that 58 percent of Americans said the increase in available information
makes it harder to be well-informed as opposed to the 38 percent who said it is
easier.24 That’s a solid majority of people who find the glut of information out
there to hurt more than it helps.The survey also found partisan differences.When
asked if they felt enough information existed to sort out the facts, 72 percent of
Democrats said “yes” as opposed to 46 percent of independents and only 31 percent of Republicans. So some people find the news landscape more manageable
and reliable than others, and political affiliation is a big factor.
The glut of information alone is not the only problem. Knowing the contexts
of what you’re seeing or hearing is crucial to understanding the purpose of news
content. For example, people have always had trouble separating news from opinion and fact from analysis, which can make it challenging to know the difference
between straightforward reporting and spin and propaganda. As noted by Frank
Sesno, a former CNN reporter and anchor who now runs George Washington
University’s School of Media and Public Affairs,
One of the dangers is thinking that people know the difference between
the editorial page and the front page, between a commentator or pundit
commenting on something alongside a reporter who’s supposed to be providing facts. In this environment, when you have news, talking points and
opinions all colliding, it can be really disorienting to the audience.25
A basic component of news literacy is to know that these different information
contexts exist and to be able to sort through them.
A Pew survey in 2018 found that Americans had difficulty with the relatively
simple task of sorting fact-based statements from opinion-based statements.26
Only 26 percent correctly identified five of five factual statements (e.g., “Spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid make up the largest portion of the
U.S. federal budget”) and 35 percent identified all five opinion statements (e.g.,
“Immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally are a very big problem for the country
today”). Even with physical newspapers, which typically isolate and label opinion
articles on specific pages inside the newspaper, readers are not sure about the difference. This is especially true online, where there is often no obvious differentiation and users also have to contend with blatant misinformation and propaganda.
However, the Pew survey found that Americans with higher levels of political
awareness or who consider themselves digitally savvy were around twice as likely
to identify correct statements compared to those with low political awareness or
digital savvy.
Young people, who are often thought to be among the most digitally savvy,
actually have as hard a time as anyone in sorting through the glut of information
What Citizens Know About News 43
out there. In a much-cited 2016 study of civic reasoning online by the Stanford
History Education Group, researchers worked with more than 7,000 students
from middle school to college and a range of demographic backgrounds across
the United States. Students completed a variety of tasks, from identifying advertisements on a news website to deciding whether to trust the legitimacy of a photograph on a photo-sharing site to explaining why a given tweet might or might
not provide useful information. The study’s findings were stark:
Overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the
Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak. Our “digital natives” may
be able to flit between Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend. But when it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels, they are easily
The researchers provided a few suggestions for going forward, including designing new forms of classroom instruction and assessment to educate students to better evaluate information and spreading awareness of the problems they identified.
The challenges people face in navigating the news environment are reflected
in their attitudes about news media. While most Americans say they believe news
media are important to democracy, a majority say news media fail to perform this
role well. Overall, trust in news media is at a historic low; only 33 percent have
a positive view of news media according to Pew Research.28 That’s down from a
1976 high, when 72 percent of Americans said they trusted the media a “great deal”
or a “fair amount,” according to Gallup polling. When asked the same question in
2016, the number was 32 percent.29 Today’s low levels of trust depend dramatically on partisan affiliation. Republicans are much less likely than Democrats to
say they trust news media or that news media are beneficial to the nation.30 News
consumption is also heavily influenced by partisan affiliation. People who report
holding political views that are consistently liberal or conservative basically live in
different information universes. Liberals consume a variety of mainstream sources
such as The New York Times, CNN, NPR, and MSNBC, while conservatives are
tightly clustered around a single source: Fox News.31 What used to be a large mass
audience for news has fragmented into partisan niches. This is part of a broader
trend in American life as citizens and government have become more polarized
and antagonistic.32 As of 2018, a majority of Americans say the “fundamental design
and structure” of government is in need of “significant changes” to make it work.33
Despite this rise in partisanship and concern about the function of government,
extreme partisans and partisan news outlets are the exception, not the rule. More
people report holding a moderate mix of political viewpoints or they simply do
not know enough to take a position, and most news outlets still aim to provide
nonpartisan content for large mass audiences. As political scientist Marcus Prior
has found, the sense of widespread polarization does not reflect the population
44 Why News Literacy?
at large or the news media they consume. Highly partisan individuals may have a
greater degree of influence and involvement in politics, but even these individuals, rather than being confined to strict partisan echo chambers, are exposed to
a greater diversity of news content than other less partisan individuals.34 As the
authors of a Knight Foundation study put it,
while digital media offer greater opportunity to construct echo chambers
for a motivated few, the majority appears to continue to experience a largely
mixed and centrist media environment. Even those who seek out and consume more ideologically extreme information sources seem to encounter
cross-cutting content along the way.35
Despite the increase in polarization and the rise of fragmented niche audiences,
it’s possible that widespread consumption of the most popular mainstream sources
will be the very thing that helps hold society together.36
The larger problem of today’s news media environment may be the large numbers of citizens who can now easily avoid news altogether. Before the advent of
digital media, citizens were fairly limited in their options, which made it harder to
tune out. When the only channels on American television were the three major
networks, if you wanted to watch TV at 6 p.m., you were watching the news.
