What’s More Important: Science Literacy or News Literacy?

By Keith Kloor | February 1, 2013 11:21 am

That’s not really a fair question, because they’re both vital. But if I was the administrator at a university and a foundation offered me funding to establish a program curriculum for one or the other–which would result in a mandatory class for all in-coming freshmen–I would choose news literacy. I’ll explain why in a minute.

First, let me say outright that I am a champion of science education. I want my two sons to not only be scientifically literate, I want them to enjoy science. They are now in kindergarten and third grade, respectively, but since their pre-school days, both of them have taken after-school science classes and have attended science camp during the summers. The person who runs the after-school classes and summer camp is an elementary school science teacher in my neighborhood. His name is Carmelo Piazza. He is a rock star. I know what a formative influence he is from my own experience as a parent of two children who have been learning science from him for several years.

I also know that Piazza has a lasting influence on students. Some months ago, I was in my local Starbucks, working on an article. Two college students were sitting next to me. Piazza walked in and one of them recognized him. She jumped up with a big smile and introduced herself (“Do you remember me, I was in your science class…”). Piazza said he did, they chitchatted, then he got his coffee and left. After Piazza walked out the door, his old student turned to her friend and said, “Best science teacher ever.”

So I get how important science is and how important it is to have really good science teachers. Some of our biggest public debates involve science (such as climate change and genetic engineering). An informed citizenry can only help raise the level of public understanding on these subjects. That said, we are coming to learn that our knowledge of some politically charged issues (like climate change and genetic engineering) is filtered through our worldviews and predispositions. This complicates the discourse and makes facts less relevant that we would like.

Still, if critical thinking is crucial to our understanding of the world, then I believe that skill has wider application for all of us as daily consumers of news. Being able to properly assess the information stream we get via twitter, Facebook and the news media is essential. That’s why I’m a big fan of Stony Brook University’s Center for News Literacy. From its website:

News Literacy is the ability to use critical thinking skills to judge the reliability and credibility of news reports and news sources. Students today are bombarded with blogs, “tweets,” rumors, gossip, opinion, punditry, hype, spin, bias, propaganda, and advertising, all vying with journalism in their claims to be credible. News Literacy is an essential skill if today’s high school and college students are to become not just intelligent consumers of news, but effective citizens.

Here’s a good write-up of a course at Stony Brook that teaches news literacy to its students. This is the sort of class that should be mandated at every high school and university.

Naturally, every aspiring journalist must become a skilled evaluator of information. In the journalism class I’m teaching this semester at NYU, we’ll be spending a fair amount of time analyzing sources of information. For example, one of the first assignments is to write a story about the safety of the flu vaccine.   So on Thursday, by way of introduction to the diverse and confusing array of online information on this topic, I had students read three articles. One of them came from Joe Mercola’s website (a font of irresponsible misinformation on health topics), another was a recent reprehensible Daily Beast piece (which I discussed here) and lastly, this woefully flawed Reuter’s article from yesterday. We also talked about where to find credible sources of information for their stories (such as the CDC, public health agencies, reputable medical journals, etc.). It was a useful exercise.

Next week, we’ll examine self-appointed watchdogs, such as SpinWatch and SourceWatch, which some journalists turn to as legitimate sources of information on people and/or issues in the news. That, I’m sure, will be a useful exercise, too.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at http://www.keithkloor.com/

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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