SOJ Brings News Literacy to Bhutan

Stony Brook’s Center for News Literacy Signs onto Three-Year Project To Develop News Literacy Classes For the World’s Newest Democracy.

Teacher Workshops Already Underway in Bhutan.

STONY BROOK, NY – April 20, 2012 – Stony Brook University School of Journalism today announced that it has begun work on a three-year program in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan to develop public school lessons to help youth make sense of the role of free press in a democracy.

Bhutan, long ruled by the Wangchuck dynasty, is a country of just 750,000 people that lies between India and China. The Fourth Wangchuck King abdicated to a constitutional democracy in 2008 and the country is in the midst of a radical transition to democracy and modernity with its second national elections scheduled for 2013.

Bhutan was most recently in the news during a United Nations conference at which member countries considered ways to adopt the tiny nation’s unique measure of national development that provides an alternative to Gross National Product. Gross National Happiness is a wholistic set of development metrics by which Bhutan’s rulers hope to avoid the mistakes of other developing nations that give up their national identity in exchange for participation in global markets.

The News Literacy course developed at Stony Brook is a semester-long multi-media immersion in critical thinking applied to the citiizen’s search for reliable information. Stony Brook hosts the nation’s first academic Center for News Literacy and with almost $3 million in grants, has spread the course to 31 other college campuses across the U.S., plus dozens of high schools. Now the idea is attracting international attention.

Stony Brook’s Center for News Literacy Director, Dean Miller, has just returned from Bhutan, where from March 30 through April 9 he and staff from the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy led workshops for the first group of teachers in the program.

The workshops were the first of a series envisioned in an agreement signed by Dean of Journalism Howard Schneider and Siok Sian Pek-Dorji, Executive Director of the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy, a civil society organization working to promote press freedom and news consumer awareness.

“We’re excited about bringing what we’re doing at Stony Brook—educating the next generation of news consumers—to one of the world’s emerging democracies,” Schneider said. “It will be a terrific laboratory for the relationship between discerning news consumers and the building of a free and robust civic culture, and how our curriculum can be adapted overseas.”

Schneider built the first course in 2005, marrying critical thinking and citizenship lessons to the use of the freshest-possible examples from the news. Funders approached Schneider at that time and asked him to test his course on 10,000 undergraduates and then export it to other campuses. With the Bhutan project, the course is being exported nearly 8,000 miles, a full 10 time zones.

More than a dozen teachers attended a workshop, April 2-6 in Thimphu, at which the basic Stony Brook Model was revised and adapted to the Bhutanese context based on themes prioritized for Bhutan’s new democracy.

Then, at a separate program, an all-day workshop on April 7, Stony Brook’s team and the staff of the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy helped another group of 20 teachers write specific strategies for developing student publications and broadcasts. Several have gone back to schools to start media clubs where these lessons and strategies to promote media and will be tried out. Because democracy is so new, lessons include activities to explain the democratic process to students.

A Stony Brook team will return to Bhutan each year for three years to assess the outcome of previous training sessions, train additional teachers, increase the capability of BCMD to spread the courses and work with education officials in Bhutan to build news literacy skills into the nation’s standard curriculum.

BCMD, funded by the United Nations Democracy Fund and a number of other funders, is focused on training teachers and students to be savvy media consumers and to use their new rights to be effective citizens.

“Bhutan has gone from one newspaper to 11 and 1 radio station to 7 just in the last couple of years,” Miller said upon his return. Cable TV has only been available in the tiny kingdom squeezed between India and China since 1999. “Programming is, for now, dominated by Bollywood and Hollywood channels, so news of Bhutan is sometimes squeezed out.”

Ms. Pek-Dorji hopes the Stony Brook lessons will empower Bhutanese to demand more from media. “ Our news media are centred in the capital and are unable to provide the coverage we need of a country with twenty districts, so we do not hear enough of the stories of a country that is spread out over vast mountainous terrain,” said Pek-Dorji. “In an evolving democracy it is important for us to have media provide the civic information and education to help us understand what is happening and to enable us to make decisions. Media in Bhutan must serve us as citizens and not as consumers.”

BCMD works with parents and teachers to help families develop mindful media consumption habits.

Miller said Stony Brook’s contribution to BCMD’s work specifically targets citizenship. “The Stony Brook Model is intensely focused on news as the oxygen of democracy. There’s a lot of good reporting going on in Bhutan, but there’s also the opportunity to put the news consumer in the driver’s seat, demanding quality journalism that supports intelligent self-rule.”

“At the same time that Bhutan, a Buddhist country, suddenly confronts global youth culture and consumer culture, its citizens are also confronting new responsibilities as voters,” Miller said. “Their constitution, unlike ours, is quite specific about duties, including the duty of every citizen to “uphold justice and fight corruption.”

During teacher workshops, Miller said, teachers prioritized numerous lessons to help students connect that duty and the right to vote to their right to information and free expression. Bhutan’s democracy was instituted in 2008. The fourth Wangchuck king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, fondly known as “K4”, abdicated to the constitutional government. Today, King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck’s role is largely ceremonial, although the King supports the work of Bhutan’s government, which is organized around the idea of Gross National Happiness, a rebuke to western development rubrics that emphasize Gross National Product.

By the end of a week-long workshop, Miller and Mike Spikes, ( a Washington D.C. multimedia producer and high school teacher who teaches in the Center for News Literacy’s summer programs and now in the Bhutan project), had gathered more than a dozen new democracy-and-media lessons custom built for Bhutan’s schools.

“We’re connecting those classroom activities to a video we shot during the workshop so that teachers who did not attend the workshop in Thimphu will have additional resources by which to understand the lessons,” Miller said. “At the next workshop in Bhutan, we’ll co-teach with teachers from Bhutan, who by then will have a semester’s experience of using these materials in their classrooms.” The workshops, planned for the next three years, will each build on the work of the previous session and then build new lessons based on needs identified by classroom teachers.

“2013 is going to be an exciting election in Bhutan,” Miller said. “The first election, 2008, was novel, but this time you have citizens exercising their democratic right to withhold or uphold the legitimacy of the government elected the first time. In my experience as a journalist, that is when the democratic rubber meets the road.”

Among the lessons developed in Thimphu last week were sessions aimed at primary and secondary students. In addition to explaining the democratic process, the new classroom materials push students to explore the value of reliable information in their roles as voters and as citizens. Class exercises on how to responsibly share information, how to hold the news media accountable for errors and how to engage in useful debate were built by teachers working with the Stony Brook team.

“ We are especially happy with the lessons built around debate and discourse, something that we’ve identified as a need among youth in Bhutan, “ said Pek-Dorji. “ This will help open up young minds to very important element of learning to listen to all views, even opposing views. So often the democratic debates we see on TV are more like “shouting matches” – people trying to stem the thoughts from the other party just because they are from the “other side”. If we learn to listen, debate, deliberate and to be civil to those who think differently, then we have a better chance of making our democratic transition work.”

“I was interested to note that our materials on the analysis of self-interest and authority of news sources were eagerly adopted,” Miller said. “There was a lot of excitement by one of our blogger teachers and several secondary teachers about the idea of methodically analyzing the sources in a news story to evaluate the overall reliability of the report. It’s great to see how a practical lesson like that can be applied in wildly different cultural contexts.”