Today’s high-choice media environment lets you pick from an array of non-news
options. Instead of being confined to partisan echo chambers, more people are
completely disconnected from the world of public affairs. Even the most popular
cable news programs that draw audiences of two or three million viewers pale in
comparison to popular prime time programming such as “The Good Doctor,”
“This Is Us,” and “Young Sheldon,” which routinely draw audiences of 10 to
20 million. The effect of this is to create a major gap in political engagement and
civic participation, giving outsize influence over political life to extreme partisans
who make the most noise while sidelining everyone else. As political science
scholar Matt Levendusky has noted, “the growth of media choice strengthens the
extremes while hollowing out the center, making the electorate more divided.”37
How did we get here? A lack of knowledge about how the news media environment works is at least partly to blame for the fragmentation of audiences, along
with heavy reliance on social media despite a lack of trust in it, frustration due
to information overload, and the tendency to tune out altogether. A look at the
research on what people know about news shows how a lack of knowledge makes
a difficult task even harder.
The Theoretical and Empirical Foundations
of News Literacy
As the news and information landscape has grown increasingly messy, a range
of scholars, institutes, and others have produced a flurry of survey research,
What Citizens Know About News 45
experiments, and reports trying to sort out not only the ongoing changes in news
consumption, but also the kinds of knowledge citizens have about news today. But
any time researchers attempt to measure and quantify something, it raises thorny
questions about what we might expect or want people to know about news and
how we might accurately assess that knowledge. Scholars call this “operationalizing” their variables, that is, turning an abstract concept into hard numbers. In
these quantitative studies, researchers go to great lengths to design reliable surveys,
but even the best of them are subject to interpretation and often rely on selfreporting. Quantitative researchers also conduct experiments in labs, which helps
control outside influences but doesn’t always reflect real-world conditions. A contrasting approach is qualitative research, where researchers conduct focus groups,
interviews, and other methods to gather information and then attempt to explain
what’s happening, whereas quantitative researchers typically come up with a possible explanation first and then gather information to test the idea.
Either way, how do you define or quantify or measure ideas like “trust” or
“skepticism” or “credibility” or “engagement”? A notoriously difficult concept to
measure is “media consumption.” What even counts as “media” these days? How
might this differ from one person to the next? Do you even remember what
media you consumed yesterday? What about “news literacy”? How would you
define and measure that? As we have seen, there are many different approaches.
The bottom line is that research is hard. It’s difficult to get reliable measurements
and explanations in the social sciences when dealing with such tricky subjects
as humans and their often-inexplicable behavior. But that doesn’t keep us from
trying, and there is plenty of good scholarship out there—both theoretical (theorybased) and empirical (evidence-based)—that can inform our study of news literacy.
So before we get into the actual findings from news literacy research, let’s consider
how this concept might be defined and measured in the first place.
Research focused specifically on news literacy is limited, but a handful of studies that do exist have my name on them. I began conducting and publishing
research on news and media literacy in 2010, and, along with my excellent colleagues, I’ve worked to define and measure news literacy in a variety of settings.
I bring this up not to toot my own horn but to begin to explain my particular
approach to news literacy, which is different from some of the other approaches
out there. My first published study found modest support for the idea that learning about the media system increased skepticism among news consumers.38 In a
simple experiment, college students either belonged to a test group that read a
brief article about the pros and cons of corporate media ownership or belonged
to a control group that read poetry. Afterwards, they all read news stories and
assessed their credibility. Those who had learned about media ownership were
more likely to say the news articles were less accurate or credible, which suggested
they might view news through a more critical or skeptical lens when armed with
a little contextual knowledge. This modest study conducted during my graduate
education hardly produced definitive findings, but it was enough to suggest to me
46 Why News Literacy?
that the idea of teaching people about the news media system could help produce more savvy news consumers and, ultimately, provide a benefit to democratic
This idea was hardly mine. For decades, scholars, educators, activists, and others have been writing about different approaches to media literacy, which include
a critical approach oriented toward broader contextual knowledge like the kind
I advocate. The idea that media education should be rooted in an education in
democracy, economics, history, and culture goes back to at least the 1970s, following the emergence of critical pedagogy and critical and cultural media studies, which
emphasize the power relations that influence the production of media messages
as well as the educational practices used to teach about the subject. Against this
backdrop, modern media literacy emerged as a component of citizenship linked to
inquiry-based learning about civics and social relations. In his 1985 book, Teaching
the Media, Len Masterman suggested that media education include the study of
the economics of the media and culture industries, and the power dynamics that
influence media content. Masterman wrote that media education is
an essential step in the long march towards a truly participatory democracy,
and the democratization of our institutions. Widespread media literacy is
essential if all citizens are to wield power, make rational decisions, become
effective change-agents, and have an active involvement with the media.39
For Masterman and others, media literacy would give citizens the power to question and change their media environment and their society.
My approach to news literacy is rooted in the longstanding field of media literacy education and the critical tradition that is central to an effective examination
of the broader news media environment and the forces that influence its content.
But even among media literacy scholars, there is concern about the ideological
implications of an explicitly critical approach to media literacy. As Renee Hobbs
has noted,
There is an obvious ideology that underlies even the most basic tenets of
media literacy education—teaching students to question textual authority
and to use reasoning to reach autonomous decisions. This agenda is radical
enough, without adding additional baggage associated with other explicitly
formulated political or social change objectives.40
However, media literacy scholars and educators have long agreed that media education should include these broad notions:

media are constructed and construct reality
the media have commercial implications
media have ideological and political implications
What Citizens Know About News 47

form and content are related in each medium, each of which has a unique
aesthetic, codes and conventions
receivers negotiate meaning in media41
These ideas emerged from the 1992 National Leadership Conference on Media
Literacy, where prominent scholars and experts in the United States drew on
models from other countries, especially the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia, which proved to be ahead of the United States in developing media education. These five points show the consensus that media literacy is more than
learning the techniques of media production or a narrow focus on the analysis of
media texts. While these skills may be part of media education, students should
also learn about the role of media in constructing social reality and the implications of media messages for democratic life.
