Why News Literacy Matters
Why News Literacy Matters
Abstract and Keywords
News literacy efforts address news content, production, consumption, and contexts to holistically explore the role of news in society, with a particular focus on the importance of news for informing self-governing citizens. Although news literacy is not a cure-all, it should be part of a broader solution to developing a media system that provides audiences with news and information that is relevant to their lives. With this in mind, we, as researchers, educators, practitioners, and professionals, need to think about how to teach news literacy and encourage its application. Research and practice should strive to improve news literacy, increase confidence in individuals’ abilities, and convince audiences that news literacy is applicable to their lives.
As concerns about “fake news” and misinformation have proliferated in the past few years, calls for more and better media literacy education have surfaced from media professionals, scholars, educators, and researchers.1 These calls often focus on developing the knowledge and skills necessary to navigate contemporary news environments where disinformation and misinformation circulate, and where many people get the bulk of their news and information on social media.2 At the same time, others such as danah m. boyd have criticized media literacy education, describing “backfire” effects and warning that it is not a panacea for what ails our democracy or news environment.3 Although media literacy is not a cure-all, it should be part of a solution to developing a media system that provides audiences with news and information that is relevant to their lives. This broader “solution” should also include improved reporting and fact-checking, changes in how news is funded, produced, and circulated online, and government oversight and regulation of media and technology companies, among others.4
Although news literacy and related efforts could be an effective and important part of changing how audiences interact with news and information, particularly on social media, it is imperative that educational efforts and initiatives are developed using theoretically sound and empirically rich research. Well-intentioned interventions and programs could potentially cause more harm than good if they are not supported by sound research. Developing and promoting news literacy efforts will be best accomplished by collaboration among scholars, educators, researchers, journalists, and other media professionals who rely on research to make informed decisions about how to best serve news audiences.
This chapter will explore the nuances of news literacy and the possibilities and challenges of developing a more engaged and critical citizenry. News (p.92) literacy efforts address news content, production, consumption, and contexts to holistically explore the role of news in society, with a particular focus on the importance of news for informing self-governing citizens.5 First, I define news literacy and its core components and make the case for why it matters. The next section looks at how news literacy research can inform educational efforts and journalism practice. Finally, the chapter concludes with a discussion of how news literacy can address the pressing challenges facing news consumers and creators in the 21st century. Developing news literacy equips citizens to make informed choices about where to get their news and information and how to make sense of it in their lives.
What Is News Literacy?
News literacy is a type of media literacy, which is often defined as the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and communicate mediated messages.6 This broad definition seeks to cover the range of mediated content that we encounter, from advertising to video games, and therefore must be adaptable and applicable across media. Developing news literacy means building knowledge and skills related to accessing, analyzing, and evaluating news and understanding its importance in society. However, this definition does little to describe the core elements of media literacy, or in other words, what contributes to one’s “ability.” In a popular textbook on media literacy, Potter argues that knowledge structures, skills, and personal locus are the building blocks of media literacy, noting, “the combination of all three is necessary to build your wider set of perspectives on the media. Your skills are the tools you use to build knowledge structures. Your knowledge structures are the organizations of what you have learned. Your personal locus provides mental energy and direction.”7
Taking a step back, however, and looking at the definition of literacy as “the ability to read and write,” my colleagues and I argue that news (and other forms of media) literacy should remain focused on the knowledge and skills that contribute to one’s ability, and that other factors, like personal locus and attitudes, are essential to applying knowledge and skills. Given this, we offer a definition of news literacy that seeks to distill and capture its core elements: news literacy is knowledge of the personal and social processes by which news is produced, distributed, and consumed, and skills that allow users some control over these processes.8 This definition offers a clearer picture of what (p.93) news literacy is and isn’t, thus providing much-needed conceptual clarity for researchers, educators, and practitioners interested in developing curricula and interventions to improve news literacy.
