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Former Area Reporter Teaches News Literacy

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Dean Miller, director of Stony Brook University's Center for News Literacy

This month William Love is substituting for his mom, Marianne, while she is on vacation.

I promise you, I am not that bad of a guy even if I am a journalist. 

It seems I have to keep reminding myself of that these days because the profession in which I worked full-time for six years and now teach to the students at Sandpoint High School, is seemingly under attack. 

Journalists have become a favorite target for politicians and for commentators on cable news networks or talk radio. The argument usually revolves around journalists having an agenda (seemingly always of the liberal persuasion) and practicing “gotcha” journalism.

I don’t pretend to speak for all my colleagues—besides teaching I do some freelance work as a reporter—but most of the journalists I worked with directly are professionals who take what they do seriously and religiously follow the basic tenets of journalism in an attempt to report the truth in a fair and balanced way.

But I also fall into the category of news consumer (a junkie at that) and understand the realities of an industry that changed drastically during my six years as a newspaper reporter. 

Technology has altered the role of the reporter and has opened the playing field beyond the traditional media sources. We no longer rely on just our local newspapers or TV and radio station to get the news. Consumers now have any number of ways to get their information—be it from a blog, on social media Web sites such as Twitter or Facebook, or by clicking on agenda-driven news organizations—and in some cases the consumer actually becomes the content provider.

Considering all these avenues, the amount of content available to us is overwhelming.

“There are 20,000 minutes of mediated material available to you every minute of the day,” said Dean Miller, Director of Stony Brook University’s Center for News Literacy. “There are 24 hours of new video uploaded to YouTube every minute.”

As Miller pointed out during an interview, the work is just starting for news consumers when they find the content. Little things I have taken for granted such as understanding the difference between a news article and a column, I am now teaching to the students in my journalism classes. But viewing the media from the outside, I understand why my students—and many adults, for that matter—can have a hard time determining if the news they are consuming is reliable and if the source is credible.

This past year, for example, IdahoReporter.com started providing coverage on all aspects of state government as well as our state’s congressional delegation. It should be noted that IdahoReporter.com strives for “accurate, fair and complete coverage” in its reporting, according to its Web site. I don’t follow IdahoReporter.com enough to know if that is indeed the case or not, but I see its content—they encourage all of Idaho’s media outlets and citizen journalists to “steal our stuff”—linked to regularly on the Spokesman-Review’s “Huckleberries Online.”

IdahoReporter.com is funded by the Idaho Freedom Foundation, an organization that “advocates the principles of individual liberty, personal responsibility, private property rights, economic freedom and limited government.” Executive Director Wayne Hoffman, who regularly lobbies the state legislature and writes opinion pieces seen in newspapers across the state, told the Associated Press in April that he does not dictate to the IdahoReporter.com reporters what to cover, but he does want the staff to write “from the viewpoint of taxpayers.”

That type of coverage certainly isn’t a new concept in journalism—I will always remember my first boss telling me to “follow the money!” But as the AP story points out, IdahoReporter.com is part of a trend across the country of organizations with political agendas creating and funding news services at the state level. It is an important factor to consider when reading content from IdahoReporter.com or a similar news organization from the left. It should even be considered with content from traditional news organizations or in an e-mail forward from a friend.

In his role at Stony Brook, Miller is part of a movement to make news consumers better news consumers, especially when it comes to information they find on the Internet. 

You might be familiar with Miller, who spent 25 years in the Northern Rockies as a reporter and editor. Miller, 49, worked 10 years as a reporter for the Spokesman-Review, for five of which he was based in Sandpoint. (Yes, a long time ago the Spokesman had a full-time reporter and office in Sandpoint.) He helped found Idahoans for Openness in Government and is an Ethics Fellow at The Poynter Institute.

He now teaches the News Literacy course that has become popular on campus, even for students not involved in Stony Brook’s School of Journalism. Miller said the curriculum from the Stony Brook course is being used for similar classes at the college and high school levels throughout the country, including in Idaho and Montana.

Miller also oversees the school’s Center for News Literacy, which is the first of its kind in the country.

“News literacy is a course that was developed here at Stony Brook in response to people’s fears about what happened to the truth in the digital tsunami,” Miller said. “One of the ironies of the Information Age is that people actually seem to have a looser grip on the truth.”

The course is intended to give students the critical thinking skills to “make judgments, take action and make decisions” when it comes to news content they read, watch or hear, Miller said. That can mean anything from understanding the difference between a news article and a column to recognizing a quote that may be taken out of context.

Miller just had to use a news story that played out last month to show how news literacy works.

“The idea of a news literate consumer is that when you saw the story about Shirley Sherrod, the USDA official,” Miller said, “the 18-year-old who had taken my course would say, ‘Hmm ... What’s the context of that comment of hers?’”

Of course, Sherrod’s comments were later shown to be taken out of context—after she was asked to resign from her position. It is an example that shows even some involved in the industry should consider a course in news literacy.

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Author info

William Love William Love is a former newspaper writer who is the advisor to Sandpoint High School's "Cedar Post" newspaper.

Tagged as:

newspapers, publishing, Dean Miller, Stonybrook University

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