The conference produced a now-widely embraced definition of media literacy:
the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and communicate messages in a variety of
forms. This broad definition intentionally covers a lot of territory in order to
reflect and respect the diversity of approaches to media education.The conference
report went on to note that the
fundamental objective of media literacy is critical autonomy in relationship
to all media. Emphases in media literacy training range widely, including
informed citizenship, aesthetic appreciation and expression, social advocacy,
self-esteem, and consumer competence.The range of emphases will expand
with the growth of media literacy.42
In other words, media literacy is about fostering independent engagement and
inquiry around media consumption whatever the educational focus may be.
The media literacy educators also agreed on a general pedagogical approach
or a style of teaching that is typically embraced across the field. Like the ideas
embedded in media education (i.e., construction, representation, ideology), the
practice of teaching about media should reflect active, inquiry-based learning as
opposed to being organized around teacher authority or rote memorization.
No matter what the setting or project, but particularly for formal learning,
media educators insist that the process of learning embody the concepts
being taught. Thus, media literacy learning is hands-on and experiential,
democratic (the teacher is researcher and facilitator), and process-driven.43
Many scholars and educators have emphasized the importance of studentcentered learning in media education. The teacher is empowered to guide the
process, but learning is more meaningful if meaning is established by the student,
not the teacher. Renee Hobbs, a key leader in the field, has called for a “pedagogy
of inquiry” at the center of media literacy:“The cultivation of an open, questioning,
48 Why News Literacy?
reflective, and critical stance towards symbolic texts should be the center pole of
the media literacy umbrella, as it is the concept most likely to ensure its survival.”44
Hobbs has long sought to maintain a “big tent” for the field of media literacy,
working to advance its acceptance by embracing the diversity of approaches.
Other scholars have been explicit about the need to focus on political and economic contexts of media production and consumption.The goal of media literacy,
they say, is “to help people become sophisticated citizens rather than sophisticated
consumers.”45 Media education should teach students to engage media texts, but
it should also teach them to examine and challenge media institutions. As scholars
Justin Lewis and Sut Jhally wrote in 1998,
Media literacy, in short, is about more than the analysis of messages, it is
about an awareness of why those messages are there. It is not enough to
know that they are produced, or even how, in a technical sense, they are
produced. To appreciate the significance of contemporary media, we need
to know why they are produced, under what constraints and conditions,
and by whom.46
Critics might say this type of conceptualization is too radical or ideological
for media education. But Lewis and Jhally emphasize that this is not their aim.
Rather, they propose only to demonstrate to students the factors that influence
and control media content so that students can draw their own conclusions. Failing to do so is effectively an embrace of the status quo, which could be considered
just as ideological as an attempt to challenge it. As Lewis and Jhally wrote, “We are
advocating a view that recognizes that the world is always made by someone, and
a decision to tolerate the status quo is as political as a more overtly radical act.”47
Media literacy scholar James Potter helps to make this point that people should
learn about media not merely to be inoculated against its evils or to automatically
reject the status quo. Rather, media education should present a broad array of
information and let learners draw their own conclusions. He writes:
I argue that rejection of the ideology is not the goal; the goal, instead, should
be to allow people to appreciate parts of the ideology that are functional for
them and create new perspectives where the ideology is not functional for
them. That is, the choice should be up to the individual. Mindlessly rejecting the media ideology in toto is not much better than mindlessly accepting
it in toto.48
In other words, understanding the ideology or dominant systems of media is key
to interpreting and decoding media messages, but it should be left up to individuals to decide for themselves what to do with this knowledge.
One way to think about media literacy comes from Potter’s cognitive model of
media literacy, which incorporates a variety of elements that influence a person’s
What Citizens Know About News 49
level of media literacy. Potter says his model requires more “conscious processing
of information” and “preparation for exposures” than earlier conceptualizations
of media literacy.49 This model is useful because it breaks the broad concept of
media literacy down into several important components. The foundation is five
basic “knowledge structures,” which include knowledge about media content,
media industries, media effects, the real world, and the self. These interact with
what Potter calls the “personal locus” or the combination of drives, needs, and
intellectual abilities that influence how people construct meaning from the media
they consume.The knowledge structures provide the basis on which people make
decisions about media and process the information they consume. According to
With knowledge in these five areas, people are much more aware during
the information-processing tasks and are, therefore, more able to make better decisions about seeking out information, working with that information, and constructing meaning from it that will be useful to serve their
own goals.50
In my own research with my colleagues Stephanie Craft and Adam Maksl, we
adapted Potter’s model to fit our approach to news literacy and constructed a
way of measuring news literacy based on this theoretically informed definition.51 Potter’s first three “knowledge structures” include media content, industries, and effects. In our adaptation, knowledge about news content includes
knowing about the values that underlie news and how it is constructed (for
instance, knowing about the difference between journalism and public relations or knowing that news producers have influence over what gets aired on
local television news). Knowledge about news industries refers to the impact
of news media economics, ownership, and control of news organizations (that
is, knowing that most media outlets are for-profit businesses and that concentration of media ownership has increased over the past few decades). Knowledge about news media effects includes knowing about the consequences of
exposure to news (for example, knowing that most people think news affects
other people more than it affects themselves and that people who watch a lot
of television news tend to think the world is more violent and dangerous than
it actually is).
