Seeking Coherence: Reflections on the National News Literacy Summit

Paul Mihailidis

news media literacy Venn diagram

Graphic by Peter Levine

In mid-September, I had the pleasure of participating in the “Because News Matters” News Literacy Summit, organized by the Poynter Institute, the McCormack Foundation, and a host of sponsors. The 2-day summit in Chicago gathered stakeholders in news, journalism, media, and education to explore where the news literacy movement has been, where it is and where it should go. The emerging discipline of news literacy focuses on preparing readers to analyze the credibility, accuracy, and reliability of information to become informed news consumers. I was asked to co-chair, with Diana Hess from the Spencer Foundation, the research and assessment group for the summit. Our chair, a simple one, was to explore “What is News Literacy and How Do We Assess It”

There have been a host of interesting and useful recaps and reflections of the summit itself, which you can read about here, here, here, and here. There were panels on best teaching practices, on where and how news literacy should fit into K-12 curriculum, and how new connective technologies are shaping–or reshaping–the future of news. I wanted to take this time to recap what I saw as some of the pressing issues in the news literacy movement at this summit, and provide some possible pathways forward.

#1. Defining News Literacy – Like an emerging academic initiative or movement, defining boundaries and frameworks for news literacy is a thorny and contentious issue. Part of the contention stems from multiple literacies–media literacy, information literacy, digital literacy, news literacy, civic literacy, and so on–that all integrate and overlap around their intended outcomes that advocate for civic engagement and critical thinking. Some scholars have advocated media literacy as a “big tent” under which news, and other modalities sit. Others, have advocated for news literacy as a separate and new entity. CJR is covering this debate in full, although I think some of their work (like News Literacy vs. Media Literacy) is somewhat reductionist and largely unhelpful.

The Reseach and Assessment group understood this tension and wondered why no one has supported a field-mapping study to help us contextualize the literacies, and place news literacy within them. Without proof of concept, historical context, and current research in an area, it’s hard to claim a that a concept is new or not new. A lot of spinning tires and kicking our heels is happening here, and I think what you largely saw in Chicago were different stakeholders with different goals advocating for their perspective.

This matters by and large because terminology matters, and if the conceptual understanding of the term, and it’s application, are unclear, then the field stands to risk growth in scope and recognition.

I’ve been researching news, youth and engagement for over 5 years now, and have put out one book that explores this concept in full: News Literacy: Global Perspectives for the Newsroom and Classroom. Our group stressed the need to move beyond the conceptual morass, and fund a research group of scholars across the literacies, not attached to any specific initiative, to spend a year just mapping the field and convene interested parties to find out how their work overlaps and where it doesn’t. Only then can we start to see how the literacies support each other, and at the same time where they find unique ground on which to stand. This would be really helpful to move beyond the stale rhetoric of “we do this,” “you do that,” “stop calling us this,” and “stop telling us that.”

#.2. Assessing News Literacy – This part of the conversation depends almost entirely on how we respond to defining the field. Until we have a strong conceptual agreement on the framework for news literacy, it will be very difficult to build strong and structured metrics for assessment of outcomes. There have been some really strong initiatives done today. Stephanie Craft and her team have produced a strong approach to knowledge measurements for News Media Literacy. Renee Hobbs has worked looking at young people, news, and engagement, and I’ve conducted numerous studies on  how young people understand news, and use technology to engage with news in daily life. I’ve also just published a book, Media Literacy and the Emerging Citizen: Youth, Engagement and Participation in Digital Culture, that outlines some of the connections between news engagement and social networks. While the research shows varying levels of engagement with media for civic activism and engagement, there’s a lot more work to be done in the competencies young poeple need to effectively engage with news in digital culture.

These measures, of course, are academic in scope, and are sometimes hard to translate into tangible inputs for teachers. For that, many groups working in news literacy are hoping to establish their model as a strong one to consider. The Center for News Literacy at Stonybrook University and the News Literacy Project are hard at work in creating and distributing curriculum for K-12 educators, which is great. However, we must be sure, that these are matching with assessments that track progress, skill attainment, and align with school outcomes. The metrics for this haven’t yet been established, and until they are, these initiatives will work piecemeal but perhaps not holistically.



In light of this, we have an opportunity to provide some conceptual foundations for news literacy. What Chicago taught me is that funders are committed, at the table, and want to support good work. What Chicago has also taught me is that there’s a lot of groundwork that needs to be done to build consensus and strength to get this moving forward.

At the Engagement Lab, we’re exploring how a game about news reveals  how young people engage with civic information and use it for involvement with their communities and public information outlets. This should help to provide a new and interesting approach to exploring attitudes and dispositions of youth- beyond simply asking them questions. I’m hoping that at the next summit we can unveil a report that helps to contextualize this work. Then we can get everyone invested in a path forward that’s inclusive, rigorous, and accepts the connective technologies that are driving all literacies forward- perhaps most poignantly news literacy.