Where Does News Live?
Her nails are always perfect. She uses clear polish so you don’t always notice them. Until she starts tapping the cell phone sitting on the table between you. Then you notice the perfect shape, the perfect cuticles. Today her perfect index finger jabs at the phone.
“I think I am the only person who still reads a real newspaper,” she says. “Now it’s all in here. Maybe that’s not a bad thing….” Her voice trails off. Her buttered bagel sits untouched on her plate.
This strand of our conversation started with her distress over the state of journalism today, especially how journalists mention one piece of emerging news, then don’t follow up on it. I think she is mad because the piece of news is usually a wrong-doing by someone in power. She thinks even the good papers– the NY Times, the Wall Street Journal (she is a New Yorker, after all)– delight in making an initial, somewhat inflammatory report, then they drop it.
As I write this, I’m not sure I can trace the connection between the decline of journalism to my cell phone. What struck me then was her suggestion that the news lived in my phone. It’s always the hardware that gets blamed, I remember thinking.
I showed her Allsides, a website that presents a single news story from three perspectives: right, center, and left. They say up front “Don’t be fooled by media bias and fake news. Unbiased news does not exist; we provide balanced news and civil discourse.” Their mission? “Free people from filter bubbles so they can better understand the world and each other.” Their About Us page shows all the people associated with the site and clearly indicates their political leanings.
My friend was silent. She withdrew her finger. “Well,” she said. “I never knew that website. existed. I’ll have to look at that.”
A Multiplicity of New Understandings
What’s different? We used to connect our reality to something physical. My friend could believe the news because she could touch the newsprint and see the ink on her fingers. Seeing the news on my phone was somehow different.
For my friend, was it that the news seemed to appear out of thin air? That we can’t see the shape of the article, how the ideas are contained in a column, how that column relates to other columns on a piece of paper with corners and edges? If news floats to my phone over the air, who is the invisible editor? Who’s in charge, of what is covered, of what is true? Is anyone in charge?
I tried to help my friend understand that the issue isn’t my phone or a tablet or a laptop. It’s not the device, I tried to explain. It’s that the we can package information in bits and bytes and send it instantly across borders and barriers of all kinds. And that changes everything we thought we knew, about how to make friends and keep friendships alive, how to shop or pay bills, how to plan our lives, how to learn about and manage our health, how to learn….
All of these things used to be connected to things we could touch, see, hold. A letter or postcard. A store, the check we used to write and mail. A travel agent who would book flights, a notebook or to-do list. The doctor who was the authority. The school, the classroom, the curriculum….
The device is the only thing we can hold or see, so it’s what we hold responsible for the changes.
If It’s Not the Device, Then What?
Somehow, we are supposed to teach in a world where the social and cultural bedrock has shifted, like geological plates under the earth, shifting and opening chasms, thrusting up the landforms we once recognized.
We’re supposed to help our students become literate not just in the two dimensions of reading and writing, but in the worlds and ways of being we can’t see.
Information literacy sounds so simple. It’s supposedly just a set of skills we cover in a set curriculum. And it is. But it’s so much more. Donald Leu and his colleagues (2004) talk about literacy in the internet age as involving new habits of mind. Yes, I think. But it’s even bigger than that. It’s also assumptions and beliefs about the world order.
I hope my friend starts to think about the assumptions she brings to her reading of the news. I hope she learns that all newspapers, even those she regards as Truth, are shaped by an explicit editorial policy. Maybe she’ll start to think about the larger shifts we are living through.
Maybe she’ll stop believing the news lives in a phone.
Resources for approaching information literacy
National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) Their Resources dropdown menu has a wealth of background information, including lesson plans, background information, standard, etc.
Common Sense Education News and Media Toolkit for Educators From their web site:
In today’s 24/7 digital world, we have instant access to all kinds of information online. Educators need strategies to equip students with the core skills they need to think critically about today’s media. We teach foundational skills in news and media literacy through our Digital Citizenship program, specifically through our Creative Credit & Copyright and Information Literacy topics. Built on more than 10 years of expertise and classroom testing, these lessons and related teaching materials give students the essential skills to be smart, savvy media consumers and creators. From lesson plans about fact-checking to clickbait headlines and fake news, we’ve covered everything. To learn more about our approach, read the Topic Backgrounder on news and media literacy.
Slice of Life is the weekly writing Challenge on Two Writing Teachers. Come write along with us!