The road to conceiving a radically different approach to journalism education—one that not only focuses on training future journalists but on tens of thousands of students with no journalistic aspirations at all—began for me in November 2004, when I abruptly left my job as the editor of Newsday. My sudden departure after 35 years of employment was prompted by a series of escalating disagreements with our new publisher over the direction and future of the paper.
On Election Night that year, I struggled mightily to write a nuanced headline that proclaimed the President’s apparent reelection. One week later, my only occupation was how to best remove two decades of accumulated debris from the family basement. I was exhausted and drained of ambition. I was determined to defer for several months any thinking about the future, my own or of the future of journalism, my lifetime profession clearly roiling—one might even say wallowing—in turmoil.
Forty-eight hours later, all of that changed when I received a telephone call from the president of Stony Brook University, the largest research university in the New York State public college system. The campus was renowned forits hard sciences, presided over for the past decade by a politically savvy, native Texan who had earned her academic stripes as a scholar of 18th century British drama. As editor of the dominant newspaper on Long Island, I had casually encountered Shirley Strum Kenny on many occasions, had been charmed by her Lone Star patois, and impressed with her intelligence, but I hardly knew her. Now at our first meeting in her homey but cluttered third-floor office, with the nameplate “Steel Magnolia” affixed to the desk, she kicked off her shoes and revealed why she had called.
“I want to do something big with journalism,” she said. “It’s time. I want to know if you will help me.”
I muttered something about the basement.
“We have the chance to create a program for the future, not the past,” she went on. “We can do something with distinction. But I need a plan. Will you at least think about it?”
We talked more, and I promised an answer. In a week’s time, three factors convinced me to help Kenny create her program. I discovered that in the entire New York State public college system—which sprawled across 64 campuses with 415,000 students—there was not one accredited journalism program or undergraduate school of journalism.
Second, my extended conversation with Kenny had revealed an abiding interest in the press. I learned that she had graduated with a journalism degree from the University of Texas, had become only the second female editor of the Daily Texan, and had set off to become a reporter in Austin before a dumb, but not atypical male editor of the 1950’s, had exiled her to the women’s pages. She would be a trusted and committed partner in this venture.
Finally, in the week between my two visits, my anger had been rekindled at the pessimism, shortsightedness, panic and even cowardice that had marked so many decisions by top media executives in recent years. A former colleague even asked me, “How will you sleep at night knowing you will be training students who can’t find jobs?”
No, I was a hopeless believer that responsible journalism would endure if only we could inspire young reporters with the courage, skills and passion to act in the public interest. Creating a journalism program would be my revenge—a powerful statement of optimism about the future. The question was, how to do it?
Charting a New Course
I set out to interview dozens of deans of journalism programs, industry leaders from the “old media” and gurus from the “new,” visionaries, scholars, professors, authors, TV producers, and newspaper editors. We talked about convergence, the digital revolution, the inability of many journalism graduates to write a clear, declarative sentence, and the growing gender gap that had resulted in women occupying two-thirds of the seats in many communications programs. I visited huge communications schools that warehoused thousands of majors—of whom only a relatively few majored in journalism.
Always, there were the same questions: What values and skills will students need to succeed in the future? How will we sustain quality journalism in the face of a 24-7 digital news cycle, unprecedented competition, audience fragmentation, unreasonable financial goals, and the devaluing of serious news coverage?
It wasn’t until later that I realized that many of the answers were unfolding right under my nose. I had agreed to teach a class called “The Ethics and Values of the American Press” so I could get to know Stony Brook students, a student body remarkable for its diversity and drive. About half the students were the first in their families to attend college, nearly 20 percent were not yet naturalized citizens, and many had SAT scores of 1,200 or higher. On the first day 35 upperclassmen stared back at me, representing majors from more than a dozen departments.
“I want you to do something antithetical to everything you have learned here,” I told them. “I don’t want you to think. Just react to the two words I put on the board.” Then I wrote THE PRESS.
Words and phrases tumbled out. “Nosy.” “Bias.” “Ratings.” “Lack of privacy.” “Crime.” “Liberal.” “Sensational.” “Television.” “Not patriotic.” “Slanted.” “Nonstop.” “Controversy.” “Orange juice.” (This last association came from a rare student who had grown up with a newspaper at the breakfast table.)
In the following weeks, I probed the students on how they made their news decisions. (To varying degrees, they all consumed news.) I deduced that about a third believed everything they watched or read that came from a “news brand,” though they equally trusted news from an obscure Web site, an entertainment magazine, or The New York Times. Another third believed nothing—cynics at 19, convinced the mainstream press was hopelessly captive of greedy corporate interests and corrupt government spinmeisters. The last third often didn’t know what to believe, confused about what news accounts to trust or who even was a journalist. Was Jon Stewart? Oprah Winfrey? Bill O’Reilly? Michael Moore?
Spirited discussions ensued on what freedom of the press actually means, on whether Stewart is a journalist (despite his disavowals, more than a third of the class turned to him as their primary source of news), on whether news decisions are driven more by profit motive or social responsibility and—using a series of hypothetical cases based on my own experiences—to what extent journalists exercise ethical decision-making.
