Perry: College newsrooms should help fix their readership’s media literacy

Alex Perry, Opinion Editor

Illinois’ recently-passed media literacy in education law does not apply to college newsrooms, but college-aged journalists can — and should — contribute to the media literacy of local communities by increasing transparency about our journalistic practices and the standards of our organizations.

Illinois became the first state to require news literacy courses at every high school, passing legislation mandating the curriculum in August. According to House Bill 234, media literacy is “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create and communicate using a variety of forms.” It was passed in response to growing misinformation surrounding the pandemic and the 2020 election cycle, and is intended to arm students with the tools needed to discern what information is trustworthy. 

While blueprints from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal’s news literacy projects are helpful, molding them to fit the needs of college communities is paramount because of the unique relationships college journalists have with the communities we cover. For example, because of our proximity (and sometimes membership) in local communities, it’s easy for readers to assume personal experience spills into bias and conflict of interest. However, there are internal bylaws that prevent this from happening — they’re just not publicized. 

After engaging with The Wall Street Journal’s news literacy guide, I noticed content that could mitigate the aforementioned problem. Short videos on standards and ethics that explain the demarcation between opinions and news, as well as walkthroughs of how clearly labeled advertising doesn’t conflict with articles, all help consumers understand what goes behind the content they see. 

For a college newsroom, walkthroughs of the editorial process — from pitching to fact-checking to print layout — could iron out any confusion about content. In the past, we’ve taken some steps to address some of these problems through our “From the Newsroom” series, but there are still steps we can, and need, to take to further this education of our reporting and publication processes for our readers. 

A problem we face covering a hyperlocal area is that we must compete with word of mouth, in addition to social media. Although news travels fast, emphasizing transparency behind our fact-checking process may draw readers to us for deeper, more accurate reporting. It also offers us a chance to engage with the same strategies The New York Times has employed to fix media literacy: making reporters more accessible. 

In partnership with The News Literacy Project, The New York Times hosts calls and classroom lessons with their own journalists to bridge the gap between journalists and community, something which college-aged journalists are almost too familiar with. College journalists can take advantage of this by acting as ambassadors of their publications and explaining the culture, and protocol when appropriate. 

When The Wall Street Journal’s Chief Marketing and Membership Editor Suzi Watford discussed WSJ’s new literacy guide during an interview with The National Press Club’s Journalism Institute, she emphasized that not all readers come with the same level of news judgment. As a result, she said the guides offer a baseline level of knowledge that is applicable and accessible. Not everybody thinks about the news constantly, and therefore, the ins-and-outs of our industry is often left to assumptions — and that’s a fact we, as journalists, must ingrain in ourselves. 

The media literacy issue is a multifaceted problem that touches on trust, transparency and clarity. It is the responsibility of members of the media to do what we can to repair holes in the media literacy of the community we serve. With media literacy initiatives, student publications can gain dedicated readers who value facts provided by trustworthy reporters. 

Alex Perry is a sophomore studying economics and journalism. You can contact her at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.