What CNN Got Right About the Presidential Race

Brian Stelter has delivered the lessons in media literacy that the American public so desperately needs.

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Last Sunday morning on Reliable Sources, CNN’s Brian Stelter asked his considerable audience to be on guard for one of this election cycle’s most ugly features: fake news sites. He accurately them called “a plague” across the internet. He proposed a new rule for social-media users: “Triple check before you share,” and he offered some useful tips on how to do that.

I’m not a fan of CNN’s generally atrocious political coverage in the past 18 months, to put it mildly. But I am a big fan of Stelter’s work; he’s currently the beacon of light at the news channel. His don’t-fall-for-fake-news advice, part of a series of commentaries he’s been delivering, is a key reason why.

In pieces like the one that ran on Sunday, Stelter has done what the traditional media have largely failed to do: Leading the way in bringing media-literacy skills to the wider public. Given the size of his audience, on TV and online, it is probably no exaggeration to call him, as I did the other day, “America’s most influential teacher of media literacy in the digital age.”

Had American journalists at every level made media literacy a core part of their mission for the past 50 years or so, I’m convinced there would have been (at least) two laudable results. First, the nation would have been better prepared to handle the Digital Age’s flood of information, so much of which is false or deceptive. Second, media organizations—at least the ones doing their jobs right—would have fostered much more trust in their own work, which would have helped sustain them through the economic upheaval they're now enduring.

While the first of those points seems obvious, I’m not saying America could have entirely avoided what some have called the “post-truth” era. Not everyone pays attention to news in the first place. And some people will choose to believe lies no matter what the facts say, as we’ve seen so powerfully this year. But if more of us had been deploying some principles I’ve long recommended—being skeptical; using judgment; asking questions; going outside one’s comfort zone; and understanding how media are created and used to manipulate—we’d individually do a much better job of what Howard Rheingold calls “crap detection.” And we’d do more collective pushback against the lies. Those principles add up to critical thinking, something Americans should value more in our society.

We’d also have more demand for quality journalism, I’m convinced, if journalists had been teaching media-literacy principles and tactics these past few decades. If I were running a news organization—again, one that did quality journalism—I’d explain a few things in addition to pushing those principles. My publication (or broadcast, or video stream, or whatever) would make clear that sound journalism is hard work. It takes resources. It can be risky. Americans need it. And journalists need our audiences, to collaborate with us to make it deeper and better.

Ideally, some members of the audience for my organizations’ journalism would better understand what we do and why—and why it’s worth more support than just a few clicks. They’d be more inclined to pay for the value they derive, and that would give us more resources to provide more value. Would this have solved journalism’s business problems in an internet-disrupted world? Of course not, but I’m certain it would have helped.

I should be clear that we’re hardly bereft of media literacy training now. I deeply admire scholars and advocates like Renee Hobbs, professor of communication studies at the University of Rhode Island’s Harrington School of Communication and Media, who have worked for many years to bring it into school curricula and wider society. An offshoot of the field called “news literacy” focuses, as you’d guess, on helping people understand current events and issues better. Stelter’s efforts may be a closer fit with the latter, but all variants on the topic are essential in today’s world. But media and news literacies, which should be embedded in every school’s curriculum, have unfortunately been seen more an afterthought than essential parts of education. (And it’s safe to say that teaching real critical thinking would be seen as downright subversive in many parts of the country.)

I hope Stelter keeps it up. CNN could recover some of its credibility by filling some of its current wasteland with the help people need to deploy critical thinking when it comes to what they read, listen to, and watch. If that spread widely—to national, regional, and local news organizations of all kinds—we’d beef up our collective critical thinking skills. We’d better, and soon.