Meanwhile, outside of class, I felt I was making good progress on my plan for a journalism degree program. It would be comprehensive, requiring majors to earn 47 credits in journalism—far more than most programs—and an additional 80 credits in the arts and sciences. It would emphasize the fundamentals. There would be three news-writing courses, a rigorous grammar test, and a writing immersion program for those who failed the test. It would be innovative. We would teach students to thrive across all media platforms. It would be practical. We would prepare students to compete for entry-levels jobs in a new digital “newsroom of the future” that we would build on campus.
But again and again scenes from my classroom forced me to think in new directions. There was the afternoon a student asked if O’Reilly was a reporter or commentator, and what difference it made. (Only a handful of students, it turned out, had ever seen a newspaper editorial page.) Or the day the class had a fierce debate about whether news coverage of the Iraq War was too negative, with students digging ideological bunkers that were impervious to incoming evidence. My informal survey found the class equally divided as to whether the press had too little power or too much. (That semester a Knight Foundation survey of more than 100,000 high schools students revealed that 37 percent felt that newspapers should first get their stories approved by the government.)
As the deadline for getting my proposal to Kenny drew near, I knew I had to make a major change. A journalism school of the future would need two missions, not one. Our first mission was daunting enough: to train the next generation of reporters and editors in a period of media transformation. But the second mission was of equal—perhaps greater—importance: to educate the next generation of news consumers.
Preparing News Consumers
An open, cacophonous, freewheeling press always would include those who practiced the dark arts of the information age: disguising reality through sleight-of-hand and half-truths, conjuring up assertion as verification, masquerading ideology as news analysis, and morphing news values into entertainment hype, not to mention the veritable journalistic sins of sloppiness, laziness and naiveté. The digital revolution might bring the promise of enlightenment, but in its pathological lack of accountability might just as easily spread a virus of confusion and disinformation.
The ultimate check against an inaccurate or irresponsible press never would be just better-trained journalists, or more press critics and ethical codes. It would be a generation of news consumers who would learn how to distinguish for themselves between news and propaganda, verification and mere assertion, evidence and inference, bias and fairness, and between media bias and audience bias—consumers who could differentiate between raw, unmediated information coursing through the Internet and independent, verified journalism.
Yet most journalism programs largely ignored the issue, choosing to focus almost exclusively on the supply side of the journalism equation. We would focus on the demand side, as well, and build a future audience that would recognize and appreciate quality journalism.
I told this to Kenny in our last meeting that spring. I proposed a course called News Literacy—a class on how to use critical thinking skills to judge the credibility and reliability of news reports. I urged that she make it available to all students on campus. The university would nurture a more informed citizenry. Our students would acquire a lifetime asset: the ability to assess what to trust and distrust in the news media, when to act on information and when to suspect it, whether in choosing a President, a controversial medication, or a news “brand.”
About a month after receiving my “dual mission” proposal, Kenny called back.
“Let’s do it,” she said.
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Stony Brook University School of Journalism
– sunysb.edu/journalismIn the two years since we launched Stony Brook’s School of Journalism with nearly 30 new courses, we have taught News Literacy to several hundred students from across the campus. The syllabus for the three-credit, 42-hour course continues to evolve, but its backbone has hardened. The class begins with a 48-hour news blackout imposed on the students—no news, ball scores, or even weather for two days. Some students report they are so anxious they can’t sleep, others carry umbrellas as insurance, and almost all are surprised by the ubiquity of news and to the extent to which it intrudes in their lives.
After teaching the course for one semester, we made a major adjustment. We realized that before we could help students assess any journalism, we had to help them find the journalism. So we employ a grid to demonstrate the differences between news, propaganda, advertising, publicity, entertainment and raw information, with particular emphasis on areas where the lines are often blurring—or collapsing.
Journalists visit the class and describe how they make decisions. Students study the inherent tension between the press and government in America and how the U.S. press differs from the press overseas. (Unfailingly, students are shocked when they visit the Web site of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “I couldn’t believe how many people want to kill journalists,” one student said. “I had no idea.”)
But the heart of the course is a sequence of classes on “deconstructing the news.” Students critically examine news Web sites, newspaper stories, and cable and broadcast news reports, separate information that is asserted from information that is verified, analyze each source in a story based on five guidelines that help them judge reliability, and seek out any evidence of bias, including their own.
A powerful metaphor for verification emerged during a discussion of Hurricane Katrina. According to one erroneous news account, the bodies of 40 dead citizens had piled up in a freezer at the Morial Convention Center. The reporter based his story on second-hand information from two National Guardsmen. In his subsequent mea culpa, the reporter regretted never looking inside for himself. Students seized on the image and suggested a new rule for news consumers. Before believing any story, always ask, “Did the reporter open the freezer?”
Student evaluations have been largely positive. In a story in The New York Times one sophomore said,” I think I learned more skills that I’m going to use for the rest of my life than I did in any other course in college.”
Our work has just begun. With the help of a $1.7 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, we launched a program this fall to teach News Literacy to 10,000 students during the next four years. The Knight grant also will allow us to test over time whether the course makes a significant difference in their academic, professional or personal lives. And in May, Kenny established a national Center for News Literacy at the School of Journalism. Its goal is to extend our mission to other universities, high schools, and even the general public.
Needless to say, I never finished cleaning out the basement.
Howard Schneider is dean of the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University.