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Other’s opinion: Helping young readers find trustworthy news

Star Tribune

It seems quaint, now, to recall the days when people worried whether the internet would be a trustworthy news source, as if the crucial variable were the medium.

The rise of the internet has indeed changed the character of the news business, partly by its obliteration of what we used to know as the news cycle. The phrase “yesterday’s news” once meant information that was out of date; now this morning’s news is out of date by lunchtime.

In the rush to publish, broadcast and post before the competition, the quality of journalism is sometimes strained. And that strain affects the business from top to bottom, from the click-obsessed online enterprises to the oh-so-respectable news journals. But the reader’s best defense against undependable information is the same as it has always been: the standards and training that inform the work of professional journalists.

If news consumers can just exercise the judgment to patronize those journalists and the organizations that employ them, their medium of choice — whether a hard-copy newspaper, an electronic facsimile or a vigorous online news operation — won’t matter. And the same goes for broadcast journalism.

Everything depends on having readers who appreciate serious journalism. It would also be a help if some of those readers could be expected to stick around for a few decades, at least.

News organizations have long invested in research to help them understand the reading habits of young people. The results have been unsurprising: Younger readers are getting most of their news from social media and other online sources. No problem there. But it’s troubling that many are ill equipped to discern credible news stories from those of questionable origin. Some cannot distinguish neutral information from paid advertising. If they can’t tell the difference between good information and bad, they are not likely to value the qualities that traditional media can offer.

Sensibly, some news organizations are working to make their products available and accessible to Generation Z. Professional groups such as the Poynter Institute are creating programs to educate young people in news literacy and recruit them as enforcers of accuracy standards. And some newspapers, including the New York Times and the Star Tribune, are expanding their decades-old efforts to get their work into classrooms.

There is a bit of irony in this: Such efforts once concentrated on putting physical newspapers into the hands of students and teachers. Now, the online environment that offers so many unhealthy choices for media consumption also fosters widespread distribution of digital subscriptions. Again, the medium is not the point; the important thing is to get trustworthy journalism into the hands and eyes of young people.

The Star Tribune’s News in Education program has a long record of accomplishment, and it currently serves about 300 schools around the state. But it recently announced a more ambitious effort. With the help of a grant from the Google News Initiative, it will offer free digital access to all of its content to any Minnesota school district that asks for it.

The initiative was announced just before the Nov. 3 election. It could hardly have had a timelier introduction. The worsening COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 election adventure demonstrate vividly the dangers of poorly vetted information at a time of national peril. Young people already have free access to sources that tell them the coronavirus is no worse than the flu and that President Donald Trump had re-election stolen from him. They should have unfettered access to the truth, too.

We hope the News in Education program and others like it succeed in giving students an appetite for quality journalism, as well as some of the tools they’ll need to recognize it.

Opinion editor’s note: Educators who want to take advantage of the program should call 612-916-1173 or send an e-mail to ken.lawrence@startribune.com.     Visit the Star Tribune (Minneapolis) at www.startribune.com