Friday, November 9, 2012

It's not we, it's you

As director of the Center for New Literacy at Stony Brook University in New York, former Post Register Managing Editor Dean Miller is leading an effort to do two important things: Teach as many people as possible how to consume information, and train others to teach the same topic.

As he was waiting out the remnants of Hurricane Sandy in his Long Island home recently, he generously answered a number of questions about news literacy I had put to him. Over the next few weeks I’ll be using his responses as the basis for some columns on how people consume information and how his center is going about its work.

For starters, Miller talks a lot about “cognitive dissonance” and how it affects news literacy.

“Social psychologists have well-documented the fact that liberals and conservatives alike go looking for confirmation of what they already think and either ignore, avoid, forget or demonize information that would undermine their world-view,” he write. “It’s called cognitive dissonance and many social scientists believe it is the single most powerful motivator of human behavior. We can’t stand the way it feels when we encounter a fact that contradicts what we know.”

He points to a 2010 survey at the University of Maryland that found watchers of Fox News and MSNBC (the most openly partisan cable outlets in America) were the most misinformed.

“I found it ironic that a lot of opinion-writers leapt on the survey’s finding that among the misinformed, Fox and MSNBC viewers were the most misinformed,” he wrote. “Columnists and partisan bloggers blamed Fox and MSNBC for their audience’s mistakes on the fact questions. … it’s not the news media, it’s the audience. Americans who routinely turn to Fox and MSNBC already have their minds made up and no amount of careful reporting can change what they ‘know’ to be true.”

He notes that there’s nothing particularly new here.

“One fact that Fox and MSNBC haters overlook is that the entire cable news audience is 1/7th that of the three broadcast networks’ 21 million nightly viewership. Like Alexander Hamilton’s New York Post, which was founded to attack Thomas Jefferson’s policies, Fox and MSNBC are essentially partisan newsletters for a small club.”

Among the center’s goals is to help students differentiate between information found in these partisan newsletters and actual journalism.

 “We make our students into insufferable critics of the modern failure to clearly differentiate opinion from reporting through responsible labeling. Especially online and on cable TV, there are a lot of people who want to wrap themselves in the mantle of “journalism” without submitting to the yoke. Their material isn’t news, it’s largely bloviation or, when based on reporting, opinion journalism.”

Next week: How the Internet customizes itself for its users. To learn more about Miller’s work, go to:

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