The Comprehension Age

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We need to be a news-literate
people. In an era when facts are scarce and opinions
are abundant, it’s tough slogging to make
sense of the barrage of information coming at us.
For some, the easiest route is to pick the opinion
narrative that best suits their ideologies, read nothing
else, and just shout it from the rooftop. But if we
are serious about tackling the mountain of obstacles
that our kids and our country confront, we’d
better find our way back to the facts real quick.

This is not a right or a left issue, because the dialogue
on both sides will benefit as its quality is
enhanced. If Americans learn the value of hardhitting
journalism at an early age, it will not only
translate into a sharper-eyed electorate — but it
might also drive profi ts for quality content providers as consumers
demand more reliable, less-biased information.

Happily, there is good work being done on the literacy front.
One example is the News Literacy Project that pairs secondary
school students with active journalists who instill such skills as
determining veracity, quantifying bias and identifying the level
of accountability. The Carnegie-Knight report “Young People
and News” also came to the conclusion that the respondents
were “ill-equipped to process the hard news stories they encounter.”
There are other organizations and academics working
on this issue, too. What we need is a way to get it to scale quickly.

The FCC’s National Broadband Plan firmly advocated for
new forms of literacy, but we need to get past the
point of merely promoting awareness and take real
steps to incentivize increased news literacy programming
in our schools and communities. A worthy
down-payment toward building this into our
educational system would be a K-12 online news
media literacy curriculum.

We could put together a clearinghouse of the best
ideas and programs that teachers could use in their
classrooms. The teachers could then tailor their
programs to their local school needs.

I see a real opportunity for a public-private partnership
to get this worthwhile endeavor off the
ground. There could be roles for local businesses and
civic organizations, government and philanthropies,
community media centers, libraries and PEG stations, and for
many others to utilize their expertise and even their personnel
— not just to provide access to the digital realm, but to foster
the skill set necessary to make sense of the terabytes of information
floating around in cyberspace and to know what to look
for when they pick up a newspaper. If we expect there to be a
demand for quality news, then we need to teach the lessons on
how to determine quality. Who knows? Maybe we could actually
move from the Information Age to the Comprehension Age.

Excerpted from a speech by FCC cmmissioner Michael Copps
to the National Newspaper Association on July 21.