Keeping kids from becoming low information voters

COLUMBIA, 5/20/13 (Beat Byte) -- To help teens avoid becoming so-called "low information voters," Mizzou researchers have developed a test to measure "news literacy" they hope will teach critical thinking skills about news media.

“News literacy is seen as an important component of democracy,” said project director Stephanie Craft, an associate professor in the University of Missouri School of Journalism.  “It is not just that I follow the news, but that I know enough about how the news was produced so that I can make good decisions through how I vote or what I buy."

Today's news gathering organizations bear little resemblance to the Walter Cronkite-Edward R. Murrow media of decades past.  Partisanship drives reporting on all sides of the political aisle, and local newspapers, radio and television stations are often so afraid to annoy advertisers they either can't -- or won't -- report the truth.  

Craft says her survey "will be an important step toward helping citizens adequately decipher media messages and stay informed by finding credible information about their communities." 

With University of Missouri School of Journalism doctoral students Seth Ashley and Adam Maksl, who now hold university positions in Idaho and Indiana, respectively,  Craft surveyed more than 500 Chicago high school students.   News literacy among the group did not predict the amount of media they consumed, she discovered. 

"We found that teenagers are being exposed to quite a bit of media, including news, albeit from more nontraditional sources such as social media," Craft said.  "However, just because teens are consuming news doesn’t mean they have a high level of news literacy."

New technology, Craft says, complicates the search for information.

"With all the new technology and the Internet, it is more difficult for people to identify reliable news sources and differentiate them from unreliable sources," Craft said. "The information landscape is a confusing place these days." 

The Robert R. McCormick Foundation funded the project with part of its $6 million Why News Matters initiative.  The research will be presented at the 2013 Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications conference in Washington, D.C.

"News literacy is a vital component of critical thinking skills, as well as an indicator of civic engagement," said McCormick Journalism Program Director Clark Bell.