To develop news literacy, then, requires building knowledge and skills in key areas that are relevant to the entire news process, starting with creators and ending with audiences. We propose and define five domains—context, creation, content, circulation, and consumption—that make up news literacy (see Table 6.1).9 These domains address the role of news in society and build on existing work that argues that developing news literacy requires an understanding of both the content and contexts of news production and consumption.10
Table 6.1 Defining News Literacy: 5 Cs
Social, legal, and economic environment in which news is produced
Process in which journalists and others engage in conceiving, reporting, and creating news stories and other journalistic content
Characteristics of a news story or piece of news that distinguishes it from other types of media content
Process through which news is distributed and spread to potential audiences
Personal factors that contribute to news exposure, attention, and evaluation
Adapted from Vraga et al., 2021.
Distilling news literacy into five knowledge and skills domains (5 Cs) allows us to develop a set of questions to gauge knowledge and skills that can be measured, assessed, and taught in news literacy courses or reinforced in interventions. These domains are derived from existing news literacy and media effects research and media theory. For example, the context and creation domains rely on news sociology and gatekeeping theory to explain the various forces that influence news production.11 Consumption draws on selective exposure and hostile media effects research to examine how personal factors like political partisanship affect news consumption.12 By narrowing the scope of what “counts” as news literacy, we are able to develop measures to empirically test and evaluate news literacy efforts—such as classes, curricula, online interventions, efforts by news organizations, and advertisements—using a range of methods and approaches.13 We can also measure individuals’ (p.94) news literacy to see if and how it influences news choices, analysis, and evaluation, with the ultimate goal of working to improve the knowledge and skills that actually matter for critically engaging with news.14
Importantly, this definition of news literacy only addresses the core components of knowledge and skills that make up “literacy,” but it does not determine how or if this literacy is put to use. If we consider the analogy of reading, literacy only describes the ability to read; it does not address if one actually reads or how well one does it. Therefore, to understand if and how news literacy is put to use, we must consider another set of factors, such as attitudes, norms, and perceived sense of control.15 Putting news literacy to use would mean that audiences critically engage with news by making an effort to expose themselves to news, interpret that news using knowledge and skills (applying their news literacy), make meaning from that news, and ultimately make decisions based on the information garnered from the news.16 These decisions—from who to vote for to what food to eat to how to stay healthy—are of major concern as audiences make important personal and social choices based on the news they see and believe.
Why Does News Literacy Matter?
Developing news literacy is one way that the public can exert some control over the news and information they receive, potentially empowering citizens to make informed news decisions and to hold others accountable for the quality of the news and information environment. Public opinion data suggests that the public is worried about the potential spread of false or misleading news and information, feels that it is difficult to recognize this content, and is not necessarily equipped to recognize or respond to it.17 For example, 73% of respondents in Edelman’s 2019 survey said they worry about false news and information “being used as a weapon.” And, few Americans think the news and information they get on social media is trustworthy, despite relying on social media heavily as a source.18 However, it is not all bad news; Edelman, the communications firm, reports that people consumed more news in 2018 than in the previous year and are recognizing the challenges to finding credible information online.19 Taken together, this data suggests that the public is attuned to the need to consume trustworthy and credible news and information and is seeking ways to do so (p.95) online, particularly on social media, but faces challenges to finding quality news in their day-to-day lives.
Developing and applying news literacy is one proactive step that we can take to navigate complex news and information environments. Although news literacy is not a panacea, it is something that is within our control and has the potential to change our relationship with the news and information we consume. For example, a more news-literate consumer is well positioned to correct false and misleading information that they encounter, to call on news organizations and social media companies to make changes that could improve the news ecosystem, or to support or challenge legislation regarding news.20 In short, this news-literate public should be able to make more informed decisions on social, political, and personal matters.
How Can Research Inform News Literacy Efforts?
One strand of news and media literacy research focuses on evaluating courses, modules, interventions, or curricula to see how these efforts improve literacy, which is usually measured as a specific type of knowledge, attitude, or skill that is often directly related to the effort.21 Another strand of research looks at the relationship between news and media literacy and a range of outcomes related to critical news consumption, such as perceptions of news and information accuracy, bias, credibility, and hostility.22 For example, research suggests that news literacy efforts can improve credibility perceptions of news and can make people more skeptical of biased, false, or misleading information and conspiracy theories even when this content aligns with their worldviews.23 And, a third strand extends beyond news consumption per se to examine the relationship between news and media literacy and a range of democratic outcomes, such as political efficacy and political engagement.24 Overall, this research suggests that news and related media literacy efforts can be effective at improving knowledge and skills (literacy) and encouraging critical news consumption and outcomes relevant to civic life.
