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Jonathan L. Wharton

You might have read that Gannett plans to end and restructure the opinion sections of their newspapers. Among some 250 daily papers, including USA Today, there will be fewer syndicated columns, political endorsements, and letters to the editor. Since fewer Americans read newspapers and many confuse written opinions for news articles, Gannett’s announcement should hardly be surprising. At the same time, America is seeing the growth of larger “news deserts” – regions without the coverage of viable, professional news organizations – since few locally owned media sources exist as conglomerates like Gannett have been for years purchasing so many news outlets.

Gannett owns some 20% of America’s newspapers and many will do away with endorsing candidates and policies. A Gannett committee discovered that written opinions often confuse and repel many readers. In particular, their research found younger readers can rarely differentiate writing approaches and they read more online media sources.

Americans do click through more social media links than read physical newspapers, which specify layouts and sections by articles and editorials. A recent poll, for example, found younger Americans pay more attention to social media (44%) than newspapers (11%) on a daily basis.

It is concerning that so many young Americans follow few news sources and newspapers in particular. They need to be updated about local, state, national and international affairs, especially during this turbulent era. 

My CT News Junkie colleague Barth Keck exchanged similar concerns over emails and tweets to our editorial writers last week. He also passed along a couple of helpful media literacy sources. As a high school teacher, Keck is faced with this ongoing challenge and shares my concern that relying on social media for news coverage hardly cuts it.

As an educator teaching politics, and focused in particular on state and local government issues, I am on the higher education frontlines about media literacy. Few students enter my classroom with an understanding of news sources and many cannot distinguish cable news editorializing from fact-based content. Some choose not to follow current events at all. This is why I require weekly quizzes in my Introduction to United States Government classes so that students get into the habit of following the news. 

As Gannett discovered, many of their readers – like my students – confuse opinion for news reporting. During a semester’s first couple of weeks, I cover media sources and explain the differences between editorials and investigative journalism.

Some students like many Americans, often push back and suggest that the news media is increasingly biased. We have to keep in mind that there are countless types of media sources and they can vary. Most importantly, editorials offer a glimmer of editors’ viewpoints, which can be helpful for understanding complex issues.

In our social media-driven society, we should understand the importance of media literacy and the sources we pay attention to for staying informed. As I emphasize to students, we are what we read and listen to as we try to synthesize current events. Editorials can help advance various perspectives.

With Gannett ending and revising their editorial sections, this should be a teachable moment for understanding news sources. As political scientist Robert Putnam offers in Bowling Alone, newspaper readers make better “news hounds” because they tend to be the most politically and socially engaged Americans. They also pay more attention to nuanced issues, policies, and perspectives. 

We should respect that a learned society is critical for better understanding complex issues. Media literacy is a start toward this goal but knowing the types of sources, writing styles and an array of approaches to a topic is just as important. Younger generations must understand and appreciate professionally produced news and opinion, especially among the remaining print media. Gannett’s plans should be a wake up call that Americans cannot overlook media literacy.

Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D., is an associate professor of political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.

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