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Renee Loth

Exploring truth in ‘journalism’

By Renee Loth
February 12, 2010

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JAMES O’KEEFE III, the conservative activist famous for his undercover videos of ACORN, gets arrested after entering Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu’s office with three others disguised as phone repairmen, cameras rolling. He says his tactics are well within the tradition of “investigative journalism.’’

Popular mommy bloggers are scandalized when it emerges that they have been accepting merchandise from the manufacturers whose products they review. And newspapers report political poll results from partisan survey firms, without knowing the poll’s sample size or methodology.

No wonder Americans are misled and confused by the new media landscape - or just cynical and switched off. Last year the Pew Research Center’s biannual survey found the lowest level of trust in the news media in over two decades. Only 29 percent believed the media generally “get the facts straight’’ - the worst ranking Pew has ever recorded.

People love to debate what’s wrong with the news business: bias, corporate domination, budget cuts, an obsession with trivia. (And yes, Michael Moore also calls his leftist agitprop “journalism.’’) So let’s not belabor that here. Let’s even stipulate that there’s nothing inherently wrong with advertorial, infotainment, docudrama, and all the other mutant hybrids of our fragmented media age, so long as consumers know what they’re getting.

What America really needs is someone to take them by the hand through media land.

Howard Schneider, the former editor of Newsday, is one such guide. Rather than lament all the cultural developments that are defining journalism down, Schneider helped create the nation’s first Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook State University, aimed at helping a new generation of citizens evaluate what’s credible information and what’s suspect. The center has a $1.7 million grant from the Knight Foundation to teach 10,000 Stony Brook students how to recognize the three pillars of reliable journalism. For the record, those pillars are: independence, verification, and accountability.

It’s significant that the students are not just journalism majors, who might have more sophisticated understanding of the news, but kids with other interests, mostly freshmen, who may not think deeply about the media they absorb every day. And they are not the much-maligned “elites’’ - 40 percent of Stony Brook students are the first in their families to go to college.

When I visited a class on opinion journalism there last fall I was struck by how basic the questions were, even for 18-year-olds. Was Bill Moyers reading his own words in that PBS video clip? Doesn’t a website’s top popularity ranking mean it’s more reliable? Then I remembered that questions are a crucial inoculation against the infections of spin and propaganda.

Dean Miller, the center’s director, was teaching the course. It is divided into 28 lectures and sections that help students identify which information “neighborhood’’ they are in: news, opinion, publicity, advertising, or straight-up gossip. They learn the difference between verification and assertion, and how to evaluate the credibility and independence of sources.

One great exercise involves students drawing a “bias box.’’ Miller says everyone underestimates “the extent to which we seek information that conforms to our beliefs and dismiss as cognitive dissonance information that doesn’t.’’

Once they finish listing their biases, the kids switch with someone of a different background or ideology, and force themselves to see the news through another’s eyes.

The Stony Brook program has been adopted in other schools, including state colleges in California and Florida. If it works, it will help young adults (and tomorrow’s voters) better appreciate the importance of reliable information to a functioning democracy. The center is designing follow-up studies to gauge how long the lessons stick, and how being a more savvy news consumer affects a person’s civic engagement.

Miller thinks his students would have been wise to James O’Keefe’s brand of “journalism.’’ With his hidden cameras, O’Keefe made some effort at verification, but he is paid by a website with a political axe to grind, and he is not particularly accountable (except, perhaps, to the federal prosecutors investigating the stunt in Landrieu’s office). “In ten minutes most of my students could pull that apart,’’ he said.

If they can do the same with a Michael Moore film, the obituaries for responsible journalism may yet be premature.

Renée Loth can be reached at loth@globe.com.

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