The fourth knowledge structure of Potter’s model is knowledge of the “real
world,” meaning a person’s knowledge of the differences between reality and
media depictions of it, and the fifth knowledge structure is “the self,” which refers
to awareness of our own motivations for seeking news content and whether we
internalize news messages. In our adaptation, all five knowledge structures can
play a role in assessing news literacy, but it’s really the first three—content, industries, and effects—that seem most important. So far, the other components seem
harder to assess and to connect to news literacy.
50 Why News Literacy?
Potter’s approach represents an attempt to pin down the necessary components
of media literacy, and our adaptation of Potter’s model to news literacy represents
an attempt to turn each component into a set of real-life questions that we could
use to begin to measure an individual’s level of news literacy. (In our research,
we called it “news media literacy” to show how our approach to news literacy
was rooted in the already-established umbrella discipline of media literacy and
to differentiate our approach from the content-oriented approach described in
Chapter 1.) Our measure is an imperfect first-stab attempt at this, but it has been
used in multiple studies by us and by other researchers as we all try to further
develop this concept of news literacy and think of ways we might meaningfully
describe and measure it.
It’s worth noting that academics, administrators, policy makers, and others have
become somewhat obsessed with measurement, particularly in the United States,
sometimes to the detriment of actual learning. While assessment isn’t inherently
bad, the increase in standardized testing in the “No Child Left Behind” era since
the early 2000s has sometimes led to a distortion of the goals of education as
teachers “teach to the test” rather than being free to follow the curriculum that
is best suited to their particular students. Similarly, communication and media
research is heavily geared toward quantitative assessments of the subjects we study,
which can certainly be useful but also can lead us to neglect the proverbial forest while we focus myopically on the trees. The scholarly journals that academics must publish in like to see original data of some kind, so there is a built-in
bias toward measurement and quantification. This isn’t all bad because research
is meant to be slow and incremental, but it can also encourage us to obsess over
minor or insignificant details and end up making minimal contributions to the
critical issues we face in society. With news and media literacy, we certainly have
a large enough body of existing evidence—about how the media system works,
how content is produced, and how our personal psychology comes into play—to
get a pretty good sense of what people should know in order to be news and
media literate. However, empirical evidence plays an important role in policy
making and school administration (as it should), so scholars do their best to find
ways to produce data that will help us address the big questions around the
connections between information, news, media, education, and democracy. Ultimately, we want to know two things: can you make someone more news literate,
and what happens if you do?
What Does News Literacy Research Tell Us?
Among the variety of approaches that have emerged in the study of news literacy, many of the findings are disconcerting. Although many people demonstrate
high levels of interest in news and heavy consumption of news on television
and online, research and surveys generally find relatively low levels of knowledge
about how news media work, how journalists do their jobs, how media ownership
What Citizens Know About News 51
and control influences news content, and how the digital environment shapes
their online experience.
In a massive study of 74,000 people around the world, the 2018 Digital News
Report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism examined news literacy in 37 countries and measured people’s knowledge about how news is made:
who makes it, how it is selected, and how it is financed.52 They asked three factual
questions covering the role of advertising in providing financial support for public
media, the difference between journalism and public relations, and how computer
algorithms select content on Facebook. Notably, these issues reflect a contextual
knowledge-based approach to news literacy rather than anything having to do
with the analysis of specific pieces of content. (Also notably, this study relied on
survey questions from my own past research with Craft and Maksl to inform the
definition and measurement of news literacy.) In the Reuters survey, researchers
found only 10 percent of respondents showed “very high” levels of news literacy,
while 23 percent showed “high” levels, 34 percent showed “low,” and 32 percent
showed “very low” levels. Not terrible, but certainly not great.
Okay, but so what? Why does it matter whether people have any knowledge
about where news comes from or how news is produced and consumed? Learning what people know about news media is one thing, but researchers also want
to know what news knowledge will get you. For those who do have higher levels
of news literacy, what other traits do they exhibit?
In the Reuters study, higher news literacy was associated with the use of newspapers and newspaper websites over television and with a very different approach
to social media compared to the wider population. Those with higher literacy
rely less on social media for news and seem to be more discerning when they
do use it. They pay more attention to a range of credibility cues when deciding
what to click on, including the headline or picture, the person who shared, and
particularly the news brand that produced it. At the same time, highly news literate people pay the least amount of attention to the number of comments, likes, or
shares on a social media post, which suggests a higher degree of savvy about the
role of popularity as a governing principle in the online environment regardless
of the quality of a given piece of content. Those with higher literacy levels also
reported consuming news from a wider range of sources, and the idea of government interventions to deal with misinformation was viewed skeptically by this
group. Finally, news literacy does not appear to have much of a link to trust in
news, probably because higher news literacy is associated with greater skepticism.
As the Reuters report notes,“the more people know about how the news is made,
the more knowledgeable they will be about its limitations and imperfections.
This may be why we see only a very small increase in trust levels as news literacy
increases.”53 Overall, we can start to get a picture of the traits associated with being
news literate, and they are generally welcome. Those with higher levels of news
literacy appear to be more careful and deliberate about what they consume, which
could help them be better informed and more engaged as citizens.