However, the effectiveness of these efforts often depends on a number of factors, including the content of the course, module, or online intervention; personal characteristics of the students or study participants; and the context of where the effort or intervention takes place.25 Certain news literacy (p.96) messages may resonate more or less with certain audiences and may be more or less effective depending on where they are viewed or read. For example, my colleagues and I have found that short news literacy tutorials and videos designed like public service advertisements are effective at reducing perceptions of bias and boosting credibility perceptions of news for certain groups of people in certain environments.26 But when we took the content of these messages and attempted to distill them into tweets to serve as reminder messages on Twitter, we ran into additional challenges of conveying key information and prompting action in a crowded social media environment.27 Testing multiple news literacy messages on Twitter, we found that some messages can promote skepticism toward misinformation, and others can boost one’s confidence about their own news literacy, but that no single message was able to achieve all desired outcomes in our study. This research further suggests that news literacy efforts need to tackle key issues from multiple perspectives, and that audiences need to be exposed to these messages over time and in different contexts.
News literacy efforts should address the knowledge, skills, and other sets of key factors (e.g., attitudes, motivation, perceived norms) that contribute to applying news literacy in everyday life.28 For example, an intervention can focus on conveying a key piece of information about how journalists and news organizations work, or how misinformation is often designed to look like news, or it can remind news consumers of a news literacy skill such as verifying the source of the information. This intervention can boost confidence in one’s ability to apply this knowledge and skills to actual news consumption.29 News literacy researchers are well positioned to test these efforts and to experiment with both form and content to develop messages and interventions that resonate with audiences, and to translate this research into teaching and practice for the classroom and beyond.
Much of my research has focused on developing news literacy messages and interventions for online and social media environments in an attempt to address two key shortcomings on traditional classroom media literacy efforts. First, classroom efforts are limited to students enrolled in formal education; and second, they are somewhat removed from actual news consumption. Of course, research should still be dedicated to developing, implementing, and evaluating news literacy curricula and classroom efforts, as this education is critical in the 21st century.30 And, many researchers and educators are dedicated to this effort; in fact, the National Association of Media Literacy Education has seen dramatic growth in recent years and is a (p.97) leader in supporting classroom-based media literacy efforts.31 However, the focus of my work has been on messages and interventions that can be used outside of classrooms to extend the scholarship and practice in this under-researched area.
By developing and testing news literacy messages and interventions for digital and social media, we are targeting messages to adults, who are often neglected by traditional education, in the context where they consume news. These messages could act as reminders or reinforcement messages “in the moment” when someone might click or share a news story or more dubious content masquerading as news. Clayton and colleagues found that warning people about potentially misleading articles on Facebook affected perceptions of both misleading and accurate headlines, echoing my own work and suggesting a need to continue to develop and test messages for social media environments.32 These kinds of mixed findings highlight the difficulty in promoting news literacy and healthy skepticism without making people less trusting of actual news or promoting cynicism.33 By moving these efforts out of the class and onto the Internet, we must engage with the challenges of creating compelling content that is able to attract audiences’ attention and deliver useful information that prompts action. This is a difficult task, but one that researchers can tackle to empower audiences and improve the information ecosystem.
Media professionals also have a role to play, as they can incorporate similar interventions or messages into their work. For example, using glossaries or other “explainers” to provide insight into how journalists do their job, or the decisions that went into a story, not only increase transparency and bolster credibility but also double as news literacy efforts, as audiences learn more about the news-making process.34 If audiences become more familiar with how news is produced and what constitutes solid reporting, for example, they may be more equipped to recognize when a false story or opinion piece is masquerading as news. The Trusting News project, for example, works to train journalists and media professionals to be more transparent as a way to improve trust with audiences.35 Their work is premised on the idea that if news creators understand why public trust is low, they can work on actively improving it rather than simply lamenting the problem. These efforts have resulted in changes in a number of newsrooms, and the creation of the kind of interventions that put news literacy in front of news consumers.36 Scaling up this kind of work by making it standard practice in traditional and digital-only news organizations would be a tremendous step forward for news producers and audiences alike.
