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Linking news literacy and scholastic journalism

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by Megan Fromm
This weekend, JEA President Mark Newton, board member Stan Zoller and I all participated in the “Because News Matters” summit on news literacy in Chicago. Hosted by the McCormick Foundation, the Poynter Institute, and other partners, the summit was an opportunity to bring together key stakeholders interested in news literacy education.

As teachers, and as JEA board members, we wore some distinctive hats during the two-day summit. To begin, we wanted to represent the hundreds of high school journalism teachers who know that first-hand experience in media production is a tremendous way to teach important values of news literacy (assessing credible sources, fact-checking, and understanding bias). We also wanted to encourage those advocating for curricular and policy changes in our k-12 schools to recognize the unique role of scholastic media in developing engaged, critical thinkers.

While these issues admittedly go beyond how we teach law and ethics to our students, I want to share some ideas and themes that emerged:

First, a number of “best practice” demonstrations in teaching news literacy used BOTH news media content and social media content. This is a lesson we can take to heart with anything we teach—sometimes reaching students where they, whether we’re teaching libel, copyright, or ethical sources, means first using content that is highly relatable and relevant to them. For example, one teacher used a rap artist’s Twitter feed to help students begin to differentiate between news, opinion, and advertising content.

Second, participants at the summit recognized that what teachers really need (regardless of content) is twofold: time and resources. To that end, one of the next “projects” in the news literacy world will likely be continued compilation and promotion of materials and resources that you can use “off the shelf” with your students.

And finally, there was much debate regarding how news literacy fits in with other related literacies, including information, digital, and media literacy. To be frank, there was also significant conversation on whether journalism production and news literacy can (and/or should) be taught in tandem. Of course, as a former high school publications adviser, JEA news literacy curriculum leader and a board member, my answer was a resounding “YES!”

Is journalism and media production the only logical way to teach news literacy? No, but based on my eight-plus years of experience in the field, I believe it is the best way, and often the most engaging for our students. Incorporating news literacy in a journalism classroom takes concepts like “accuracy, fairness, bias, credibility, etc.,” and places them squarely in a project-based, student-led process. So much of what news literacy advocates is based on the basics of solid reporting, so why teach it in a bubble? Why not encourage our students to report while they fact-check, and then to publish information based on what they find? Why not teach our students the value of information in a democracy by also letting them see the effects of the printed word?

Given that a significant outcome for news literacy instruction is to implore students to engage in the democratic and civic process, creating published content is a natural fit. In doing so, students who are free to make creative and editorial decisions without administrative censorship will also learn the heavy responsibility that comes with exercising their First Amendment rights to freedom of expression.

To this end, news literacy and journalism education are the different sides of the same coin, and we can empower our students by letting them explore the role of journalism from all angles—both as producers and consumers.

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