News Fit To Print

The main obstacle to the creation of a well-informed public is its own indifference. In every country with a free press, thoughtful papers which conscientiously try to cover the news lag behind the circulation of those which peddle sex and sensationalism. This is as true in Paris and London as in New York; and if Moscow ever permits a free privately-owned press, Izvestia and Pravda will fall far behind any paper which prints the latest on that commissar's love nest.
I. F. Stone, Freedom Of The Press
Nov. 14, 1955

I was struck by the irony of, the online arm of the Boston Globe newspaper, running a story last November lamenting the internet's damaging effect on scholarship side by side with an "All Britney" feature. The image (screen-captured above) has been in my mind as I have read about the demise of daily and weekly newspapers.

Some say this demise is linked to the rise in web-based reporting, maybe hastened by the recent economic downturn. Some say we are witnessing the end of print altogether (unlikely if the mound of paperwork around here is anything to go by). I've been watching this conversation from a distance, since our local industry newsletter, the Telegraph Journal, keeps chugging along, as does my other newspaper, the national Globe & Mail. Online, I follow developments on Matthew Ingram's blog, Bill Doskoch's Media, BPS*, Film, Minutiae, and Tish Grier's The Constant Observer.

Meanwhile, I keep print copies of the TJ and the G&M in my classroom. This is considered good practice for good reason. A recent research paper by Uche Mercy Okonkwo, Ph.D (Nigeria, 2008) "advocates the use of authentic texts, namely, newspapers as complements to traditional course materials and text books in accelerating the development of literacy skills." (pdf link). The course syllabus for the Thinkfinity (of the Literacy Network developed by the National Center for Family Literacy [U.S.] and ProLiteracy) online course Using the Newspaper in Adult Literacy and ESL Instruction reminds us that
Research has shown that authentic teaching materials are an effective way to engage adult learners’ interest. Adults learn best when they are involved in selecting or creating their own teaching materials. Newspapers are a convenient and inexpensive tool to accomplish both these objectives. Newspapers help adult students develop skills in reading comprehension, writing, critical thinking, grammar, vocabulary, and civics.

And yet.

And yet.

I often feel that having a newspaper in the room is a mixed blessing.

Yes, it is valuable for learning about local or regional news. It offers real-world examples of short opinion pieces. It provides an opportunity to practice reading classified and regular ads, television listings, political cartoons, charts, graphs and maps.

There are lots of useful things a skilled facilitator can do with a newspaper, and there are plenty of resources online to help facilitators expand their use of dailies.

But newspapers can also bring gossip, sensationalism and injustice into the classroom. When particularly sensational crimes make the news, that whole idea of "innocent until proven guilty" sometimes goes out the window. Lazy forms of racial profiling, sexism, classism and just plain mean-spiritedness rise to the fore. The more outraged the reader, the less thoughtful their response. Sometimes, remarks degenerate into contests over who can recall the most gruesome crime, or imagine the most gruesome punishment.

I know the argument which says facilitators can use these moments to engage learners in a conversation about empathy and understanding, human rights and due process. Okonkwo writes that "Studies have shown that students who use newspapers in learning score higher in reading comprehension tests and develop stronger critical thinking skills as well as develop compassion and tolerance for other cultures (Cornish, 2004 18 See also, Lakin, 1998 5)." The website of the excellent News In Education program (Medicine Hat, Alberta) claims, "Children and teens that use the newspaper will learn to develop empathy for people in varying circumstances and in return, will be able to better understand and cope with the human condition."

I don't believe this.

Sadly, few of us ever get to a place where we can "love the sinner, hate the sin." Most of us don't even want to. Arguing opinions and talking about irrational notions like "women get pregnant just to increase their welfare cheque" or "immigrants come over here and steal our jobs" or "Chinese people are stuck up" does no one any good.

Some of this is personal. Personally, I don't like gossip. By "gossip", I don't mean rumours or mistruth. I mean any talk about other people meant to judge or titillate. (well, about local people, really - I don't care who says what about Britney and the rest). I also can't abide speculations over the motives or mental capacity of wife beaters or child molesters, much less blow by blow recountings of violence and misery. Conversation of this nature always feels more like a kind of smug sport than a true expression of anguish or upset. I don't think we talk with such zeal about things that really upset us.

Professionally, I think gossipy editorializing about who's in the courts this week is simply incompatible with a safe, nonjudgmental learning environment.

I know I'm viewed as a bit of a zealot about this. Sometimes, I ask people to leave my room because of the things they say. Sometimes people quit my class because they don't care to be censored; are surprised and hurt that I should make such a deal of it.

But, listen to this: Once I had a learner who wanted to quit because a family member was in the news, charged in a sex and violence episode ready made for wagging tongues. "Everyone's going to be talking about it," they said. I wanted to say "Not in my class, they won't," but was unsure I could promise that. In the end, the learner took a week off, and we made it through. But gossip sticks in my mind as an on-going threat.

It's hard to promise that everybody is going to mind his or her own business. Harder still in the midst of a sensational court trial or when the headlines are filled with reports of violent crime or scandalous erotica.

On those days, I could wish for no newspaper at all.

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