News Literacy Essay pays tuition bill for junior Health Science major

Stephanie Baker Wins News Literacy ScholarsipThe latest News Literacy essay winner is a health sciences major who tackled the complexities of nuclear energy policy to win herself a semester’s tuition at Stony Brook.

Junior Stephanie Baker of Center Moriches, NY has won the Stony Brook University News Literacy essay competition for spring semester 2011. Along with that recognition she will receive a full semester’s in-state tuition.

“Ms. Baker clearly put a great deal of effort into the research behind her essay, but more importantly she marshaled that information into powerful arguments,” said contest chairman Rick Hornik, who is the former Time Magazine Asia Editor. “In addition, she took on a very complex and potentially confusing topic and still excelled in applying the principles of news literacy to her essay.”

Every student who earns an “A” on their final paper in the fall and spring semesters is eligible for the prize. A committee of professional journalists reads and judges the finalists, selecting the winner based on demonstrated grasp of News Literacy concepts and convincing rhetoric. Baker’s was one of dozens of finalists out of a total 321 News Literacy students in the spring semester, when the majority are third and fourth-year students.

Each student was assigned to write to a public figure about one of several issues: legalization of medical use of marijuana in New York State; the proposal to give SUNY schools authority to set their tuition; the proposed repeal of the President’s health care reform legislation; and the President’s support for new reactor construction.

Baker took on two challenges with her letter to President Barack Obama: learning about nuclear power and reaching a conclusion on the President’s proposal that taxpayers underwrite loans for reactor construction as a way to reduce U.S. reliance on foreign fossil fuels.

“I realize that the 104 nuclear plants that are currently licensed to operate in 31 states in the US provide about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity,” Baker wrote in her opening. “However, the devastating tsunami and earthquake that struck Japan on March 11th this year causing the current nuclear crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant has brought about many concerns.”

Her conclusion? “…I believe that at this time you should “put the brake on” building new nuclear plants. In light of the recent disaster in Japan as well as domestic issues we have at home with our existing plants I believe that the money should be put to use inspecting and maintaining the safety of our current plants, and putting tougher standards into place. Until we are able to fully understand what has happened in Japan we should not move forward…”

Reactor safety caught Baker’s interest because the Fukushima disaster in Japan was in the news at the time, plus she used the research as a chance to learn something new, as she had not been aware that nuclear plants provide one-fifth of overall U.S. electricity, with plants in a majority of states.

In the essay competition, students are rewarded for reading deeply and widely to support their conclusions. Baker consulted recent news reports from CBS, FOX, NPR, MSNBC, and Slate.

Interviewed August 3, Baker said that habit has carried over even during the lazy days of summer. “Now, I second-guess a lot of things I see instead of just taking it in…I really use the IMVAIN technique a lot when I’m viewing sources and what people are giving to me and how credible they are and how reliable they are.”

IMVAIN is the mnemonic device by which News Literacy students remember how to judge sources quoted in news reports: Independent sources are better than self-interested; Multiple sources trump a solo source; Sources who Verify are stronger than those who assert; Authoritative/Informed sources are preferable to the opposite; Named sources are preferable to anonymous sources.

News Literacy recitation requires students to work together in groups every week, preparing arguments, competing in news quizzes and searching for evidence of specific elements of journalism the course focuses on. Students gravitated to Baker’s team, as she had invariably done extra reading and had a strong grasp of course concepts.

She said the other impact of the course is that it she is not as quick to make decisions about policy and politicians: “I realize we have our own biases, but I try now more to listen to the other side. I’m more aware of the fact that I do it than I was before.”

Conducted each semester, the essay contest is sponsored by the New York Community Bank Foundation (formerly Roslyn Savings Bank Foundation). The foundation’s executive director, Marian Conway, is so engaged with News Literacy that she attends News Literacy conferences and sends relevant stories to the professors for use in class.

Baker is the sixth winner of the essay contest, which is typically not won by a journalism major, but by science and engineering majors who get enthusiastic about the critical thinking and civics concepts of the course.

Developed at Stony Brook University by Howard Schneider, the Dean of the School of Journalism and a veteran Newsday editor, the News Literacy course is a major initiative of the Journalism School and one of the largest courses at the university, enrolling more than 1,500 students per year. The course teaches students from all disciplines to apply critical thinking skills to their search for reliable news and information in the Digital Age.

The Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University is the only such center in the United States. More than $2 million in grants from the Ford, McCormick and John S. and James L. Knight Foundations fund development of the curriculum, a mission to teach it to 10,000 undergraduates from all academic disciplines and dissemination of the course to other campuses. Already, the full course or elements of it have been adopted at 20 other campuses and another half-dozen are preparing to launch.