52 Why News Literacy?
These findings are useful because, although we might assume that increasing
news literacy is a good thing, without some kind of evidence, we don’t know for
sure. In fact, some scholars and educators worry that learning about news media
can actually make people more likely to grow cynical and apathetic and distrusting and to disengage from public life.To the contrary, the good news from emerging research is that those with higher levels of news literacy generally show the
kinds of positive traits we would expect and hope to see if we think responsible
news use is vital to civic participation. In my own research with my colleagues,
these positive traits include higher levels of current events knowledge, increased
political activity, greater motivation to consume news, and lower endorsement of
conspiracy theories.54
Possessing these traits is not necessarily caused by learning about news; you
may have heard that “correlation does not equal causation.” We can’t say news
literacy is responsible for producing these outcomes; we can only say that a positive relationship seems to exist. Identifying relationships between variables is often
the best we can do when studying humans. It’s hard to show that one thing
definitively leads to another when there are so many variables that influence our
attitudes and behavior. Still, it’s useful to know where these sorts of connections
exist. Having evidence about the relationships between news literacy and other
variables can help us figure out what people need to know about news and can
show why news literacy might be a good thing.
Some studies do get at the ability of news literacy to influence a person’s
knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors surrounding news media. These studies typically compare a group that received some kind of news media education with a
group that didn’t. If the two groups exhibit significantly different levels of news
literacy and other traits, it can be said that the news or media literacy training and
education are responsible for these changes. Broadly, these studies find that higher
news literacy in individuals is connected to a variety of positive outcomes related
to judgment, knowledge, and engagement. For example, news literacy researchers
Emily Vraga and Melissa Tully have identified a reduction in perceptions of news
bias following media literacy training and have found that exposure to a video
about media literacy led to increased trust and perceptions of news credibility.55
A prominent news literacy class at Stony Brook University in New York has
been the subject of several studies that wanted to examine its effects. One study
found that students who took the class were highly engaged in the material, more
knowledgeable about journalism, and more aware of current events, but at the
same time, the students struggled to identify the commercial biases that influence
news content or to reflect on news ownership or ideology.56 A study I worked on
used our news media literacy measurement to compare students who had taken
the class to those who hadn’t. Even though the class wasn’t specifically geared
toward the knowledge structures that informed our measurement, students who
had taken the class still scored higher on the measure and demonstrated greater
knowledge of current events and motivations to consume news.57 This was true
What Citizens Know About News 53
even when a year or more had passed after taking the class, which suggests that
learning about news can have a lasting impact. And like other studies that compare
groups that either received or didn’t receive some kind of educational intervention, this study demonstrates that learning about news can have positive effects on
people’s knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors regarding news media.
Similar studies have found any exposure to media education can help produce
more savvy news consumers. In a study of more than 2,000 youth ages 15 to 27,
those who said they had some prior access to media literacy education (learning
the importance of examining claims and evaluating evidence and learning skills
to help judge the accuracy of information) were more likely to evaluate political
information for its accuracy regardless of whether it fit with their preconceived
notions about the issue. In psychological terms, they were more motivated by
accuracy goals than by directional goals, which means they wanted to get at the
truth instead of just being right.58 This is an important finding, and it’s one that
also showed up in my research on news literacy and conspiracy theories. Psychologists say that rather than viewing the world in purely objective terms, we use
a motivated reasoning process to make decisions and establish viewpoints.We can be
motivated toward getting the answer we want or toward getting the best possible
version of the truth even if it might challenge the way we prefer to see the world.
So far, emerging evidence suggests news and media literacy might be connected
to an increase in accuracy reasoning over directional reasoning. That’s pretty great
news because it’s a lot easier to simply teach someone about how news is produced and consumed than it is to try to correct misperceptions they might hold
about social or political issues that are important to them.
The bottom line is that most people do not appear to be well informed about
how news works. And why would they be? It’s something most people hardly
ever discuss in any kind of nuanced way. It’s a difficult topic that even most teachers aren’t sure how to approach, and it’s not really in the interests of most news
organizations to raise these difficult questions. For many, there’s really no incentive to shine a spotlight on news literacy, leaving most of us in the dark. At the
same time, those who do demonstrate higher levels of news literacy do appear to
also possess the traits we would hope to see among informed citizens who have a
genuine interest in democratic life. Broadly speaking, they are more knowledgeable, engaged, skeptical, and discerning. If these connections tell us anything, it’s
that anyone who cares about improving both individual knowledge and the conditions of democracy should be devoted to increasing news literacy.
Why News Literacy Is and Isn’t the Answer
Despite what the headlines might say about the role of news literacy in solving our problems with “fake news” and other misinformation, news literacy is
no panacea no matter how you do it. As the following chapters will show, there
are many problems with our news environment, and education alone is not the
54 Why News Literacy?
solution. As scholar danah boyd has pointed out, there is a great deal of “solutionism” around news and media literacy; indeed, the idea that there is any easy fix to
complex problems should be viewed with skepticism. Boyd goes even further and
suggests that media literacy might have “backfired” by leading people to question
information to the degree that our common ways of knowing the world have
begun to disintegrate. As boyd writes, “Media literacy asks people to raise questions and be wary of information that they’re receiving. People are. Unfortunately,
that’s exactly why we’re talking past one another.”59 Being skeptical and asking
questions are undeniably good things when dealing with a messy information
environment. But if the message goes too far and people stop believing anything
they don’t feel immediately comfortable with, it can undermine the foundations
of the democratic process, as we have seen. So boyd has a point.
