Today, information is more readily accessible than it has been at any point in history. Academic faculty — including professors at the University — write blogs and op-eds for personal sites and popular news outlets. Cable infotainment — where comedians like John Oliver spin serious issues into entertaining bits — has made learning about national and international affairs increasingly fun for the average viewer. New online news sites increasingly blend opinion and reporting, producing content that fits the site’s “brand,” in an era where most readers reach content through a Google search or Facebook post, not paid subscriptions.

Meanwhile, the percentage of people who read print newspapers dropped 18 points between 2002 and 2012, according to a Pew Research Center survey, and advertising revenue dropped 50 percent between 2008 and 2012, according to the American Enterprise Institute.

But, contrary to what those facts alone might suggest, news media is a long way away from its proverbial deathbed. While traditional sources have watched their profit projections crash into the red, the industry has provided sufficient incentive for new entry into the market.

News startups are free to adapt to the changing demands of the digital consumer absent of the constraints of existing management and production structures. This has enabled them to more easily pioneer new ways to inform readers.

It’s not that people don’t want to know what’s going on in the world around them — they just want to learn about it in different ways than they have in the past. This is supported by a 2007 Pew study, which found that Americans are about as informed about current events as they were in 1989.

Further, those who got their information from non-newspaper sources were actually more likely to be knowledgeable about the news. Fifty-four percent of people who regularly watched the Daily Show or Colbert Report, 53 percent of people who regularly read news websites and 50 percent of people who listened to Rush Limbaugh’s radio show had “high” knowledge of current affairs. As a point of comparison, only 43 percent of people who regularly read print newspapers had “high” knowledge levels.

But while news sites and entertaining news shows are correlated with higher information levels, they are also more likely to present opinionated content. Compare a site like The Atlantic, Quartz or Vox with the type of content you see in the newspaper. It tends to advance a viewpoint and certainly doesn’t give a cut-and-dry, traditionally structured depiction of events like many news stories do. The same can be said for Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Rush Limbaugh.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with these sources, especially if they are actually more effective in educating readers.

Consuming opinionated content, however, requires a whole new level of media literacy. Based on what I’ve seen in my classes, media literacy is hardly, if at all, emphasized. Let me be clear — media literacy has always been important. But as media evolves in this direction, it becomes increasingly essential to a well-rounded education.

Several classes use news media in class to connect course content to real world issues — that’s awesome. It makes school more engaging and helps students make connections between academic work and issues that they might already have a bit of background on.

One class of mine attempted to show the “conservative” side of a debate by playing a clip from the Glenn Beck show. For a few minutes, the class watched, eyes glued to the projection screen, as the pundit stared into the camera, telling his audience that a particular piece of legislation represented the decline of America, a gross deviation from the vision of our founding fathers and would allow the state to take unprecedented control of family life.

Representing the other side of issue, we had read academic and New York Times articles.

The professor didn’t say anything about the type of video the class had just seen. She said nothing of the emotional ploys the speaker had made, of the inherent differences between an opinion-based cable show and the other media forms we had read. The video was an interesting addition to class, but context was needed to help students more effectively understand how the media format structured the information they had received.

This might sound like a lesson best suited for a communications class, but probably every student at the University will consume media products — and the news articles, shows and blogs we consume are products — throughout their lives. As professors work to integrate news sources into class materials, it’s important that they also take that opportunity to educate students about the sources they use.

Our college education is largely focused on learning course material in preparation of work in business, engineering, public service, medicine, law or the wide variety of fields University graduates work in after college. But our education is also meant to prepare us to be thoughtful, critical and knowledgeable citizens. Understanding how to critically evaluate the information we receive is a necessary skill — especially in a world that increasingly provides information that aims to influence our thoughts about an issue.

Victoria Noble can be reached at vjnoble@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.