J-School Course: How to Evaluate Credibility of News

By: Anna Crane

Since the Internet has created the opportunity for an infinite number of news outlets, the ability to distinguish news from gossip, and credibility from popularity, is an increasingly useful skill — not only for journalists but for news consumers as well.

In response, the newly created Stony Brook University School of Journalism in New York is offering a course in news literacy that will attempt to teach its students how to distinguish fact from fiction.

The news literacy class is being offered to all students at the university, not just journalists, and will have four sections next semester with a total of 130 students. This fall, only one section was offered for 40 students. To project was funded through a $1.7 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

?There is great confusion in the public?s mind as to what is journalism and what is fake journalism. What is entertainment and what is news,? Howard Schneider, dean of the journalism school and the first professor of the News Literacy course, told E&P today. ?The sheer quantity of information that is descending on us each day is blurring those lines, and that is dangerous to the news consumer.?

Throughout the course, students analyze different media outlets, different types of stories, and different types of sources. Several classes are devoted entirely to Internet communciations. With the guidance of journalism professors and media experts, students learn to identify ?quality journalism? in all of these areas.

?We basically came up with a dozen key standards and variables which you can use to judge the reliability and credibility of a source,? Schneider said. ?The differences between evidence and inference; first-, second-, and third-hand reports; sources that assert versus sources that verify.?

Eric Newton, the director of journalism initiatives for the Knight Foundation, said that non-journalism students will be the ones to benefit from this class the most and that they can take staples of journalism practice and apply it to their understanding of news.

?It?s a bad idea for a journalist to base a story on one source,? he said, ?and it?s also a bad idea for a consumer to base his or her understanding of a story on one source. As a news consumer, you must take some responsibility.?

For Newton, a critical news consumer must not only be aware of the credibility of media outlets, but also of the sources and facts within the stories themselves.

?There are times when a blogger may have substantial information, and times when a mainstream journalist might have a stereotype, or an opinion, or assumption, and not a factual piece of information,? Newton said. ?We?d like to show students — and ultimately consumers in general — how they can test and come to understand whether what they?re looking at is backed up by facts, or not.?

News consumers are not the only students benefiting from the class, said Schneider. Journalism students need to understand the challenges that news consumers face in order to effectively communicate to them.

?Most journalists and journalism educators have been focused on the supply side of journalism,? Schneider said, ?and I don?t think that?s the total answer. … I think a more discerning and discriminating group of news consumers is going to demand a high quality journalism — a journalism of verification and certification. They will support news brands that can deliver quality journalism, that?s my hope. But they can?t do that if they don?t understand the difference between quality and fake journalism.?

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