Fighting the misinformation pandemic: Here’s help teaching students to distinguish real news from what’s fake

Fighting the misinformation pandemic: Here’s help teaching students to distinguish real news from what’s fake

Valerie Strauss 

Washington Post, November 19, 2019 at 3:13 p.m. EST

If you don’t know what the News Literacy Project is and does, it’s time you do.

Founded over a decade ago by Alan Miller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the Los Angeles Times, the News Literacy Project aims to do something that schools everywhere should be doing: teaching students how to distinguish what’s real and fake in the age of digital communication — and at a time when the president of the United States routinely denounces real news as “fake,” and Americans will be voting on a new president in 2020.

Miller’s enterprise grows every year as teachers increasingly look for resources to teach their students how to evaluate the credibility of information. It has become the leading provider of news literacy education in the country, if not around the world.

The project creates digital curriculum and other resources and works with educators and journalists to teach middle school and high school students how to recognize news and information to trust — and provides them with the tools they need to be informed and engaged participants in a democracy. It uses the standards of quality journalism as an aspirational yardstick against which to measure all news and information. And, just as important, it provides the next generation with an appreciation of the First Amendment and the role of a free press.

“As a result,” Miller said, “NLP is on the front lines combating the misinformation pandemic that threatens to undermine civic life in the United States and around the globe.”

A sample of the project’s work is below, and I plan to publish some every week as a resource for teachers and anybody else who wants to become news literate.

The reach of the News Literacy Project is vast. It has had national success with Checkology virtual classroom, an innovative, award-winning, cutting-edge online platform featuring interactive, real-world lessons. Since launching in May 2016, more than 20,000 educators have registered to use Checkology in social studies, history, government, English and journalism classes with more than 133,000 students in every state. Educators in 110 other countries have registered to use it, as well.

The New York Department of Education has purchased 68,000 student licenses for use this year in 174 middle schools as part of a five-year agreement with the project. And West Virginia is seeding Checkology in school districts in five counties, while Columbia, Mo., has purchased 3,000 licenses and Miami-Dade County is using 1,000. The Los Angeles Unified School District will pilot the platform in 20 middle schools in early 2020. You can see short videos that capture Checkology’s impact in one classroom on YouTube and on one student here:

Student Stories: Valeria Luquin from The News Literacy Project on Vimeo.

Fast Company wrote this about the project last year: “The News Literacy Project has emerged as one of the most important educational tools for our time. During the last five years, fake or false news has polluted our social media, and people of all ages are having difficulty discriminating between false news and real news. The courses created by the News Literacy Project should become a fundamental building block of our students’ education.”

The resources created by the project are original and unique, Miller said, describing its other major initiatives this way:

    • Each year, NLP produces 10 to 12 NewsLitCamps, where its brings scores of educators into a news organization for a day of professional development that helps teachers and librarians understand how newsrooms work and enables them to take that information back to their classrooms. These events foster stronger ties between the news organizations and their communities as well as increasing mutual understanding of how teachers and journalists do their respective jobs. NLP has done 16 since 2017 with such partners as the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, NPR, Houston Chronicle, the Charlotte Observer and Univision. You can see a short video on this program here:
    • NLP produces a free weekly newsletter called the Sift that takes the most recent viral rumors, conspiracy theories, hoaxes and journalistic ethics issues and turns them into timely lessons with discussion prompts and links. The Sift, which publishes weekly during the school year, now has more than 10,000 subscribers, most of them educators.
    • NLP recently launched a program called Newsroom to Classroom, where journalists enroll to visit schools either in person or virtually and discuss their work and journalism as a way to supplement Checkology. So far, 86 journalists have enrolled. In NLP’s initial classroom program, it found that such encounters helped to demystify the newsgathering process and create a bond with the next generation of news consumers.
    • NLP is embarking on a partnership with E.W. Scripps in connection with the 2020 election. This collaboration will include engaging Scripps’s journalists in NLP programs — by visiting classrooms, educating teachers about their work and participating in events. In addition, NLP will share tools and resources to help the general public make informed choices. The partnership will also feature the first National News Literacy Week, between Jan. 27 and Feb. 2, 2020.
    • NLP’s ambitious Strategic Framework 2022 calls for the establishment of a national network of 20,000 educators who use NLP’s resources to reach 3 million middle-school and high-school students annually, or 10 percent of the total in the country’s public and independent schools. These educators will also become advocates for systemic change to help NLP realize its vision of seeing news literacy embedded in the American educational experience.

“NLP believes its mission is essential to give the next generation the tools to engage fully and effectively in the country’s civic life, to preserve quality journalism by building demand for it and to strengthen the health of the nation’s democracy,” Miller said.