But that’s why we need to do news literacy right. Any critical analysis of information will only succeed if it is grounded in the right kinds of contextual knowledge. Understanding the broader operations and implications of the news media
environment can help people see individual pieces of content through a contextual lens that gives greater meaning to the information they are consuming and
can help them distinguish quality from garbage. Furthermore, we need to examine actual evidence, not just anecdotes and hunches, to determine whether news
literacy is effective and what it can do for people. So despite the valid concerns
around news literacy and its limited capacity for solving the problems of information in democratic life, there are some reasons why education can play a key role
in improving the news environment and the surrounding discourse.
First, there’s the obvious point that news literacy education—even a variety of diverse approaches to it—has already been connected to several positive
outcomes, as detailed in the studies reviewed previously. Evidence suggests that
requiring formal education about news media could help broad swathes of citizens to become more savvy consumers of information, more engaged with reliable news sources, more motivated to consume news, more knowledgeable about
public affairs, more politically active and involved, and more discerning when it
comes to determining what’s real and what’s not. This appears to be true regardless of partisan affiliation, and the effects of educational interventions appear to
be lasting.
A second consideration surrounding the importance of citizen knowledge
about news is the role of the audience in determining what news looks like.
News literacy has been called a “demand-side” solution to address the shortcomings of news media. Rather than (or perhaps in addition to) trying to change
how news is created or produced (that is, the “supply side”), a more effective
approach might be to work on the demand side—those who end up consuming
news and information media (or ignoring it). In the demand problem, low levels
of news literacy can be connected to an underperforming news media that fails
to provide information citizens really need; in other words, an insufficient supply of quality news can be linked to a lack of public demand for it. If people are
What Citizens Know About News 55
content with the constant bloviating that takes place on cable news or with the
disproportionate amounts of attention paid by news media to sensational scandals
and unimportant trivia, then this is what they will get. This is the basic logic of
markets. If the demand is there, the supply will be ample; if demand dries up, the
supply would wither as well. Defenders of the media marketplace often suggest
that the media is simply giving people what they want. Well, yes, that’s the problem. So if the demand side could be altered to reflect more of a dedication to a
quality supply, the market could be forced to shift. This is not to say consumer
preferences automatically dictate what a marketplace offers; that’s not the case.
But in a market where your eyeballs are being sold to advertisers, if the eyeballs
go away, so does the advertising. Once financial support dries up, the market is
ripe for change.
A third reason that news literacy education will be important in the years and
decades to come is what I call the news literacy gap—the growing divide between
those who are informed and empowered members of society and those who are
not. Educating all individuals in society about news media will be essential to
reducing economic and political disparities and to enhancing opportunity for all.
In general, citizens across the developed world are being left out of the democratic
process through sheer neglect by societies that were designed to promote equality
and public welfare. As political scientist Phil Parvin writes,
Democratic states no longer provide citizens at the bottom end of the
wealth and income distribution with the ability to develop democratic
capacity or political knowledge through participation in the civic and associational activities which play a central role in the development of these
things. As a result, poorer citizens are losing both the desire to participate
and the capacity for effective or informed political participation.60
Those with the proper skills and knowledge will be the ones to determine what
the information landscape looks like and who is empowered to take part. Only
citizens with sufficient news literacy will be able to make good decisions that
serve the interests of themselves and of society. As Kovach and Rosenstiel write,
The real information gap in the twenty-first century is not who has access
to the Internet and who does not. It is the gap between people who have
the skills to create knowledge and those who are simply in a process of
affirming preconceptions without ever growing and learning. It is the new
gap between reason and superstition.61
And actually, the digital divide—the socioeconomic gap between those who have
access to the internet and other digital technologies and those who do not—
remains a significant issue, as millions of Americans and other citizens still don’t
have reliable broadband connections, especially in rural areas.
56 Why News Literacy?
A fourth but by no means final reason to promote news literacy is the public
good that is provided by a well-informed citizenry. In economics, a public good is
something that everyone benefits from regardless of how it is produced or consumed. In the strict economic sense, public goods are generally provided or regulated by governments because there is no commercial incentive to produce them.
These include laws that preserve clean air and water, national defense systems,
public service broadcasting, and public education. Compare these to a private
good such as a box of chocolates—if the chocolates are mine, they can’t also be
yours, and once I’ve eaten them, they’re gone. (The fancy terms here are “excludable”—mine not yours—and “rivalrous”—when they’re gone, they’re gone. Public goods are non-excludable and non-rivalrous.) Now think of a well-informed
citizenry as a public good. If people are broadly knowledgeable enough to make
decisions that benefit society, this is a good thing for everyone. Even information
itself can be thought of as a public good. My consumption of it doesn’t keep you
from consuming it, and it still exists in the world even after I’ve consumed it. So
news literacy, when shared widely, is a public good. Everyone benefits from having a citizenry that knows how to parse good information from bad based on a
contextual understanding of the information environment. Dealing with complex
problems like global warming and economic crises will require nothing less. And
so whole societies could rise or fall depending on the ability of citizens to understand and evaluate their information environment. Although news literacy alone
will not solve our many problems, it’s in everyone’s interest to create societies of
news literate individuals.
