News literacy editorial

Shouting shouldn't trump facts

By Rex Smith
Editor, Times Union, Albany, N.Y.
August 15, 2009

Wherever you stand right now on the dispute over health care reform, surely you can agree that we're not witnessing a display of the idealized vision of democracy we were bequeathed by our Founding Fathers.

Shouting down elected officials trying to conduct issue-focused forums is not behavior we learned in elementary school civics lessons. Name-calling and intentional distortion of facts are antithetical to the debate that ought to frame public decision-making.

What we are experiencing, in fact, is the result of what John Sexton, one of America's most brilliant educators, described a few years ago as the decline of civil discourse in American society.

"We have created a coliseum culture that reduces discourse to gladiatorial combat," Sexton, the New York University president, wrote in 2005. "Viewpoints are caricatured in their most absolute form, with moderated, nuanced, or mixed positions given little or no voice. Propositions incapable of simple explanation in catchy, easily labeled phrases are ignored."

This week I sat with Sexton in his office overlooking Washington Square Park in Manhattan. Mementos, photographs and citations from his admirable career surrounded us, but Sexton pointed to the award he most cherishes, from years ago, recognizing him as the country's top high school debate coach.

It may be that Sexton's notion that victory should go to those who best marshal facts is a quaint one, outmoded by media that appeal viscerally in ways that outstrip mere words. There's ample evidence, even in our newsroom, that truth is hard to swallow when it conflicts with our own predispositions.

For example: Two weeks ago, we published a Q&A on the health care reform debate prepared by a senior reporter in our Washington bureau. It was a helpful primer that we hoped would be useful as Congress began its August recess with the health care issue unresolved.

But about a dozen people called to complain that the article wasn't true. They didn't like its assertion that the pending legislation does not "mean socialized medicine" (in fact, it relies on the private insurance sector) and that it would not "encourage euthanasia of senior citizens." Never mind that every independent analysis of the legislation supports that reading of the bill.

As we have reported, there is a provision -- likely to disappear now, given the uproar it has generated -- that would authorize Medicare to cover counseling about end-of-life care if a patient wishes. President George H.W. Bush in 1992 signed into law a requirement that hospitals help people with such "advanced directives" if they didn't already have one. That didn't cause a firestorm. Why now?

Perhaps we were less vulnerable in those days to what Sexton calls "discourse by slogan." If so -- that is, if we are growing less capable of dealing with complex issues, and more susceptible to persuasion that ignores what is factual -- then perhaps we need more than ever a dose of the very medicine that led me to John Sexton's office. I had sought him out for advice on the effort to encourage the teaching of news literacy in classrooms.

It's not that we need to teach young people to read the newspaper (pleasing as that would be to me). More important is for citizens to learn how to navigate the blizzard of information constantly swirling around us -- to critically assess the news they consume so they can decipher what can be verified from what is merely asserted. We need smarter news users.

News literacy can help students distinguish among propaganda, advertising, public relations and reporting. A literate news consumer won't necessarily make a newspaper editor's life easier, because there are plenty of flaws in the product we create, the result of relying upon human beings to do the hard work of journalism. But someone aware of the values and skills underlying good journalism can better sort valid information from the mere mediocre, and truth from distortion -- tasks fundamental to active citizenship.

Walter Lippmann wrote in 1920: "There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the information by which to detect lies." Honest reporting can carry us beyond slogans and reinforce civil discourse. It isn't always popular, but its ultimate goal is nothing less than defense of liberty. In that pursuit, we'll gladly put up with some angry phone calls.

Rex Smith is editor of the Times Union. Share your thoughts at