Debrief: Howard Schneider sticks to the facts

Fake out: A pioneer in the fight against "fake news," Stony Brook University Dean of Journalism Howard Schneider is proposing "news literacy" education for all New York State public-school students.

News flash: Howard Schneider knows journalism. From his 1967 master’s degree at the Columbia Journalism School to his 35 years as a Newsday reporter and editor to adjunct teaching positions at Queens College and (since 1980) Stony Brook University, the Long Island legend has cemented a legacy of journalistic integrity and know-how. Now, in an era defined by “fake news” and “alternative facts,” the dean of SBU’s circa-2006 School of Journalism – still the only SUNY journalism school – is pushing the New York State Board of Regents to mandate “news literacy” instruction in public schools. According to Schneider, it’s the best hope for America’s next generation (and the world’s) in the global fight for truth:

Blame game: Journalism is under fire today for a number of reasons. One, the hyper-partisanship in this country has resulted in such polarization that people don’t want to believe what’s true anymore – instead, they tend to blame the news media for giving them information they don’t like, for bad news and for news that offends their sensibilities or presumptions.

Identification, please: The second issue is people can no longer distinguish between legit journalism, propaganda, talk-show hosts and bloggers. They can’t separate evidenced, fact-based journalism from other information masquerading as journalism. Proper journalism is under attack because people are confused about what it is, and they’re overwhelmed by the tsunami of information and misinformation that descends on them each day.

Resolve reinvested: If anything, that has reinforced with our students the importance of what they do, of giving the public information that it desperately needs. It has reinforced the need for courageous and thoughtful and fair-minded journalism.

Journalism 101: While everyone’s obsessed with technology and how we’re consuming information, how the spread of information is so radically different from what it was just a decade ago, the key to good journalism is still reporting. It’s finding the story nobody else found and getting to the bottom of important stories. Separating fact from fiction. That’s what we teach here. That’s what the students leave here with.

Foresight: At Stony Brook, we pioneered the first undergraduate course in news literacy way back in 2007. Even then, we could see the impact of the digital revolution on news consumers and what it might become. A decade later, we’re all obsessed with “fake news,” about the public’s ability to discern information it can trust, rely on and act on. We could see it coming a decade ago, and now it’s hit like a tsunami.

Part of the problem: One aspect is the tyranny of sharing. Half the problem on the web is people sharing bogus information without thinking about it at all. They just pass along stuff they haven’t checked out or verified. We all have to take responsibility for this. We have tremendous power now, but we have to apply some responsibility to what we share and what we create.

Worse before it gets better: We’re not going to roll back the clock. We can’t stop the 24/7 news cycle. I think we’re going to have more information at our fingertips than we can even imagine, and we can’t stop malevolent actors from manipulating tools to deceive us. But we can mitigate it. It all comes back to empowering news consumers to be more vigilant, to be smarter.

Changing minds: Journalists have their job to do: getting to the bottom of stories, working hard to make clear what they know and what they don’t know. But journalists won’t solve the problem of “fake news.” And technology platforms won’t solve the problem. Tweaking algorithms won’t solve the problem. The real solution is to change how news consumers respond, to get consumers to slow down and examine what they think about the news.

Regents response: I think the Board of Regents feels a sense of urgency in dealing with the problem, and is interested in what we’re doing here. In particular, I think they’re noticing some of the experiments going on in New York City schools and Long Island schools.

Truth test: Three or four Long Island districts are already teaching a version of our news literacy program in their high schools, and there’s one middle school on Coney Island where every sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grader gets an hour of news literacy instruction every week for three years. We have trained those teachers on our curriculum.

Good news travels fast: Our curriculum has now gone to other universities as well, and is now in 10 countries. There’s global anxiety about “fake news” – it’s not only an American problem. So, we have trained academics from Russia, from China, from Malaysia, Poland, Israel … they all have brought elements of our course to their own countries.

Educated news consumers: We also have a free online course available to the public. Our preliminary focus is educating and preparing the next generation, but wherever we go, [adults and other non-students] ask how they can learn more. This is for them.

Building momentum: We are planning a News Literacy Academy this summer for schoolteachers on Long Island. Interested school districts can send representatives to become familiar with what we’re doing and take it back to their schools.

Leading the way: We think every child in New York State needs to be inoculated with news-literacy education before they leave middle school, and that’s what I told the Board of Regents. New York should be a leader for the country, and if New York can be a leader for the country, Long Island can be a leader for New York.

The truth is out there: When news consumers can use critical-thinking skills and particular techniques that we teach to judge for themselves what information is reliable and what is suspect, that’s the key to solving the problem of “fake news.” If we can start in middle school and make that second nature to every American student, that’s a better long-term solution to mitigating these trends.

Interview by Gregory Zeller