Questions for Discussion
Why do people consume news? What needs does news help satisfy? How can
news affect our perceptions of reality?
What is “political self-efficacy,” and how is news connected to political and
civic engagement?
How is news literacy rooted in the longstanding traditions of media
What is the “news literacy gap,” and how should it be addressed?
How do news and news literacy function as public goods?
1. Michael X. Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter, What Americans Know about Politics and Why
It Matters (New Haven:Yale University Press, 1996), 305–6.
2. Julia Belluz, “You May Think the World Is Falling Apart. Steven Pinker Is Here to
Tell You It Isn’t,” Vox, August 16, 2016, www.vox.com/2016/8/16/12486586/2016worst-year-ever-violence-trump-terrorism.
3. See Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (New York:Viking, 2018).
What Citizens Know About News 57
4. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should
Know and the Public Should Expect (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2014), 1–2.
5. Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a
Category of Bourgeois Society, Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989), 184.
6. Pew Research Center, “Public Knowledge of Current Affairs Little Changed by News
and Information Revolutions,” April 15, 2007, www.people-press.org/2007/04/15/
7. Abdurashid Solijonov, “Voter Turnout Trends around the World” (International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, December 31, 2016), www.idea.int/pub
lications/catalogue/voter-turnout-trends-around-world, 24.
8. Drew DeSilver, “U.S. Trails Most Developed Countries in Voter Turnout,” Pew
Research Center, May 21, 2018, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/05/21/u-svoter-turnout-trails-most-developed-countries/.
9. Phil Parvin, “Democracy Without Participation: A New Politics for a Disengaged Era,”
Res Publica 24, no. 1 (February 2018): 45.
10. Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (New York: Harcourt, 1922), 3.
11. Michael Schudson, “The ‘Lippmann-Dewey Debate’ and the Invention of Walter
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12. John Dewey, “‘Public Opinion’ (Review),” The New Republic (May 3, 1922), 286.
13. Dewey, “‘Public Opinion’ (Review),” 288.
14. Dewey, “‘Public Opinion’ (Review),” 288.
15. See W. Lance Bennett, Regina G. Lawrence, and Steven Livingston, When the Press
Fails: Political Power and the News Media from Iraq to Katrina (Chicago, IL: University of
Chicago Press, 2008).
16. David S. Broder, Behind the Front Page (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 14. Quoted
in Michael Schudson, The Sociology of News (New York: W.W. Norton & Company,
2012), 26.
17. “FROM THE EDITORS; The Times and Iraq,” The New York Times, May 26, 2004,
sec. World, www.nytimes.com/2004/05/26/world/from-the-editors-the-times-andiraq.html.
18. Jeffrey Gottfried and Elisa Shearer, “Americans’ Online News Use Is Closing in on
TV News Use,” September 7, 2017, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/09/07/
19. Elisa Shearer and Jeffrey Gottfried, “News Use Across Social Media Platforms 2017,”
September 7, 2017, www.journalism.org/2017/09/07/news-use-across-social-mediaplatforms-2017/.
20. Michael Barthel and Amy Mitchell,“Americans’Attitudes About the News Media Deeply
Divided Along Partisan Lines,” May 10, 2017, www.journalism.org/2017/05/10/
21. Amy Mitchell et al.,“Publics Globally Want Unbiased News Coverage, but Are Divided
on Whether Their News Media Deliver,” Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project,
January 11, 2018, www.pewglobal.org/2018/01/11/publics-globally-want-unbiasednews-coverage-but-are-divided-on-whether-their-news-media-deliver/.
22. “Reuters Institute Digital News Report” (Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, 2018), www.digitalnewsreport.org/.
23. Aaron Smith and Monica Anderson, “Social Media Use in 2018,” March 1, 2018,
24. Jeffery Jones and Zacc Ritter, “Americans Struggle to Navigate the Modern Media
Landscape,” accessed June 29, 2018, https://news.gallup.com/poll/226157/americansstruggle-navigate-modern-media-landscape.aspx.
58 Why News Literacy?
25. Paul Farhi, “Sean Hannity Thinks Viewers Can Tell the Difference between News and
Opinion. Hold on a Moment,” Washington Post, March 28, 2017, www.washingtonpost.
26. Amy Mitchell et al., “Distinguishing Between Factual and Opinion Statements in the
News,” June 18, 2018, www.journalism.org/2018/06/18/distinguishing-betweenfactual-and-opinion-statements-in-the-news/.
27. Sam Wineburg et al., “Evaluating Information:The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning,” accessed July 6, 2018, https://purl.stanford.edu/fv751yt5934, 4.
28. “AmericanViews:Trust, Media and Democracy” (Knight Foundation, January 15, 2018),

American views: Trust, media and democracy

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29. “Media Use and Evaluation” (Gallup), accessed July 6, 2018, https://news.gallup.com/
30. “AmericanViews:Trust, Media and Democracy” (Knight Foundation, January 15, 2018),

American views: Trust, media and democracy

31. Amy Mitchell et al., “Political Polarization & Media Habits | Pew Research Center”
(Pew Research Center, October 21, 2014), www.journalism.org/2014/10/21/
32. “Political Polarization in the American Public” (Pew Research Center, June 12, 2014),
33. “The Public, the Political System and American Democracy” (Pew Research Center,
April 26, 2018), www.people-press.org/2018/04/26/the-public-the-political-systemand-american-democracy/.
34. Markus Prior, “Media and Political Polarization,” Annual Review of Political Science 16,
no. 1 (2013): 101–27, https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-polisci-100711-135242.
