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7: Freedom of the Press and News/Media Literacy

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    Snapshot of Topic 7

    As you explore this topic's standards and modules about the freedom of the press and news/media literacy, consider the following question: How is a free press essential to democratic government?

    Topic 7 explores the role of the press in reporting the news in 21st century America's digital age.

    The Press is a broad term, referring to the people (reporters, photographers, commentators, editorial writers and behind-the-scenes workers in media organizations) that bring us the news. It is known as the Fourth Estate or the Fourth Branch of government in our democracy because it is intended to report openly and fairly on what is happening in the community, the nation and the world.

    Some researchers are now referring to social media as the Fifth Estate (Educators Meet the Fifth Estate: Social Media in Education, Elementary School Journal Special Issue, 2021).

    The News is everything of importance that happens when we are not physically present to see it for ourselves.

    This meaning of the word "Press" derives from Johann Gutenberg's history-altering invention in the 1440s of the movable type printing press, a technology that could produce 4000 pages a day, more than 1000 times what an individual human could write by hand. Initially, a printer or publishing house was called the press, but since the 18th century, journalists and the newspaper industry have been known as the press.

    In the 1938 case Lovell v. City of Griffin, Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes authored a legal definition of the press as "every sort of publication which affords a vehicle of information and opinion." That decision overturned the conviction of a Jehovah Witness who had gone door to door selling religious pamphlets and magazine. Hughes said those materials were part of the press and protected by the freedom of the press clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution. Today, the press means forms of publication from newspapers to blogs.

    All of us members of a democratic system of government rely on the people of the press to report the news about what happens in our neighborhood, city or town, state, nation, and world and help us make sense of what it means for our lives. Only when there is clear and unbiased information available from the press can people make decisions about what public policies and governmental actions they want to support or oppose.

    Graphic of the globe is superimposed on a newspaper background; a person's hands hold a smartphone towards the globe, with the phone screen showing the word "NEWS" formed from newsprint.

    Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

    The press includes organizations large and small—including the New York Times and the Washington Post newspapers, national television networks like NBC, CNN, or Fox, public radio, and local community-based publications and television stations. It includes writers and journalists, well-known and locally prominent, as well as bloggers and online commentators. The press includes print materials, multimedia (e.g., videos, podcasts, infographics), and social media (e.g., posts and tweets).

    World Press Freedom Day has been celebrated around the world on May 3 every year since 1991 by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).

    Today's students are immersed in a world of computers, smartphones, apps, interactive digital tools, and instantaneously available online information. They get news and political information from Google, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, Snapchat and other digital sources, unlike older generations of Americans who grew up reading newspapers and magazines, watching television, listening to the radio, and talking about politics in coffee places, lunchrooms, barber shops, community centers, and family dinner tables.

    Students are challenged by how different media present facts and opinions in highly polarized political environments. The Rand Corporation's 2018 report, Truth Decay, identified four alarming trends is how news is presented to readers and viewers in our digital age:

    1. increasing disagreement about objective facts, data, and analysis;
    2. a blurring of the line between fact and opinion;
    3. an increasing relative volume of opinion over fact; and
    4. declining trust in government, media, and other institutions that used to be sources of factual information (Kavanagh & Rich, 2018)

    Given these trends, there is a pressing need for everyone to identify and rely on fact-based media that report the news fully, objectively and ethically in digital, electronic and print formats. How students go about understanding and utilizing the media creates multiple challenges and opportunities for sustaining and energizing our democratic systems of government.

    To build news literacy, students and teachers can go to PBS Newshour Classroom for learning activities including a daily news lesson.

    • 7.1: Freedom of the Press
      Landmark court cases establishing the right of journalists to publish news without being censored by the government. Examples of censorship, including the anti-comic book campaign of the 1950s, modern-day attempts to ban and challenge books in America, and the Great Chinese Firewall. Rights of middle and high school student journalists, contrasted to those of adult journalists.
    • 7.2: Competing Information in a Free Press
      The history of newspapers and journalism, past and present. Histories of prominent investigative journalists from the 19th and 20th centuries, known for exposing corruption in government and business. The question of whether every person needs to be their own investigative journalist, with a focus on the Watergate scandal.
    • 7.3: Writing the News- Functions of Different Formats
      The different functions of news articles, editorials, political cartoons, Op-Ed commentaries, news photographs, and press conferences in reporting the news and presenting commentary and opinions on events. The impact of pioneering female newspaper cartoonists, Zelda Ormes and Dale Messick. The role of war journalists and photographers.
    • 7.4: Digital News and Social Media
      The rise of misinformation in the age of social media as a major news source. Investigation into Russian disinformation campaigns of interference in the 2016 and 2020 U.S. presidential elections. The question of whether Internet access is a human right in today's world.
    • 7.5: Evaluating Print and Online Media
      Defining fake news and finding reliable news sources. An overview of the history of fake news and yellow journalism in the U.S. Techniques and resources for fact-checking to distinguish reliable from unreliable news sources.
    • 7.6: Analyze Editorials, Editorial Cartoons or Op-Ed Commentaries
      Investigating and analyzing the claims and point of view of an opinion piece about current events. The rise of deepfakes and fake social media profiles as a tool of political messaging. Issues of regulating political content and advertising on social media platforms.

    This page titled 7: Freedom of the Press and News/Media Literacy is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Robert W. Maloy & Torrey Trust (EdTech Books) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform.