Andy Lee Roth
Where does our news come from? What’s the difference between “fact” and “opinion” in news reporting? Should this article be trusted?
After the past four dizzying years—during which the president has consistently vilified the press and sought to undermine public trust in journalism—answers to these fundamental questions are evidently far from elementary for many Americans.
A December 2020 Pew Research study found that many Americans have difficulty distinguishing between news sources that do their own reporting and those that simply circulate already existing stories. Fewer than 4-in-10 survey respondents knew whether Google News, Apple News, or The Wall Street Journal do reporting of their own. (Correct answers: The Wall Street Journal does; Google News and Apple News do not.)
Perhaps even more unsettling, a 2018 Pew Research report found that many Americans have trouble distinguishing factual statements from opinion in news reports. This survey asked respondents to distinguish between factual statements—statements that could be proved or disproved by objective evidence—and opinion statements based on beliefs or values. (You can take the news statements quiz here.)
Roughly a quarter of respondents incorrectly identified most or all of the statements. According to the report, respondents’ abilities to classify statements as factual or opinion varied widely “based on political awareness, digital savviness, and trust in news media.”
These findings suggest that media literacy educators in the United States face big challenges. As my colleague Allison Butler, who teaches in the department of communication at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, told me recently, “The absence of critical media literacy education in the United States is a continued embarrassment.”
“We live in the most media-saturated time in human history,” she said, “yet students and teachers in the U.S. have little access to formal, well-structured critical media literacy education.”
Engaging Students in Critical Media Literacy
In 1976, Carl Jensen, a professor at Sonoma State University, established Project Censored, a media watchdog organization, with the aim of monitoring and promoting important news stories that establishment news outlets had failed to cover.
It fortifies my belief that increasing public awareness of, trust in, and support for independent journalism is one essential dimension of every movement for social justice.
Jensen’s project garnered praise from many of the era’s leading journalists, including Walter Cronkite, Hugh Downs, and I.F. Stone, and it engaged students in the day-to-day work of identifying, vetting, and summarizing “the News That Didn’t Make the News” for the project’s annual listing of its “Top Censored Stories.” Before there was any organized movement for critical media literacy education, students in Jensen’s sociology courses at Sonoma State were doing it.
Beginning in 2009-10, under the leadership of Peter Phillips and Mickey Huff, Project Censored expanded to include faculty and students from about two dozen colleges and universities across North America, in what is now the project’s Campus Affiliates Program. Since 2011, I’ve served as the program’s coordinator.
By identifying, vetting, and summarizing high-quality independent reporting on newsworthy topics that corporate media have either marginalized or entirely ignored, students in the program sharpen their critical thinking skills and enhance their media literacy.
Critical media literacy education helps students “to question the social construction of media, the politics of representation, and the inequalities of power,” writes Jeff Share, who teaches critical media literacy to future educators at UCLA, in an article from Project Censored’s latest yearbook, State of the Free Press 2021 (Seven Stories 2020).
Doing so, the students also contribute to a wider, networked effort to raise public awareness about the limitations of corporate news coverage, and to cultivate public appreciation for independent investigative journalism.
The Top 25 news stories highlighted in State of the Free Press 2021 represent the collective effort of some 309 students and 32 faculty members from 19 campuses, who reviewed more than 300 independent news stories during 2019-2020.
This year’s story list reveals the corporate news media’s “blind spots” when it comes to systemic social problems, such as the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (our #1 story this year) and the deadly consequences of widening economic inequality (our #5 story). As Matt Taibbi observes in the foreword to State of the Free Press 2021, corporate news media typically shun stories about inequality, those that take on powerful interests, or those that lack “a clear partisan angle.” The project’s annual story list, he writes, gives working reporters “a glimpse into the work we probably should be doing, instead of delivering clicks or ratings for bosses.”
Positive Impacts Beyond the Classroom
Project Censored is distinctive among the nation’s news watchdog organizations in providing hands-on critical media literacy education to students—and making their work public.
We publish students’ preliminary research on important but underreported news stories as Validated Independent News stories on the project website. And, for those stories that make it all the way to the final ballot from which the project’s expert panel of 28 international judges rank each year’s Top 25 stories, we recognize each story’s student researcher and faculty evaluator by name, along with those of the independent investigative journalists who broke the news story.
In my own teaching, at Pomona College and Citrus College, I saw how the promise of recognition and impact beyond the classroom could galvanize students to do their very best work. Students come to think of the independent news stories that they research as “their” stories, and this often motivates them to become active on the social issues that their story addresses, beyond the classroom, among their peers, and in their home communities.
By engaging in the project’s critical media literacy curriculum, students learn to investigate, rather than react, when they encounter controversial or sensational news content. They develop skills to assess whether the evidence in a news report holds up under scrutiny, and how to cross-check content with other stories on the same topic—each of which Nolan Higdon, the author of The Anatomy of Fake News, recommends as “detection skills” to determine the validity of news content.
Notably, Higdon’s interest in the power of news began when he was an undergraduate at Diablo Valley College, where courses in history with Mickey Huff introduced him to Project Censored and spurred him to pursue critical media literacy education as his vocation.
Even as the Pew surveys cited above lead to sobering conclusions about media literacy in the United States, the experience of working with faculty and students from across the country keeps me from despairing over our society’s future. Instead, it bolsters my faith that, with enhanced efforts to promote critical media literacy, we can do better in the immediate future. And it fortifies my belief that increasing public awareness of, trust in, and support for independent journalism is one essential dimension of every movement for social justice.
Andy Lee Roth is the associate director of Project Censored, where he coordinates the Campus Affiliates Program. He has coedited eleven editions of the Project Censored yearbook, including State of the Free Press 2021, published by Seven Stories Press in December 2020.
Read More Commentary: WWW.ELSEMANARIO.US