During the first week of December, two important Americans, Howard Schneider and Richard Hornik attended a two-day news literacy symposium at Communication University of China in Beijing.
Schneider is the dean, School of Journalism at Stony Brook University in New York while Hornik is director overseas partnership programs, Centre of News Literacy at the same institution.
Both are senior journalists and Schneider led Newsday to win several Pulitzer prizes before his new career as a dean at Stony Brook.
Today, he’s regarded the ‘godfather of the news literacy movement’ a new discipline he recently introduced in USA.
“While teaching a course in the ethics and values of the American press, I realised that a large cohort of students were either lost in the digital flood of information or had adopted a defensive cynicism, unwilling to trust that information could be anything other than spin,” says Schneider.
By late 2005, Schneider had built the first stand-alone course in news literacy and seeing connections, he collaborated with natural science, social science and humanities experts at Stony Brook to build a course that helps students understand their own biases as well as the importance of reliable information.
Today, Ford and McCormick Foundations are helping Schneider and his team to spread news literacy across USA and abroad.
In Rwanda, deeper internet penetration has put us in the same situation that the United States of America is in. Children and adults alike have been hit by an ‘information tsunami’ on a daily basis with genuine information competing for attention with unfounded rumours through the internet, leaving users more confused than informed.
It’s one thing to read a news article on the web and another to understand it. While the internet has brought information closer to people, unguided use or consumption of some of the information could prove deadly.
A tsunami of wrong health news/information on the internet has led many into making fatal decisions.
Governments need to protect consumers of internet-based information from potential manipulation. In Rwanda, many news websites claiming to be independent outlets have sprouted, carrying stories that may have left some readers misinformed.
This is not to suggest censorship of internet-based material, but rather empowerment of users with skills to spot and avoid manipulation because dangerous information in the hands of dangerous people roaming the internet is the new real enemy, not armed rebels in bushes, for legitimate governments to watch.
As economic growth clears forests, Internet has become the new jungle for rebel groups yet the same jungle has some useful information. It’s thus an onus incumbent upon those with authority and capacity, to empower people with relevant skills.
Schneider has been fortunate to successfully make this argument in the USA and today, his movement is receiving funding to train more American students in colleges and high schools with news literacy skills.
Schneider’s News Literacy centre is working with a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, to teach news literacy skills to 10,000 undergraduates—from across all academic disciplines in the USA.
Students are taught how to use critical thinking skills to judge reliability, credibility and accuracy of news reports and news sources. It is the only center of its kind in the USA.
The new discipline has not only been a hit in USA, with colleges across the country adopting Stony Brook methodology to teach news literacy, but interest has also come from abroad.
Under the University’s overseas partnership program led by Hornik, centres have been established in China, Hong Kong, Bhutan, Australia and Vietnam.
During the two day news literacy symposium in Beijing organized by Professor Zhang Kai, a media literacy guru in China and recent Fellow at Stony Brook, a call was made to establish a news literacy centre in East Africa, with a possible base in Kigali.
The justification is that if American students, with better access to information, can be confused by internet news, how about our African students whose limited access may limit critical analytical skills?
The response was positive
The plan is to work with relevant agencies to train more trainers and spread media and news literacy skills to university and high school students.
Information is power but it can also be poisonous when prescribed by the wrong forces; manipulation leading to wrong decisions or actions or social disharmony.
In teaching News Literacy, we can prevent that.
The author is a master’s student of International Communication in Beijing