For news literacy to be effective at promoting critical news consumption, news audiences need to develop their knowledge and skills and then regularly apply them when encountering news and information. To effectively apply the various news literacy “tips and tricks” that often circulate online requires knowledge, skill-building, and practice. It is unreasonable to expect that audiences are equipped to evaluate news and information if they have never been exposed to news literacy education or do not see the value of critically engaging with news.37 We would not expect a person to be literate if they were never taught to read, nor would we expect them to read if reading had no value in their lives. In addition, most news consumers are adults who have long since finished K–12 or college education and who are attempting to navigate a digital and social media environment that is completely different than what they encountered a decade ago, and that continues to transform regularly (often on a seeming whim and at the discretion of a few major companies). Therefore, it is imperative that news literacy efforts extend beyond classroom environments to reach adult audiences in the places and spaces where they consume news.38 In addition, these news literacy interventions should be developed and evaluated to determine if they are effectively conveying key concepts and encouraging relevant outcomes, like critical news consumption or political participation. Messages that don’t “work” are useless, at best, and counterproductive at worst.39
Organizations like the News Literacy Project (NLP) have been working to develop small and large interventions for classroom and non-classroom settings.40 Importantly, they rely on research to inform their work and conduct their own internal research to evaluate their efforts. The NLP has continued to evolve to address contemporary challenges and has been a leader in this field. Continuing to work with scholars and researchers, efforts like those developed by NLP have the potential to be long-lasting and effective tools in our news literacy toolbox.
To address the challenges facing news consumers now, news literacy efforts need to cut across dividing lines like political partisanship, and need to encourage audiences to be active news consumers who are willing and able to critically engage. These are difficult challenges to address as partisan divides continue to grow in the United States, journalism itself has become a politically charged topic, and motivation to consume news varies widely (p.99) among groups in the United States and around the world. For example, using interviews with adults in the United States, we found that even people with basic news literacy were often cynical about the value of engaging with news or of applying news literacy. Others were simply not motivated to consume news or to critically evaluate it. In addition, many participants had a nuanced view of news bias and recognized how their worldviews and perspectives influence their news choices and evaluations in the abstract, but were quick to rely on source cues and shortcuts when evaluating actual news content, suggesting that overcoming entrenched views will continue to be a challenge.41
With this in mind, we as researchers, educators, practitioners, and professionals need to think about how to teach news literacy and encourage its application. This work cannot be relegated to research locked away in journal articles behind paywalls, or college classrooms that only reach a part of the population. News literacy efforts must be developed and tested for media environments and reevaluated to ensure they are a part of the solution and not contributing to the problem. In addition, simply telling news consumers to check the source of content, or to read carefully, or to correct misinformation when they see it, won’t be enough to encourage critical engagement with news in the moment or in the long term. Audiences need to know how to do it (knowledge and skills), but also must feel that critical news consumption is valuable and doable. Efforts should strive to improve news literacy, increase confidence in individuals’ abilities, and convince audiences that news literacy is applicable to their lives. News literacy matters if we want to help people become informed citizens who can contribute to a functioning democracy.
(1.) Monica Bulger and Patrick Davison, “The Promises, Challenges, and Futures of Media Literacy,” Data & Society Research Institute (2018), https://datasociety.net/library/the-promises-challenges-and-futures-of-media-literacy/; Stephan Lewandowsky, Ullrich K.H. Ecker, and John Cook. “Beyond Misinformation: Understanding and Coping with the ‘Post-Truth’ Era,” Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition 6, no. 4 (2017): 353–369.
