Editorial: Readers should educate themselves, demand better, during National News Literacy Week

By Brandi Makuski

The Point/Plover Metro Wire is getting ready for a week of celebration, education, and in some ways, mourning.

National News Literacy Week is Jan. 24–28, an initiative spearheaded by the News Literacy Project and the E.W. Scripps Company to educate the public about the importance of news literacy and the role of a free press in a healthy democracy.

But what is “news literacy?” To put it simply, news literacy is the ability to determine what is credible and what is not.

It’s a necessary component in any democratic society: well-informed citizens are more knowledgeable and have greater analytical thinking skills. They have an increased vocabulary, are regularly exposed to differing viewpoints, and are more likely to become involved in their communities. Generally speaking, news consumers live longer and are more financially stable.

And today, news literacy is more important than at any point in our nation’s history. According to the NLP, 50 percent of the public is only “slightly familiar” with the term “op-ed” or doesn’t know what it means. In another poll conducted by the group, 63 percent of people agreed that an average person was unable to differentiate good journalism from a rumor; while 96 percent of high school students surveyed did not consider why ties between a climate change website and the fossil fuel industry might lessen that website’s credibility.

It’s a sad state of affairs, one made much worse by social media—which, while valuable as a distribution tool, only seems to have encouraged the public’s habit in recent years of judging an entire story based only on a headline.

In a similar anecdotal vein:

  • In that same period of time (since about 2016), about a dozen journalism jobs have been eliminated in Portage County. Those jobs have not been refilled.
  • In that same period of time, regular attendance by members of the public at city council, school board, county board, and other local municipal meetings has drastically dropped. Often, there isn’t a single member of the public present.
  • In that same period of time, some local news outlets have become a mere shadow of their former selves, known as “ghost newspapers” that limit their news coverage to publishing press releases or advertorial content masked as news.

This year’s campaign will provide educators, students, and the public with easy-to-adopt tools and tips for becoming more news literate. Simple lessons will be offered in the NLP’s Checkology.com virtual classroom. We can only hope local teachers take note.

You can also test your news literacy skills with Informable, NLP’s free mobile app, which uses a game-like format to assess and improve users’ ability to distinguish between news and other types of information. The app can be downloaded for iPhone and in the Android PlayStore.

We are hopeful that other news outlets in Portage Co. also participate. The only way any community can thrive is with consistent and strong voices in multiple local media outlets—and for the public to engage with them. It’s something the readers should expect, and quite frankly, demand.

Want to become involved in the local news scene? We’re looking for news reporters who believe in the power of community news. Contact [email protected] for details.