BYU professors share how news literacy connects to their field

Professors across BYU campus have varying opinions on news literacy, what it means to them and whether it is important or not. (Melissa Collado)

The Daily Universe reached out to professors across disciplines of study at BYU asking why news literacy is important to them, how it connects to their field of study and why students in that program should be informed and engaged in the news.

Religious Education

Professor of Church history and doctrine Carter Charles said being informed is important to him so he doesn’t miss anything important in the “news jungle of today.”

“BYU students, especially because we are a religious, family-centered institution, need to have the kind of media literacy to realize that the news media is not only there to inform. It is an industry that competes for their time, their minds and their hearts. Before they realize it, that industry can make them trust complete strangers instead of family members, professors and religious leaders who really care about their temporal and eternal well-being,” Charles said.

News literacy is key to anyone who uses technology today, Charles said. “Literacy is not merely ability to read text but also to decipher how fonts, size, colors, sound, etc. are used to draw you in. And once you’re in, they try to keep you there.”

He pointed out that while technology is a blessing, the “paperless information age is a vertiginous, high speed interstate where you don’t only get information but you actually give information. You might think you’re not there once you leave their page but you’re still in because, without knowing it, you gave them a lot of data about yourself on your first connection. Sometimes a fraction of seconds is enough for them to know exactly how to tailor their contents to your own particular interest,” Charles said.

Scholars learn to identify quickly if something is accurate and using cross-referencing can help ascertain the truth in things even beyond your discipline, Charles said. “News media literacy is also about looking beyond one’s trusted network.”

Other good habits to help news literacy and becoming informed include listening to the Spirit, to inspired leaders and to people who are experts in their field, he said. Charles said it is also important to talk to those who don’t see your time, trust and allegiance as a commodity they can acquire and sell to third parties “that care more about themselves than you.”

The College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences

Math professor Mark Kempton said news literacy is important to the math department, because so much of the news involves quantitative information. “Good math skills are critical in processing the quantitative information that we get through the news in an intelligent way,” he said.

He said it is important for all individuals to engage with the news and be well-informed about the world around them and “this is important for our completeness as a human being.”  Anyone who wishes to make a contribution to society needs to be well-informed about their community and the world at large, he said.

“This is especially important for students at BYU, whose mission is to ‘go forth to serve.’  Their capacity to serve and be successful will rely a lot on their awareness of important issues in the world,” Kempton said.

Statistics professor Lynne Nielsen teaches the GE introductory statistics class which teaches students how to learn and make sense of the data we are bombarded with everyday and to help students become intelligent consumers of numerical information. With so many opposing claims in the world, it is crucial for people to figure out which ones to believe, she said.

In the statistics class, students are provided guidance and given a series of questions to ask before believing the findings of a study or a claim.  “This is one way to guard against misinformation,” Nielsen said. 

Another method she teaches is called triangulation, which in research refers to the efforts of finding multiple sources of data, and using multiple methods of data collection and multiple analyses to corroborate or support a claim. “Part of news literacy is to use multiple sources of news,” she said.

Nielsen said statistics share a social context that influences what people decide to measure and how to measure it. Many times, this data also reflects social values, she said.

Data and statistics are numbers with a context and news reports should always include the context of the study or claim as it is important to understand where the data comes from and how it was collected, Nielsen said.

“The news should help us in our search for truth.” She said a news report she heard that stated misinformation has become a public health threat in the pandemic and this illustrates the importance of being well-informed so we can make good decisions as individuals, families and communities.

It is necessary to know the story behind claims that are peddled in the media, especially in regards to social media which is full of anecdotes and other compelling stories that grab consumers’ attention, she said. “News literacy is very important, now more than ever.” Anecdotes in news should be supported by data, Nielsen said and readers should recognize if there are facts supporting the story or not.

Nielsen said numerous studies have been conducted during the pandemic about its effect on mental well-being, work, relationships and vaccine efficacy. Conclusions from many of these studies findings are not certain or absolute, Nielsen said, especially when the news makes cause-and-effect claims from observational studies. Consumers of news should know how the news is interpreting data and know how to interpret the data themselves, Nielsen said, which includes knowing association does not imply causation and checking for other variables that could be lurking in the background of studies.

Ideas and opinions differ in society about the role journalists play. Computer science professor Porter Jenkins said if news literacy means being aware of what journalists are publishing in mainstream platforms, then he does not believe it is important. “In fact, I would discourage any young person from becoming more ‘news literate.'”

He pointed out that journalism is in “a tragic state” and quoted a statistic from Reuters Institute showing if only 29% of Americans trust the news, then 71% of Americans, or if the statistic is well estimated, 230 million people in the U.S., do not trust journalists. He suggested journalists instead should look at why people distrust the news rather than focusing on teaching people to better understand journalists.

