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Ernest Hooper: Modern times demand new commitment to tradition of media literacy

High school media adviser Mark Newton, with his students from Mountain Vista High School in Colorado, urged teachers during a speech in Dallas to emphasize the vital role of a free press in the American democracy. [Courtesy of Mark Newton]
High school media adviser Mark Newton, with his students from Mountain Vista High School in Colorado, urged teachers during a speech in Dallas to emphasize the vital role of a free press in the American democracy. [Courtesy of Mark Newton]
Published Nov. 24, 2017

Every day I receive emails critical of my columns, and sometimes I find them jarring not because readers object to an opinion but because they don't seem to have a grasp of basic journalism principles.

Many will protest the inclusion of opinion in my columns, not understanding that as a columnist, it's my job to opine. In my 16 years as a columnist, my editors have told me, more than once, I need to be more opinionated.

Another reader wanted to know if I realized most of my readers objected to an opinion I expressed. Hello? My job is not to stick my finger in the air and cast thoughts that will catch the breeze of the majority. With my most opinionated columns, I seek to provoke thought, to get people to examine an issue from a different perspective — not to capture popular sentiment.

Those two examples represent just a fraction of what's emerged as a pressing issue in the nation: a lack of media literacy. The educational term resonates more today than ever with the spate of back-and-forth debates about real news versus fake news, and bias, perceived and real.

Many liberals decried the Tampa Bay Times' endorsement of Republican Rick Baker over Democrat Rick Kriseman in the recent St. Petersburg mayoral election, insisting the paper had turned conservative. At the same time, conservatives write me every week arguing the paper colors every story with a liberal slant.

Somebody's wrong, and often lost in the outcry is a lack of understanding of the editorial board's role and independence from the newsroom.

We live in a nation, however, where profiteers more interested in making money than adhering to journalistic standards have diluted the media's mission and mode of operation. These charlatans strive to undercut the mainstream media, for lack of a better term, because their pockets grow fatter if they become the sole source of misinformation.

If people would only return to America's roots, they would understand the media's mission is to provide information, not confirmation. The founding fathers included protections for a free press in the constitution because they knew it would serve as a critical component in the development of our nation.

"The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right," Thomas Jefferson wrote to Edward Carrington in 1787. "And were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

Historians say Jefferson also clashed with newspapers, but never lost sight of their overall value to the democracy.

We can't allow that constitutional cornerstone to crumble under the leadership of those looking to distract citizens and deny regulatory licenses to dissenters. Protecting it begins with educating a new generation that you can't have freedom without a free press.

So I took great heart in the speech I had the privilege of hearing at the Journalism Education Association's Fall National High School Journalism Convention. Mark Newton, the student media adviser at Mountain Vista High School in Highlands Ranch, Colo., delivered an impassioned address as the outgoing president for the association, the nation's largest scholastic journalism organization for teachers and advisers.

And his call to action included urging the 300-plus high school newspaper, yearbook and media advisers in the room to promote the First Amendment and emphasize media literacy. In fact, Newton blamed himself for not doing a better job of teaching it during his 35-year career.

"It's clear to me that, as journalism teachers and media advisers, we have failed to give this its due," Newton said of media literacy. "It's not that we didn't give it attention. It's that, in my opinion, we did not give it focus. We didn't make it a priority. We talked about it some. We read about it. We dabbled with it. We understood it — at least enough to bring it up to our students every now and then.

"We did not, however, teach it. We did not make 100 percent sure that our students understood it. To be fair, I do not blame anyone. I was right there in the middle of it, and not really, truly embracing it. No more."

Newton realizes media literacy isn't about saving newspapers or promoting journalism careers. It's about creating a new generation of students who understand the fundamental importance of serving the nation as good citizens. We need people who learn, who care and who engage.

It's not about getting them to choose one media outlet over the other, but challenging them to seek multiple sources on both sides of the political spectrum and then determine their own truth.

Newton said he's made media literacy a focus in all his classes — and he asked the other teachers to follow his lead.

"Honestly, in my mind, it should be The Thing — The One Thing," said Newton, who served as the JEA president for six years. "Not only do I urge you to make it a priority in your classes, but I urge JEA to take the lead and demand that demonstrable competency in media literacy be a graduation requirement in every school in every district in every state.

"Our democracy depends on it."

With those words, I knew exactly what I would bring up the next time I ran into a state legislator. In fact, I might not wait for a chance. I might drive to Tallahassee to start the conversation.

That's all I'm saying.