News Literacy in a New Democracy

By: Nu Yang

News Literacy in a New Democracy

Today’s media landscape — replete with blogs, tweets, status updates, opinions, and gossip — has challenged consumers to wade through sources to determine which are credible. News literacy projects teach readers to use critical thinking skills to judge the reliability of news reports, and now one university is teaching those same skills internationally.

Stony Brook University, located on Long Island in New York, established the first-ever Center for News Literacy in 2007. The curriculum has since spread to 31 college campuses and a dozen high schools in the U.S.

The school announced in April it had signed on to a three-year project in the Kingdom of Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan nation nestled between China and India with a population of 750,000. For generations Bhutan was a monarchy, ruled by the Wangchuck dynasty until the fourth Wangchuck king decided to implement democracy in 2008. Since then, the country’s media outlets have grown from one newspaper to 11 and from one radio station to seven.

“There was an explosion of media,” said Stony Brook’s dean of journalism Howard Schneider. “The citizens were not ready to separate the propaganda, which you need to have a functioning democracy.”

The school’s partnership with Bhutan began when Siok Sian Pek-Dorji, executive director of the Bhutan Center for Media and Democracy, attended Stony Brook’s News Literacy Conference. The center in Bhutan is a civil society organization that promotes press freedom and news consumer awareness. Pek-Dorji expressed interest in working with Stony Brook to further news literacy in her home country, and Schneider jumped at the opportunity.

“We wanted to know if our teaching could be exported overseas,” Schneider said. “And we wanted to be able to teach the key principles of free-flowing information, how to apply standards, and show how (news literacy) can help their citizens make decisions.”   Center for News Literacy director Dean Miller and faculty member Michael Spikes traveled to Bhutan this spring to lead a weeklong series of workshops in the capital city of Thimphu. A group of 20 teachers attended the workshops, where they were given instructions on how to develop student publications and broadcasts, and teach students how to responsibly share information, hold the news media accountable for errors, and engage in constructive debate. Since democracy is still new to the country, lessons also included activities on how to teach the democratic process to students.

“Many of our lessons made sense halfway around the world,” Miller said, adding that by the end of the week, the teachers were so passionate that he knew the material was working.

“It’s a humbling thing to see democracy at the start,” he said. “As a journalist, it’s a big lesson to be able to look at these newspapers at infancy. A variety of brand-new papers are evolving, and it reinforces that newspapers play a part in building identity and community.”

Schneider said he hopes to continue bringing news literacy overseas as part of a larger global initiative. “Can we possibly bring this to mainland China, Russia — places that do not have a totally free press? Will it be adaptable? Can we find partners in those countries that thirst for and need this material? It’s a step-by-step process, and each country is different.”

As Bhutan prepares for its second-ever general election in 2013, Schneider said the project’s goal is to prepare the new citizens of the emerging democracy. “Reliable information is the oxygen of a democracy,” he said. “We want them to take a breath of it and continue breathing.”

Stony Brook is currently reaching out to newsrooms for donations of Flip-style video cameras for Bhutan students. Miller said that although most schools have Internet access and computer labs, there is limited funding for digital video cameras and still cameras. For more information, visit centerfornewsliteracy.org.

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