(2.) Bulger and Davison, “The Promises, Challenges, and Futures of Media Literacy”; Alice E. Marwick and Rebecca Lewis, “Media Manipulation and Disinformation Online,” Data & Society Research Institute (2017), https://datasociety.net/library/ (p.100) media-manipulation-and-disinfo-online/; Pew Research Center, “News Use Across Social Media Platforms 2018” (2018), https://www.journalism.org/2018/09/10/news-use-across-social-media-platforms-2018/.
(4.) Alice E. Marwick, “Why Do People Share Fake News? A Sociotechnical Model of Media Effects,” Georgetown Law Technology Review 474, no. 2 (2018): 474–512, https://georgetownlawtechreview.org/why-do-people-share-fake-news-a-sociotechnical-model-of-media-effects/GLTR-07-2018/.
(5.) Stephanie Craft, Seth Ashley, and Adam Maksl, “Elements of News Literacy: A Focus Group Study of How Teenagers Define News and Why They Consume It,” Electronic News 10 no. 3 (2016): 143–160; Emily K. Vraga and Melissa Tully, “Effective Messaging to Communicate News Media Literacy Concepts to Diverse Publics,” Communication and the Public 1 (2016): 305–322.
(6.) Patricia Aufderheide and Charles M. Firestone, Media Literacy: A Report of the National Leadership Conference on Media Literacy (Queenstown, MD: Aspen Institute, 1993), https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED365294.pdf.
(7.) W. James Potter, Media Literacy (9th ed.) (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2019), 20.
(8.) Emily K. Vraga, Melissa Tully, Adam Maksl, Stephanie Craft, and Seth Ashley, “Theorizing News Literacy Behaviors,” Communication Theory 31, no. 1 (2021): 1–21.
(9.) Melissa Tully, Adam Maksl, Stephanie Craft, Emily K. Vraga, and Seth Ashley, “Understanding Critical News Consumption: Theorizing and Measuring News Literacy,” Paper presented at the Future of Journalism Conference, Cardiff, UK (September 2019); Vraga et al., “Theorizing News Literacy.”
(10.) Seth Ashley, Adam Maksl, and Stephanie Craft, “News Media Literacy and Political Engagement: What’s the Connection,” Journal of Media Literacy Education 9, no. 1 (2017): 79–98; Melissa Tully and Emily K. Vraga, “Effectiveness of a News Media Literacy Advertisement in Partisan Versus Nonpartisan Online Media Contexts,” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 61, no. 1 (2017): 144–162; Emily K. Vraga, and Melissa Tully, “Media Literacy Messages and Hostile Media Perceptions: Processing of Nonpartisan Versus Partisan Political Information,” Mass Communication and Society 18, no. 4 (2015): 422–448.
(11.) Pamela J. Shoemaker and Timothy P. Vos, Gatekeeping Theory (New York: Routledge, 2009); Jane. B. Singer, “User-Generated Visibility: Secondary Gatekeeping in a Shared Media Space,” New Media & Society 16, no. 1 (2014): 55–73.
(12.) Natalie Jomini Stroud, Niche News: The Politics of News Choice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); Tully and Vraga, “Effectiveness of a News Media Literacy Advertisement.”
(13.) Adam Maksl, Stephanie Craft, Seth Ashley, and Dean Miller, “The Usefulness of a News Media Literacy Measure in Evaluating a News Literacy Curriculum,” Journalism and Mass Communication Educator 72, no. 2 (2017): 228–241.; Vraga and Tully, “Effective Messaging to Communicate News Media Literacy Concepts to Diverse Publics.”
(14.) Craft et al., “Elements of News Literacy”; Melissa Tully and Emily K. Vraga, “A Mixed-Methods Approach to Examining the Relationship Between News Media Literacy and Political Efficacy,” International Journal of Communication 12, (2018): 766–787; Vraga et al., “Theorizing News Literacy.”
(15.) Icek Ajzen, “Perceived Behavioral Control, Self‐Efficacy, Locus of Control, and the Theory of Planned Behavior,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 32 no. 4 (2002): 665–683.
(16.) Vraga et al., “Theorizing News Literacy.”
(18.) Pew, “News Use.”
(20.) Marwick, “Why Do People Share Fake News?”
