The young aren’t as discerning as they should be

Every now and then in this space — perhaps more than is absolutely necessary — I thump my chest about the importance of maintaining credibility; how it’s key to our survival that we make sure people know they can believe what they read here.

While gathering information for just such a column a couple of weeks ago, however, I ran up against a notion that’s been bugging me ever since: For some people, primarily our younger citizens, I needn’t worry — because they do not spend a lot of time trying to sort out fact, opinion and nonsense in their news sources.

That’s not surprising, of course. Information and “news” now come from so many places, in so many guises, that it can be difficult to sort out what is reliable. The exclusivity that came with ownership of a printing press or a television station is gone. Anyone with a little creativity and knowledge of web design can put together a whiz-bang Internet site that will lend an air of respectability to anything he or she puts on it.

But combine that with the comment that got all this started –“for many students, all information is equal” — and you have a recipe for confusion that ought to concern all of us.

The comment came from Maria Shine Stewart, who over the last two decades has been an adjunct instructor in the English departments at John Carroll University, Cuyahoga Community College East and Notre Dame College. She said that even her brightest students often do not distinguish among fact, opinion and fiction, whether from television, Internet sites or newspapers.

To look at that a little deeper, I checked back in with Shine Stewart and a couple of other experienced college teachers of my acquaintance: Susan Zimmerman, a veteran journalist who teaches journalism at Kent State University, Tri-C Metro and Lakeland Community College; and Richard Berrong, a professor of French language at Kent, who has a keen interest in newspapers and is a frequent correspondent with me and others at The Plain Dealer.

All agreed with Shine Stewart’s postulation. And all three said two other things right up front:

• Their students don’t read newspapers.

• Many of their students take comedian Jon Stewart’s act on “The Daily Show” seriously.

Now, it is not stunning that teenagers and young adults don’t curl up at night with a good newspaper — I didn’t spend a lot of time with the paper way back when, either, and probably neither did you. But we didn’t mistake the Smothers Brothers for Walter Cronkite.

“Students nowadays are just not readers,” said Zimmerman. “A lot of them don’t seem to read at all unless they’re forced to.”

Just because students don’t pick up a newspaper doesn’t mean they are not reading The Plain Dealer, which they can find at But that brings us back to Shine Stewart’s observation about the relative worth of Internet information.

“Given my field, we don’t talk about journalism in class,” said Berrong. “But we do discuss current events before and after, and in a course I teach called French Conversation, which involves video conferencing with people in France. To help give them something to talk about, I’ll sometimes mention what I saw in The Plain Dealer that day, and they always say, ‘We don’t read the newspaper.’ One student said recently that she gets all her news from ‘The Daily Show.’ ”

Zimmerman said some students arrive with very little idea that news, opinion and entertainment are different.

“Most don’t seem to have any trouble glomming on to the difference once you start to talk about it,” she said. “They have to realize that if all they know is Charlie Sheen and Kanye West and Lindsay Lohan, when they go to the ballot box they’re not going to know what they’re doing or why.”

Part of Shine Stewart’s curriculum is to help students determine the worth of information, comparing a website to a news article to a blog to a scholarly article to a book, all on a related topic.

“I tell them to always evaluate: Who wrote it? What’s the purpose? What’s the audience?”

I’ll take a wild guess that not a lot of my readers are youngsters. But it would be a fine idea if you suggest to the ones you know that they take a closer look at the information they receive, and ask themselves Shine Stewart’s questions.

And if they don’t?

“They’ll get led by what they hear in a sound bite,” said Berrong.

This column was originally published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Dec.  18, 2011.

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