CJR Tackles News Literacy

computer_girlThe Columbia Journalism Review has made a welcome entry into the media literacy conversation with its “News Literacy” series.

The articles, funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and written by Ben Adler, address “parsing the media” from both the consumer and producer sides. That means discussion of more traditional media literacy topics, such as educational materials and the danger of internet hoaxes; and some things that might be considered outside the literacy wheelhouse, like journalists’ responsibilities when they take to Twitter.

In one piece, Adler discusses research by Eszter Hargittai of Northwestern University, who found direct correlation between parents’ educational level and young adults’ level of online skill – measured through familiarity with concepts such as “wikis” and “bookmarks.”

Adler goes further than Hargittai, however: he says students of lower socioeconomic status “tend to be less confident and capable in navigating the Web to find credible information.”

The argument makes a lot of sense, and it goes something like this: those from lower socioeconomic groups are less likely to have high-speed internet at home (a Pew study attests to this), and they’re less likely to get internet instruction from their parents. Their limited access to computers and heavy reliance on their phones for internet makes it impractical for the teens to conduct quality online research.

These could all very well be forces at work, but the sources Adler has stitched together don’t paint an entirely water-tight picture. Note that Hargittai isn’t herself putting forward an argument about how well students find credible information. Other sources in the piece – Microsoft’s danah boyd and Brooklyn-based history teacher Fred Raphael – put forward good explanations of how limited access could retard development of these skills. But description of a plausible mechanism, and anecdote, are not themselves evidence.

It would be great if Adler could point to more studies to support this explanation – and to counter alternative explanations. For example, how much of a factor are the students’ in-school critical thinking experiences? One might also expect poorer schools to have fewer computers per student, and this could be another strong factor holding back disadvantaged students’ development of web research expertise.
photo credit: Ed Yourdon via photopin cc

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