Marriott School of Business

Business professor Bruce Money said because in the business school the science is applied, “if we’re not up on current events, we’re not staying current in our discipline.” Students will be at a disadvantage in their jobs if they don’t have a firm grasp on the news, he said.

This is especially true in his field of international business, Money said. “Is there such a thing as non-global business? I don’t think so,” he said.

College of Fine Arts and Communication

Dance professor and Living Legends artistic director Jamie Kalama Wood said current consumers often use blogs, opinion pieces or friends’ social media platforms as news sources. “These are not news sources. It is important to know the difference and be informed so we, as humans, can build our own educated opinions instead of just parroting what someone else has told us,” she said.

“As an artist, much of what we create is based out of our own life experience. By being informed and engaged with the news, we are able to build compassion and empathy for our fellow man. This then allows our artistic base to expand beyond our own lives,” Wood said. Additionally, being informed about the current events of the world allow people to view their fellow artists’ materials in context of current issues and hot topics, she said.

Wood said sometimes the news raises questions or concerns that seem to be contrary to gospel principles. Since BYU is a gospel-centered environment and a place that strives to uplift and edify others through the Spirit, Wood said, “Why not ask those questions here?”

There are “faculty and staff who have already asked (or currently are asking) those same questions—and yet those faculty and staff have remained true to the gospel and continue to grow in their testimonies. What a blessing it is to be mentored by those who strive to live the gospel while staying pertinent and connected with the news and people in their fields,” Wood said.

Wood also pointed out the importance of knowing when news outlets are just selling advertising and knowing when to step away from news that is driving away the Spirit or preaching falsehoods as gospel truths.

McKay School of Education

“As a member of the Department of Teacher Education, it is important for our students at BYU to be engaged and informed with the news because it allows them to be a better teacher,” education and literacy professor Sarah Clark said. Students “are also or will be directly impacted by certain events in the news.  Teaching is a public profession and so staying current allows us to make the best decisions possible in a very important role in our society.”

For Clark, she said she likes to stay informed on events of the world so she can support, help, and lift those in need and because reading the news allows her to see the world through another person’s eyes.

“Many times I find the news to increase my understanding and insight on events as they take place.  I don’t always agree with all the opinions and ideas, but reading the news always gives me a chance to pause and think and consider new ideas and ways of thinking,” she said.

Clark said as a literacy professor, all forms of literacy are important. “The news follows a certain format of reading and writing — often opinion or informational text — and so learning how to read this type of writing is critical to all of us,” she said. “I believe we are better people when we are literate and able to read all different types and genres of text.”

History education professor Jeff Nokes said being informed is important to him because he is preparing history and social studies teachers whose careers will involve preparing young people for civic engagement. “As these students become teachers, they will need to model informed civic engagement for their students. So it is vital that they remain informed.”

Nokes said to be civically engaged a person needs to know what is going on in their community, in the nation and in the world. Keeping up on the news is an important part of that informed civic engagement and Nokes said news literacy is more important today than ever.

“As young people increasingly rely on social media for their news, and as news sources become more polarized, young people (and all of us) need to be able to think critically about the information they receive,” Nokes said. “They need strategies for evaluating the news they hear.”

Nokes said fortunately the historical thinking skills taught in history classes can be applied to internet reading and when gathering information through social media. He is currently writing a book that includes elements of news literacy and social media literacy.

College of Life Sciences

Cell biology and physiology professor Juan Arroyo news literacy is important because people need to be informed of what is happening around them and it helps people make decisions that will impact their lives and families.

The media can affect individuals’ thinking and behavior, Arroyo said, and so people need to be educated so they can make the right decisions.

“I believe that students are the future! Being informed and engaged in our surroundings will broaden students’ horizons, not only as a students, but as future professionals in the world,” Arroyo said.

Public health professor Benjamin Crookston said the health care field is especially impacted by current events like the pandemic and various politics, and thus consuming news and being informed is vital to him.

“I believe it is important for students to be aware of what is going on in the world around them. This will help them be engaged in good causes and be prepared professionally for rapidly changing health issues,” Crookston said. 

Crookston said it is particularly important for people to have news literacy in today’s world of misinformation and information overload.

“I think one challenge facing people in general are news outlets that have gravitated towards entertainment and away from news. It is hard in today’s world to find truly neutral news reporting that merely reports the news,” he said. “So many news outlets report the news and then tell you what to think about it. It is as if watching the news is similar to watching a sporting event where commentators tell you what to think about what is going on in the game.”

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