Telling Bogus From True: A Class in Reading News
Ed Betz for The New York Times
STONY BROOK, N.Y. — It was early in the morning, but the class was lively. Perhaps it had something to do with the news article the professor had just handed out for the students to read.
“Girls Go ‘Wild’ for Booze, Sex,” the headline read.
The article reported on a survey in which 83 percent of young women said spring break involved heavy drinking and 74 percent said it included sex and outrageous behavior. The teacher, Howard Schneider, encouraged the class at the State University at Stony Brook to analyze the article. Were independent experts interviewed? Had outside experts seen the survey? Were its questions reasonable?
A few days after publication, he told the class, several polling experts came forward to challenge the survey. It had been conducted on the Internet with respondents who volunteered to participate, and was not a scientifically random survey. Two-thirds of the women surveyed had never even been on spring break.
The study was completely invalid, the experts said, and yet it was published by a newspaper and read by tens of thousands of people without challenge. Why, Mr. Schneider asked. Because it confirmed what reporters, editors and readers already believed.
“That is one of the hardest things to do as a news consumer,” he told the class of 30 or so students, “to stay open to information that does not conform to your views.” It was one small moment in the course on news literacy, a semester-long lesson on how to be an informed consumer of news, how to navigate with appropriate skepticism the ever more crowded — and confusing — spheres of print, broadcast and Internet journalism. The course is unusual in that it is aimed at all students, not just aspiring journalists.
“This is not a course for journalists; it’s a course for consumers,” Mr. Schneider, the former editor of Newsday, said in an interview. “This is not a media-bashing class. It is not a media cheerleading class. By showing them examples of terrific journalism and bad journalism, the ultimate goal is to have them distinguish between the two.”
“You’ve got to know which stories you can count on if you’re going to make decisions based on them,” he said, pointing out that understanding how to consume news could help citizens in many ways, from voting to buying medicine. “Our point here is that for the rest of your life, the news media is your biggest continuing education course.”
Mr. Schneider created the course less than two years ago, not long after he left Newsday at the end of a 35-year career there. He and the university have big plans for it. Three sections were taught this spring. Next fall there could be 20. Over the next four years, officials hope that 10,000 Stony Brook students will take the course.
The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which works to support journalistic quality, has contributed $1.7 million for curriculum development, including course material that Mr. Schneider and his colleagues are putting together. It will include text, video and audio, and will be available either on a DVD or a Web site.
“This is really a course in critical thinking, about applying critical thinking to the media,” said Mr. Schneider, who is dean of the School of Journalism at Stony Brook, which formally opened its doors last fall.
The foundation and Mr. Schneider hope other universities will adopt the course and use its curriculum.
“A college that could teach its students to tell quality journalism from junk could, in theory, change the way they consume news,” Eric Newton, a vice president at the Knight Foundation, said in an e-mail message. “At the very least, we expect it to boost student awareness of the value of a free press.”
Mr. Schneider and his colleagues approach the subject from an array of angles. The class watches “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart, and debates whether it is news or entertainment. They read news articles and commentary, and then formulate critical distinctions between the two. They try to differentiate journalism and propaganda, and they discuss what makes something news and who gets to decide. They scrutinize newspaper and television news stories, analyzing which kinds of sources are reliable and which are not.
They examine news articles that turned out to be grossly inaccurate, trying to see, in hindsight, whether a critical reader could have spotted the articles’ flaws from the first.
For example, a newspaper article from New Orleans, published soon after Hurricane Katrina, reported incorrectly that National Guard troops had found 40 bodies in a freezer in the Superdome. The sources of the assertion turned out to be two soldiers, who were identified in the article and spoke on the record. They had not actually seen the freezer, however, and were merely passing on rumors from other soldiers.
The phrase “open the freezer” has become a byword in the course, Mr. Schneider said, representing the need to search for independent, verifiable information, preferably from firsthand witnesses.
At the outset of the course, students are required to impose a 48-hour news blackout on themselves. They are not to watch, read or listen to the news, including weather reports and sports scores. The idea is to emphasize the role that such information plays in their lives, often without students’ realizing it.
Several students said they had been very surprised to discover how much they depended on the news, for everything from how to dress to national political developments.
“The things you learn in the course you can really use in everyday life,” said Kate Bradley, a freshman in Mr. Schneider’s class this spring. “You really can’t apply physics to everyday life, but this you can apply to everything.”
Emily Gover, a sophomore who took a section of the course taught by Paul Schreiber, another veteran of Newsday, as is this reporter, said she had learned a lot.
“I think I learned more skills that I’m going to use for the rest of my life,” she said, “than I did in any other course in college.”
Correction: June 22, 2007
An article on May 9 about a new course at the
Fonte: The New York Times (By ALAN FINDER Published: May 9, 2007)
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