Here are two lessons from this week’s edition of THE SIFT, as provided by the News Literacy Project. I will publish lessons every week through the school year.

Northwestern apology firestorm

Student journalists at the Daily Northwestern — the student-run news organization at Northwestern University — sparked intense national debate and criticism among professional journalists and others last week after they apologized in a Nov. 10 column for a series of actions taken by staff members while covering protests of a campus speech five days earlier by former attorney general Jeff Sessions.

After protesters said that they considered photos posted on Twitter by the Daily’s photographer, Colin Boyle, and other staff to be retraumatizing and invasive (including one of a student knocked down by police), those photos were deleted. In a statement he posted the night of the protest, Boyle acknowledged that he “failed to get consent on making these images as the tense moments were going on,” while noting that he was “doing my best as a photojournalist to document what was happening so that people were aware of what students were going through while Jeff Sessions was on campus” — in essence, standard journalism practice for covering a protest.

Other students were concerned that the Daily staff had used the university directory to find their cellphone numbers and then texted them, asking if they would be willing to be interviewed. In their apology, the student journalists said they recognized this as “an invasion of privacy” — even though journalists regularly use directories for such purposes. In addition, the Daily staff revised its article to remove the name of a protester who was quoted so that the student would be protected from disciplinary action by the university.

“While our goal is to document history and spread information, nothing is more important than ensuring that our fellow students feel safe — and in situations like this, that they are benefiting from our coverage rather than being actively harmed by it,” eight editors, led by editor in chief Troy Closson, wrote in their Nov. 10 column. “We failed to do that last week, and we could not be more sorry.”

A day later, in response to “the concerns that everyone has shared on Twitter,” Closson said in a tweet thread that “we covered the protest to its full extent and stand by our reporting” and that the editors’ statement “overcorrected” in some ways. He said that it has been challenging to balance his position as editor in chief with both his racial identity — he is only the third black editor in chief in the Daily’s history — and the knowledge that the publication has previously failed students of color.

Outraged critics, including working journalists and Medill alumni, said the student journalists had nothing to apologize for (except for their apology) because they were simply practicing journalism.

The Daily operates independently from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, one of the most prestigious journalism schools in the country. The newspaper serves both the university community and the city (Evanston, Ill.) in which the school is located.

Medill’s dean, Charles Whitaker, weighed in with a statement on Nov. 12: “As the dean of Medill, where many of these young journalists are trained,” he wrote, “I am deeply troubled by the vicious bullying and badgering that the students responsible for that coverage have endured for the ‘sin’ of doing journalism.” He called the apology “a heartfelt, though not well-considered editorial,” and urged the Medill alumni and other journalists who had condemned it to back off. The student journalists, he said, “were beat into submission by the vitriol and relentless public shaming” and faced “the brutal onslaught of venom and hostility that has been directed their way on weaponized social media.”

“I say, give the young people a break,” he wrote. “What they need at this moment is our support and the encouragement to stay the course.”


Discuss: Do you think the Northwestern student journalists should have apologized for the way they covered the student protests? Do you agree with their response to criticism from their peers? If you don’t, how do you think they should have responded? Were they right to take down photos and remove a protester’s name from an article to protect the student from potential discipline? Were they wrong to contact students using the university directory to ask if they were willing to be interviewed? Do you think it is insensitive for a news outlet to publish photos of protesters being knocked down by police, or do you think that is an important image for the public to see? What role has photojournalism played historically in exposing violence and other forms of injustice?

Idea: Have students read and review the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, which was mentioned in the apology. Then ask students to identify which parts of the code were relevant in the Northwestern case.

Another idea: Have students compare and contrast the Northwestern case with the recent backlash against the Harvard Crimson. Ask students which was the better response, and why. Then discuss how the Harvard student journalists might have responded to the criticism received at Northwestern and how the Northwestern student journalists might have responded to the criticism received at Harvard.

Viral rumor rundown

NO: National Basketball Association star Stephen Curry didn’t cancel his endorsement deal with Nike because the company wouldn’t allow him to write a Bible verse on his shoes. YES: Curry switched his shoe endorsement in 2013 after Nike failed to match an offer from Under Armour. YES: Curry’s father, Dell, said that there were issues with Nike’s approach, including a company official who mispronounced his son’s first name and a presentation that included a slide, apparently repurposed (and not updated), featuring Kevin Durant’s name. NO: The “Seth Curry” who commented on this Facebook post is not Stephen Curry’s younger brother, Seth (who also plays in the NBA).