Ten years ago, Alan Miller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the Los Angeles Times, founded the News Literacy Project, an effort to teach students how to distinguish what’s real and fake in the age of digital communication.
That was a time when students used the Internet to do research and struggled with recognizing truth from fiction. It was well before Donald Trump, as a candidate and then as president, began to routinely call real news “fake” news, and the country found itself facing real questions about whether planted fake “news” affected the results of the 2016 presidential election.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the News Literacy Project is growing as never before across the country, with teachers looking for resources to teach their students how to evaluate the credibility of information.
This is a Q&A I did with Miller, who explains why he started this work, how it works and how the political climate has affected the News Literacy Project.
Q) What is it?
A) The News Literacy Project is a national education nonprofit, based in Washington, D.C., that works with educators and journalists to equip students in middle school and high school with the tools to discern fact from fiction in the digital age. NLP provides these students with the skills they need to become smart, active consumers of news and information and engaged, informed participants in civic life.
News literacy teaches that all information is not created equal. It helps young people use the aspirational standards of quality journalism to determine what they should trust, share and act on. It also cultivates an understanding of the importance of the First Amendment and a free press in a democracy, especially the watchdog role. Students are encouraged to share and produce information that is accurate, fair and responsible and that empowers their voices. This is vital, because in an age of unparalleled access, in which unprecedented amounts and types of information can be shared more widely and easily than ever before, anyone can be a publisher — and everyone must be an editor. NLP’s goal is to see news literacy embedded in the American educational experience as an essential 21st-century skill.
Q) Why did you start the project?
A) In 2006, I was invited to speak to 175 sixth-grade students at my daughter’s middle school in Bethesda about what I did as an investigative reporter at the Los Angeles Times’s Washington bureau and why my work mattered. The 175 handwritten thank-you notes I received showed me what had resonated with the students — and prompted me to think about the impact that many journalists could have if they shared their expertise and experience in the nation’s classrooms.
Also, I was already concerned about two things: how my own daughter accessed and evaluated the 24/7 deluge of news and information sources of such varying credibility, integrity and accountability, and whether the wrenching transformation underway in the news business would undermine the demand for quality journalism. Two years later, I left the L.A. Times and founded the News Literacy Project. At the time, I thought of it as moving from the supply side of journalism to the demand side.
Q) How does it work?
A) In early 2009, NLP piloted its classroom program in one school in Bethesda, two schools in New York City and an after-school program in New York City. That fall, we expanded to Chicago, and later moved into the District of Columbia and Fairfax County. In the spring of 2015, we completed our first pilots in Houston. In NLP’s first eight years, our programs reached more than 25,000 students in more than 250 diverse and dynamic schools in four major markets. More than 400 journalist volunteers have delivered more than 750 lessons, both in person and virtually.
In May 2016, we introduced a cutting-edge e-learning platform that allows our lessons to reach students in classrooms, after-school programs and libraries globally — wherever there is an Internet connection. The highly engaging checkology virtual classroom incorporates many of the best practices in e-learning, including self-pacing, blended and experiential learning, personalization, rich formative assessment, remediation, and student challenges. Points and digital badges provide incentives and reward engagement and the application of new skills. A diverse group of distinguished journalists from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, NBC News, BuzzFeed News and other outlets serve as virtual teachers.
Since the platform was launched in May 2016, more than 12,000 teachers in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, three U.S. territories and 91 countries have registered to use it with hundreds of thousands of students. In December 2016, NPR’s “All Things Considered” broadcast “The Classroom Where Fake News Fails,” about a high school teacher in Arlington who used the platform with her students. In the two weeks after that airing, registrations for the virtual classroom grew by 350 percent. In addition, the ongoing reports about the widespread dissemination of misinformation and disinformation, particularly on social media, have only increased the demand for our services.
Q) Given the political climate, how do students look at real-time events to try to decipher them?
A) Today’s students must navigate the most challenging information landscape in human history. They get much of their news through social media, where fact-based information competes for their attention with posts, tweets, videos, photos and graphics that are designed to persuade, sell, exploit, incite or misinform. Much like the rest of the population, teens generally struggle to differentiate credible information about events from spin, raw information, misinformation and outright falsehoods.
In a 2016 report assessing the news literacy skills of nearly 8,000 middle school, high school and college students, researchers with the Stanford History Education Group concluded that the students were “easily duped” and ill-equipped to successfully navigate online images and information. “Overall,” the study’s authors wrote, “young peoples’ ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak.”
Q) Can you describe an actual exercise that kids are asked to do?
A) We use the standards of quality journalism, however imperfect they may be in practice, as an aspirational yardstick against which to measure all news and information. In “Getting the Story: Practicing Quality Journalism,” a lesson in our checkology virtual classroom, students are thrown into a breaking news story as a rookie reporter. A tanker truck has been struck by a car and has overturned, spilling a mysterious green slime onto the street and into the sewer system. Students need to interview eyewitnesses, official sources and experts and obtain documents to determine how the accident happened and whether the green slime is a health hazard. In the process, they must tweet and make use of other social media. Then they are presented with two versions of a story about the event and must decide which represents the standards of quality journalism. The use of elements of gamification and the high level of engagement have made this lesson both highly effective and extremely popular with students.
Q) How has your content changed over the years — and how has the political climate affected what you do?
A) Our content has changed significantly over the years — based, in part, on what we’ve learned from our assessment of our programs’ impact on students’ knowledge, attitudes and behavior.
First, we’re always striving to make our content more active — to design learning experiences that lead students to discover, refine, synthesize and apply new skills and concepts as they work through a challenge. Second, we’ve changed the ways that our journalist volunteers connect with students and encourage learning gains as we moved from an in-person classroom program to digital curriculum and platforms. Third, we’ve started to focus more on designing for the future — creating learning experiences that will help students navigate the information landscape not just as it now exists, but as it will exist soon. For example, when we teach them about evaluating authenticity and evidence, we want to make sure that they understand the changes taking place in artificial intelligence that will make it even more challenging to determine the legitimacy of photos and videos.
The current political climate highlights the need to restore a fact-based middle ground to the national conversation, which is a major rationale for our work. It further validates our rigorously nonpartisan approach and our focus on journalism standards (increasing student understanding of those standards and encouraging nuanced discussion of what they do — and don’t — look like in practice). It has also increased our sense of urgency to develop new and ever more timely lessons — for example, we are developing a new lesson on arguments and evidence that includes a focus on cognitive biases (including confirmation bias) and the appeal of intuitive (“feels right”) reasoning over evidence-based reasoning.