Len Apcar

Leonard Apcar, a former New York Times editor who holds LSU’s Wendell Gray Switzer Jr. Endowed Chair in Media Literacy at the Manship School

After the 2016 presidential election, I began teaching an undergraduate class about fake news, social media and how our information can be easily manipulated by Russians and others bent on confusing, even scaring, Americans or — as in the case against Hillary Clinton — damaging her campaign.

I soon discovered that teaching about fake news, hoaxes and frauds also required teaching about real news because most, if not all, of my students had no background in journalism or how to evaluate good work. Many did not know the meaning of corroboration or attribution. Most were not regular newsreaders, nor had they worked on campus publications.

In a entry-level media writing class, when I suggested that the student could strengthen a story by talking to someone with a certain experience or point of view, she seemed puzzled, and asked, “Do I just make it up?”

Any instructor can address these issues, but they betray glaring gaps in the understanding of the role and routines of a free press.

I don’t fault students, but I do fault publishers and educators who found budget savings we are paying for now. Media publishers cut back their school programs as the budgets shriveled. Educators eliminated many student publications. Far too many also reduced teaching about civics and the crucial role a balanced and free press plays in our representative democracy. Most students, by the way, come to college without much understanding of the First Amendment.

Small wonder than that the eruptions at Harvard and Northwestern University recently reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of how journalists work. Now, educators, including the Northwestern dean, are calling for greater efforts at teaching media literacy and explaining the responsibilities of a balanced and independent press.

At Harvard, after a rally calling for the elimination of the administration’s immigration agency, student journalists correctly called the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency for a comment. They didn’t get one, but The Harvard Crimson got a “Stop Calling ICE” petition that now has more than 1,000 names and more than a dozen student groups, including Harvard Democrats and Harvard Democrats for Warren.

At Northwestern, a protest erupted when Jeff Sessions came to speak, and student journalists did their job by covering the melee that ensued with photos and an article. Some reporters tweeted the photos, and social media blasted them around the web.

The result was a backlash by students who felt their privacy was violated by the photographers or when reporters called students who were at the protest. Although it was a public protest, students were furious that the publicity on social media and in the campus newspaper could result in discipline from the school.

The backlash prompted eight editors of The Daily Northwestern to apologize and explain. That was followed by understandable alumni outrage and national news coverage. Then the dean tried to extinguish the uproar by asking for dialogue on campus and for alumni to back off. Student newspapers are, after all, places where students learn. No doubt they have.

“We think people understand it, but they actually have no idea” how journalists work, Charles Whitaker, dean of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, said.

He’s correct, but the education needs to begin at the middle school level and must cover not only the way reporters do their jobs but also a basic sense of how social media has changed the way information — both true and false — rockets through society. It is a big job, and it is urgent.

Students, whether they are readers or reporters, need to understand what constitutes a balanced and fair representation of an issue or events. They need to know that one-sided work is insufficient and fuels our deeply divided politics. They need to demand that journalists back up their assertions with information and data that can be verified. And they need to know that the best journalism includes multiple sources that are clearly identified with points of view disclosed.

Media literacy, which looks at bias and stereotypes in media, has been taught for years in various ways. Private groups such as the News Literacy Project, the Center for News Literacy and the Learning Network at The New York Times offer teachers resources and lesson plans for high school and elementary school classes. The National Association of Media Literacy Educators has organized a media literacy week each fall on high school and college campuses. The American Press Institute, a leading industry research and education group, is now focusing on helping publishers reach younger audiences with digital tools to teach young people to become discerning and active news consumers.

The resources have been there for years and but they need reinforcements. What flared up at Harvard and Northwestern, high school teachers have seen coming. It has no doubt been accelerated by anti-press chants at Trump rallies and a polarized political environment. While the fury at Harvard and Northwestern will go away, the task ahead for educators and publishers will not.

Leonard M. Apcar is Wendell Gray Switzer Endowed Chair in Media Literacy at LSU's Manship School of Mass Communication.