(21.) Andrea M. Bergstrom, Mark Flynn, and Clay Craig, “Deconstructing Media in the College Classroom: A Longitudinal Critical Media Literacy Intervention,” Journal of Media Literacy Education 10, no. 3 (2018): 113–131, https://digitalcommons.uri.edu/jmle/vol10/iss3/7; Maksl et al., “The Usefulness of a News Media Literacy Measure.”
(22.) Joseph Kahne and Benjamin Bowyer, “Educating for Democracy in a Partisan Age: Confronting the Challenges of Motivated Reasoning and Misinformation,” American Educational Research Journal 54, no. 1 (2017): 3–34; Vraga and Tully, “Media Literacy Messages and Hostile Media Perceptions.”
(23.) Katherine Clayton, Spencer Blair, Jonathan A. Busam, Samuel Forstner, John Glance, Guy Green. . . Brendan Nyhan, “Real Solutions for Fake News? Measuring the Effectiveness of General Warnings and Factcheck Tags in Reducing Belief in False Stories on Social Media,” Political Behavior (2019): 1–23; Stephanie Craft, Seth Ashley, and Adam Maksl, “News Media Literacy and Conspiracy Theory Endorsement,” Communication and the Public 2, no. 4 (2017): 388–401; Melissa Tully, Emily K. Vraga, and Leticia Bode, “Designing and Testing News Literacy Messages for Social Media,” Mass Communication and Society 6, no. 1 (2020): 22–46.
(24.) Ashley et al., “News Media Literacy and Political Engagement”; Joseph Kahne, Nam-Jin Lee, and Jessica Feezell, “Digital Media Literacy Education and Online Civic and Political Participation,” International Journal of Communication 6 (2012): 1–24; Tully and Vraga, “A Mixed-Methods Approach to Examining the Relationship Between News Media Literacy and Political Efficacy.”
(25.) Kahne and Bowyer, “Educating for Democracy in a Partisan Age”; Tully and Vraga, “Effectiveness of a News Media Literacy Advertisement.”
(26.) Emily K. Vraga, Melissa Tully, and Hernando Rojas, “Media Literacy Training Reduces Perception of Bias,” Newspaper Research Journal 30, no. 4 (2009): 68–81; Tully and Vraga, “Effectiveness of a News Media Literacy Advertisement.”
(27.) Tully et al., “Designing and Testing News Literacy Messages for Social Media.”
(28.) Craft et al., “Elements of News Literacy”; Tully et al., “Understanding Critical News Consumption”; Vraga et al., “Media Literacy Training Reduces Perception of Bias”; Vraga et al., “Theorizing News Literacy.”
(29.) Tully and Vraga, “A Mixed-Methods Approach to Examining the Relationship Between News Media Literacy and Political Efficacy”; Vraga and Tully, “Effective Messaging to Communicate News Media Literacy Concepts to Diverse Publics.”
(30.) Paul Mihailidis and Benjamin Thevenin, “Media Literacy as a Core Competency for Engaged Citizenship in Participatory Democracy,” American Behavioral Scientists 57, no. 11 (2013): 1611–1622.
(32.) Clayton et al., “Real Solutions for Fake News?”
(33.) Melissa Tully, Emily K. Vraga, and Anne-Bennett Smithson, “News Media Literacy, Perceptions of Bias, and Interpretation of News,” Journalism 21 no. 2 (2020): 209–226.
(34.) Alexander L. Curry and Natalie Jomini Stroud, “The Effects of Journalistic Transparency on Credibility Assessments and Engagement Intentions,” Journalism. Online First. (2019). doi:10.1177/1464884919850387.
(37.) Tully and Vraga, “A Mixed-Methods Approach to Examining the Relationship Between News Media Literacy and Political Efficacy”; Tully et al., “News Media Literacy, Perceptions of Bias.”
(38.) Clayton et al., “Real Solutions for Fake News?”; Vraga and Tully, “Media Literacy Messages and Hostile Media Perceptions.”
(41.) Tully et al., “News Media Literacy, Perceptions of Bias, and Interpretation of News.”