UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Along with wearing blue and white and stadium-wide cheers on home football Saturdays, thousands of Penn State students share a daily challenge — finding trustworthy information and news amidst a seemingly never-ending sea of options.
While students have access to information at their fingertips on smartphones, through laptops and even in hard copies across campus, a growing number admit they often avoid the news.
Contradictions lead to confusion and frustration, and many Penn State students and others across the country simply do not engage — preferring to scroll through their smartphones — because the process of identifying news impacts their mental health as much as the news itself.
Society benefits from informed community members, though, and educators at Penn State hope to empower students and encourage them to select “news over noise.”
Penn State has launched a two-year pilot program, a news literacy initiative — in conjunction with University Libraries, Student Affairs, Penn State Harrisburg, two academic colleges, Penn State Outreach and WPSU — to enhance students’ appreciation and understanding of news literacy and to provide students, as well as residents across the commonwealth, with resources and support as they attempt to avoid misinformation and find quality news sources.
"Even as they become vocationally prepared, our students must learn the essential elements of democratic citizenship. Among the most important aspects of that learning is how to consume and put to good use the sources of information news media provide, said Damon Sims, vice president for Student Affairs. “If we do not do all we can to encourage our students to be informed, thoughtful, and constructively critical thinkers about matters of public concern and how those matters are reported, we have failed both them and the rest of us in ways we cannot afford."
The idea of a news literacy initiative, shared by many at Penn State, was influenced largely by research conducted by faculty members this summer.
Through surveys of more than 900 students and several focus groups, researchers found students avoid the news. They neither dig deeply into topics nor invest more time to find accurate, trusted sources.
“Our vision is that Penn State students graduate with an appreciation of the function and importance of news and are able to critically seek, assess and use news and current information as participants in democracy,” said Marie Hardin, dean of the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications. “Furthermore, we envision Penn State as a vital resource for citizens of the commonwealth in understanding how to assess and consume news and reject misinformation — especially on current issues related to health and science and the environment.”
Partners for the effort include University Libraries, Student Affairs, the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications, the College of Education, Penn State Harrisburg, Penn State Outreach and WPSU. The Office of the Provost provided initial funding for the initiative.
As part of the partnership, a podcast, News Over Noise, produced by WPSU will launch later this month hosted by Matt Jordan, an associate professor of media studies at Penn State. A series of lectures and events are planned in conjunction with Global Media and Information Literacy Week, which is observed from Oct. 24-31. In addition, ongoing messages about news literacy will be shared on University social media channels — largely through student-created content.
The news literacy initiative builds upon existing successful programs at Penn State, including the Student News Readership Program, which provides free access to The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and PennLive to students.
Additional partners include the News Literacy Project and the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association. Because the importance of news literacy goes beyond campus, those leading the effort are building online educational modules as part of a growing website and they are working toward additional collaborations as the effort grows.