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The unlovable, necessary press

Cries of ‘fake news!’ point to the need for news literacy — and the truth that makes us free.

If you paid attention, you heard it. The jeers, the screams, the taunts: “Fake news! Get out of here.” 

These were often followed by a litany of profane words. This was the steady, deep rumble heard beneath the violent outbreak in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. It has been a steady, deep rumble for several years. 

We are a society crying out for increased news literacy.

As a journalist, journalism professor and news literacy scholar, I am familiar with anger directed toward journalists and their work. And while this antipathy has escalated, it’s not new. 

The American public’s relationship with the news media has been in crisis for decades — a 40-year decline in public trust, a fractured media landscape, the partisan nature of cable news, the digital disruption and disappearance of community newspapers and the shifts in news consumption because of social media platforms. 

We are a society crying out for increased news literacy.

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News literacy is an emerging area of education and research. It focuses on better teaching the knowledge and skills people need to understand the complexities of the news industry and reporting the news. With increased knowledge and skills, news literacy should empower people to find credible news sources and be more aware of their own biases and preferences. 

And yes, news literacy also teaches people to identify misinformation. 

News literacy education can focus on any age, but there has been a recent push for teaching news literacy skills to kids and teens. 

Going straight to the source is precisely what journalists do. They track down the truth.

In my news literacy work with high school students, I often find their critiques of the news generally center on the idea that the traditional news and news reporters aren’t necessary. With bloggers, YouTubers and endless voices sharing information and opinions on social media, following your local news and your local journalists might seem irrelevant or unimportant. 

“I would rather go straight to the source” is something I have heard over and over from high school students when they tell me why they won’t read or watch the news. 

Going straight to the source is precisely what journalists do. They track down the truth.

Those of us of faith are taught to seek truth in our spiritual lives. But what about when we turn on the channel, open our laptops or pick up our phones? Does truth matter as much when we are sharing a story as it does when we are reading a Scripture? 

In Christian circles and in congregations, truth isn’t just a means to an end. Truth is a core understanding of who God is. When religious leaders of Jesus’ time continually cast his identity into doubt, he told them in John 8:32, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” 

Truth can lead to understanding. Reading and watching the news, especially our local news, can tell us what is going on in our communities, how our tax dollars are used and who among our neighbors is in need. And while the news can be sad, it can also tell us about people who do extraordinary things to help someone they have never even met. The news can also teach us about solutions that are working to solve the problems of our communities. 

News literacy doesn’t teach that journalism is infallible. The news is reported by people, and people make mistakes. In fact, news literacy education teaches audiences how to make sense of corrections or errors in the news. Newsrooms are reckoning with issues of representation and diversity and how, in some cases, the news may have contributed to stereotypes and damaging misunderstandings.

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As people of faith, we know that information can be disruptive and truth can be life-changing. But we have to earnestly seek sources that present the truth in our communities and our world. Pay for a subscription to your local newspapers, and find a national, credible newspaper that is reporting on the government. Pay for and check those sources regularly. 

Michael Schudson, a journalism scholar, calls the news media the “unlovable press.” The press doesn’t have to be loved, he argues, to be necessary. The press doesn’t have to be loved to be true. 

ELIZABETH SMITH is assistant professor of communication and director of Pepperdine Graphic Media at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. She is a children’s ministry leader for the Culver Palms Church of Christ in Los Angeles. She serves on The Christian Chronicle’s Editorial Advisory Council. Email her at [email protected].

Filed under: Church of Christ fake news news literacy Opinion press Top Stories unlovable press

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