News Literacy Project Module 2: Exercising Civic Freedoms

Module Two of the News Literacy Project teaches students about Exercising Civic Freedoms.  This includes investigative journalism and citizen journalism.

Module 2 of the News Literacy Project is titled Exercising Civic Freedoms.  It is all about the role the press plays in holding powerful forces in society accountable.

The First Amendment: The Freedom To Express

The first section opened with a solid review and familiarization of the five freedoms listed in the First Amendment: religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition.  Students are prompted several times to identify all the freedoms listed, sometimes by comparing them with other freedoms that are not listed. For example, they might be asked which of a pair of rights belonged in the First Amendment: the right to assemble or the right to vote. Interesting statistics included:

  • 33% of Americans surveyed couldn’t name any of the five First Amendment  freedoms
  • 57 % could identify that freedom of speech was in the First Amendment
  • Only 2% could name all five First Amendment freedoms

It also mentioned these restrictions that the courts have found applicable:

  • speech that incites violence
  • obscenity
  • expression in public school that is disruptive
  • defamation

The introduction also covered six landmark First Amendment cases:

  • WV SBOE v. Barnett (1943, pledge in school)
  • Tinker v. Des Moines ICSD (1969 war protest armbands)
  • NYT v. Sullivan (1964, publishing misleading or inaccurate information)
  • Hazelwood SD c. Kuhlmeier (1988, school sponsored publication censorship)
  • Texas v. Johnson (1989, flag burning)
  • Reno v. ACLU (1997, obscenity laws)

Students were asked to review the basics of each of the cases, and then to answer whether the First Amendment rights applied to each case. After the students answered, the program detailed the actual Supreme Court rulings and added explanation.

There were also two quotes I found interesting from the journalist narrating this section:

  • ‘The First Amendment does not exist to give you the right to say whatever it is you want to say. It gives you the right to say what you MUST say.’
  • ‘After all, why should people be allowed to lie and try to misinform others? But stop for a minute and consider the alternative. If we allowed the government to decide what was true, and therefore what is okay for us to hear, read, or see, then the government or any other entity might engage in censorship. Correct that: WILL engage in censorship.’
A Free Press: Democracy’s Watchdog

The second section covered Watchdog Journalism. It dealt mostly with investigative journalism, and the ability of the press to look out for the public interest because of the first amendment protections regarding the press. The focus was on exposing corruption and bad actions by powerful people in office, in business, or even in other news organizations.  Students learned about several investigations and were asked to give their opinions on each of the stories offered.  Stories this section highlighted:

  • Nellie Bly and exposing the conditions in a mental hospital
  • Upton Sinclair exposing the practices of the meat packing industry
  • Sy Hersh and the My Lai Massacre
  • the Abramoff scandal
  • an expose of Mexican farm workers’ working conditions in labor camps

This section was centered around famous instances of important reporting that had a significant impact on events at the time the stories were published. It also touched briefly on the expense, and the time commitments, news organizations have to invest in reporting stories like the ones listed.

Citizen Watchdogs: Participating in Democracy

The Citizen Watchdog section, the third section in the freedoms module, referenced stories in the past that made news with the help of citizens filming, whistle-blowing, and otherwise assisting journalists in covering stories.  Topics included:

  • the Rodney King beating video
  • the 60 Minutes cigarette company whistle-blower
  • Egyptians protesting Mubarak
  • Philando Castille’s shooting
  • Wikileaks document releases

In addition, they differentiated between professional journalists and citizen journalists, such as the man who recorded King’s beating. With the proliferation of cell phone cameras and live streaming ability, this section also briefly raised the issues of ethics surrounding the new media presence, and noted that it can be difficult to tell which information coming from these non-traditional sources is legitimate.

The program mentioned that people may be able to use live feeds for propaganda or extortion, and it might be nearly impossible to tell whether what one is seeing is actually happening, or instead might be a staged event. The host mentions too that Wikileaks has partnered with journalists and news organizations to verify and explain the significance of the raw information they have been releasing, enabling their releases to reach more people with useful information, rather than a pile of unexamined raw data.

This section described the best outcomes of a free, vigorous, and independent press. It mentioned the situation in other countries as well, and described the difficulties of holding powerful people accountable without press freedom. This really seemed to be the ‘Heroes of Journalism’ portion of the program, the one idealistic journalists all seem to reference when they talk about why they went into the field; these people they profile are who they all imagine themselves to be. And there’s no doubt that brave men and women have risked a lot to expose corruption and wrongdoing.

I was also very glad to see some discussion about the ethical issues surrounding new media.  This topic is not discussed nearly as much as it should be, and a longer discussion about the challenges presented by new media would be very welcome.  I would feel better about it, too, if they had added some ethical context around traditional media, but that might be too much to hope for.  We’ll return to that topic at the end of this series.

The concern I have after completing this section is that it seems to be setting up the traditional press as the heroes of EVERY confrontation they have with others.  We now live in an environment in which social justice campaigns are elevated to national importance, and in which people’s privacy has been violated for holding ‘incorrect’ views.  And a quick perusal of many reporters’ Twitter feeds regularly reveals their own biases and agendas.

Reporters can be heroic, no doubt. But the profession is changing, and with it the standards of reportage that this section relies on to relate past victories against powerful forces in the world.  If the goal here is to delegitimize the new media, or paint with a broad brush that all new media is always less credible, it doesn’t necessarily follow that legacy media or traditional media is MORE trustworthy. Legacy media cannot bolster its damaged reputation with  grade school cries of ‘He did it too!’  Credibility is earned every day, and lost quickly as well.