STONY BROOK, N.Y. — Stony Brook University and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation will pioneer the nation’s first university-wide course in News Literacy designed to teach students how to judge the reliability and credibility of news. The Knight Foundation has awarded a $1.7 million grant to Stony Brook for the project, in which the university is committed to teaching the newly-developed course to more than 10,000 students over four years.
Some colleges and universities currently offer courses in Media Literacy which focus on broad questions of the media’s impact, ranging from advertising to video games, and some specialized mass media programs offer elements of news literacy. But Stony Brook’s program is believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, with a course designed for all undergraduates—not simply journalism or mass communications students—to evaluate the credibility of news from print, broadcast and the web.
“A university that could teach its students to tell quality journalism from junk could, in theory, change the way they consume news,” said Eric Newton, director of journalism initiatives at Knight Foundation. “At the very least, we expect this News Literacy course to boost student awareness of the value of a free press.”
“This grant puts Stony Brook in the forefront of a national movement to equip students for responsible citizenship in the Information Age,” said Stony Brook President Shirley Strum Kenny, who added that the university will contribute $2 million to support the program. “Frankly, there’s a lot at stake not only for the students, but the country.”
The course is already being taught under the auspices of Stony Brook’s new School of Journalism, the first such school at a public university in New York State. Students study how news is verified, the differences between evidence and inference, how news sources within stories can be evaluated and how to recognize bias. Several sessions are devoted exclusively to news on the Internet. The Knight grant will allow Stony Brook to expand the course outside the journalism school.
“There’s been a lot of focus on training the next generation of journalists,” said Howard Schneider, Dean of the School of Journalism, “but if we really want to elevate journalism in this country, we also need to train the next generation of news consumers. They need to learn how to differentiate between news and propaganda, information and disinformation, verification and assertion, credible news and half-baked uninformed news. They’re going to be making life decisions on the basis of these choices.”
Schneider, the former managing and editor of Newsday, and two other instructors are currently teaching News Literacy to about 120 students representing more than 15 majors. Schneider taught the course to about 40 students last semester. In the very first class, Schneider imposes a “48-hour news blackout” on students, forbidding them to listen, see or read any news, including ball scores and the weather. “It gets their attention,” he said. “One girl walked around for two days with an umbrella not sure if it was going to rain. It makes students understand the power of information in their lives.”
Recently, Schneider noted that the students come to the class falling into one of three categories. “Some believe everything they read or see. They don’t discriminate at all. Others believe nothing they read or see, convinced all news is one big spin. And some students passionately defend a free and independent press.”
As part of the course, working journalists visit the class to explain how decisions are made. “We spend time deconstructing news stories in the newspaper and on television, “Schneider said.
“The course is still very much a work in progress,” Schneider noted. “We don’t pretend to have all the answers. The Knight grant will give us the funding to create a four-year experiment to see if we can get this right.” Part of the grant will allow the university to recruit national experts, as well as faculty members from across the campus, to make the curriculum more multi-disciplinary.
“We hope to have mathematicians, political scientists and economists teach about the use and misuse of numbers, for example, and science and health experts teach how to evaluate stories about risk assessment,” Schneider added.
Schneider said part of the grant will go to the development of a multi-media textbook that will include mini-documentaries on how journalists work. “We’ll take students inside news meetings and follow around a police reporter attempting to verify a lead.” The grant also will be used to create a graduate News Fellow program and a testing instrument to measure the course’s effectiveness. After four years of instruction, the program will be evaluated.
Schneider and Kenny began collaborating on the idea for a course in News Literacy as part of their effort to establish a new journalism program on campus. “Given the avalanche of information and disinformation descending on us each day, we thought that any school of journalism designed for the 21st century had to have two missions: train the next generation of journalists, and the next generation of consumers,” Schneider said. Kenny, the first humanist to head Stony Brook, one of the nation’s leading public research universities, graduated the University of Texas with a degree in journalism and was the second female editor of the Daily Texan.
David Laventhol, former publisher of the Los Angeles Times and Newsday, former president of Times Mirror, and a member of the School of Journalism Advisory Board, said: “Journalism needs to be a two-way street in order to maximize the flow of information to make our free society work. Stony Brook’s News Literacy program is a breakthrough that may be a model for colleges everywhere.”
Marcy McGinnis, former Senior Vice President for CBS News, a member of the School of Journalism Advisory Board, and Interim Director of the Broadcast News program at Stony Brook, said: “In a world where professional journalism sits side-by-side with citizen journalism, opinion journalism, propaganda and spin, it’s more important that ever for our students to learn what it means to be a discriminating news consumer. News Literacy will take a lead in teaching students how to recognize quality, facts and truth in the splintered media of the future.”
The Knight Foundation (www.knightfdn.org) seeds and inspires great journalism, and seeks to build strong communities in the cities and towns where the Knight family ran newspapers, and elsewhere. As a national foundation with local roots, it seeks opportunities that can transform both communities and journalism, and help them reach their highest potential. Since 1950 the foundation has granted nearly $300 million to advance journalism quality and the freedom of expression.