35. Andrew Guess and Brendan Nyhan, “Why Selective Exposure to Like-Minded Political News Is Less Prevalent than You Think” (Knight Foundation, n.d.),12, https://
36. James G. Webster and Thomas B. Ksiazek, “The Dynamics of Audience Fragmentation:
Public Attention in an Age of Digital Media,” Journal of Communication 62, no. 1 (February 1, 2012): 52–53, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1460-2466.2011.01616.x.
37. Matt Levendusky,“Are Fox and MSNBC Polarizing America?—The Washington Post,”
February 3, 2014, www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2014/02/03/
38. Seth Ashley, Mark Poepsel, and Erin Willis, “Media Literacy and News Credibility:
Does Knowledge of Media Ownership Increase Skepticism in News Consumers?,”
Journal of Media Literacy Education 2, no. 1 (September 10, 2013): 37–46, https://digitalcommons.uri.edu/jmle/vol2/iss1/3.
39. Len Masterman, Teaching the Media (London: Routledge, 1990), 13.
40. Renee Hobbs, “The Seven Great Debates in the Media Literacy Movement,” Journal of
Communication 48, no. 1 (1998): 23.
41. Patricia Aufderheide and Charles Firestone, “Media Literacy: A Report of the National
Leadership Conference on Media Literacy” (Queenstown, MD: Aspen Institute, 1993),
https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED365294.pdf, 10.
42. Aufderheide and Firestone, “Media Literacy,” 9.
43. Aufderheide and Firestone, “Media Literacy,” 10.
44. Renee Hobbs, “The Seven Great Debates in the Media Literacy Movement,” Journal of
Communication 48, no. 1 (1998): 27.
45. Justin Lewis and Sut Jhally, “The Struggle over Media Literacy,” Journal of Communication 48, no. 1 (1998): 109.
46. Lewis and Jhally, “The Struggle over Media Literacy,” 111.
What Citizens Know About News 59
Lewis and Jhally, “The Struggle over Media Literacy,” 119.
W. James Potter, Theory of Media Literacy: A Cognitive Approach (Sage Publications, 2004), 57.
Potter, Theory of Media Literacy, 68.
Potter, Theory of Media Literacy, 69.
Adam Maksl, Seth Ashley, and Stephanie Craft, “Measuring News Media Literacy,”
Journal of Media Literacy Education 6, no. 3 (March 15, 2015): 29–45.
“Reuters Institute Digital News Report” (Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, 2018), www.digitalnewsreport.org/, 10.
“Reuters Institute Digital News Report” (Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, 2018), www.digitalnewsreport.org/, 37.
See Adam Maksl, Seth Ashley, and Stephanie Craft, “Measuring News Media Literacy,”
Journal of Media Literacy Education 6, no. 3 (March 15, 2015): 29–45; Seth Ashley, Adam
Maksl, and Stephanie Craft, “News Media Literacy and Political Engagement: What’s
the Connection?,” Journal of Media Literacy Education 9, no. 1 (July 14, 2017): 79–98;
Stephanie Craft, Seth Ashley, and Adam Maksl, “News Media Literacy and Conspiracy
Theory Endorsement,” Communication and the Public 2, no. 4 (December 1, 2017): 388–
401, https://doi.org/10.1177/2057047317725539; Adam Maksl et al., “The Usefulness of a News Media Literacy Measure in Evaluating a News Literacy Curriculum,”
Journalism & Mass Communication Educator 72, no. 2 (June 1, 2017): 228–41, https://doi.
Emily K.Vraga, Melissa Tully, and Hernando Rojas, “Media Literacy Training Reduces
Perception of Bias,” Newspaper Research Journal 30, no. 4 (2009): 68–81; Emily K.Vraga
et al., “Modifying Perceptions of Hostility and Credibility of News Coverage of an
Environmental Controversy through Media Literacy,” Journalism 13, no. 7 (October 1,
2012): 942–59, https://doi.org/10.1177/1464884912455906.
Jennifer Fleming, “Media Literacy, News Literacy, or News Appreciation? A Case
Study of the News Literacy Program at Stony Brook University,” Journalism &
Mass Communication Educator 69, no. 2 (June 1, 2014): 146–65, https://doi.org/10.
Adam Maksl et al., “The Usefulness of a News Media Literacy Measure in Evaluating a News Literacy Curriculum,” Journalism & Mass Communication Educator 72, no. 2
(June 1, 2017): 228–41, https://doi.org/10.1177/1077695816651970.
Joseph Kahne and Benjamin Bowyer, “Educating for Democracy in a Partisan Age:
Confronting the Challenges of Motivated Reasoning and Misinformation,” American Educational Research Journal 54, no. 1 (February 1, 2017): 3–34, https://doi.
Danah Boyd, “Did Media Literacy Backfire?,” Data & Society: Points, January 5, 2017,
Phil Parvin, “Democracy Without Participation: A New Politics for a Disengaged Era,”
Res Publica 24, no. 1 (February 2018): 31–52, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11158-0179382-1, 36.
Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information
Overload, Reprint edition (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2011), 201.
Question 5
4.5 pts
Discuss one element of media literacy that was new or surprising to you.
Write a 150-word reflection (+/- 25 words).
Every student who answers the question will receive 1 points. In addition, they can earn 3.5 points if
they demonstrate a sophisticated argument based on three categories (evidence, analysis,
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