The Fight Against ‘Fake News’ in the Classroom Gets a Boost

Media Literacy

The Fight Against ‘Fake News’ in the Classroom Gets a Boost

By Emily Tate Sullivan     Feb 20, 2019

The Fight Against ‘Fake News’ in the Classroom Gets a Boost
A graphic featured in a lesson on Checkology.

Years before phrases like “fake news” and “alternative facts” made their way into the English lexicon, Alan Miller realized that a time was coming when the truth would need defending.

It was 2006, and Miller—then an investigative reporter in the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times—had just spoken to 175 sixth graders at his daughter’s middle school about his job as a journalist and why it mattered.

The internet had already begun transforming the news industry, in ways immediately apparent and yet to be seen, and he was thinking about—and giving talks about—what the future held for journalism.

So when his daughter, then 12, brought home 175 handwritten thank you notes from her classmates that day, Miller’s wheels started turning. “I could see it resonated with them,” he says. “It was the seed of an idea.”

That seed later grew into the News Literacy Project (NLP), an independent nonprofit Miller founded in 2008 to help students and teachers discern between fact and fiction in the digital age.

Back when Miller was trying to get the project off the ground, he received some critical support—to the tune of $250,000—from the Knight Foundation, a national organization that supports journalism and the arts. On Tuesday, the Knight Foundation renewed its support for the nonprofit 20-fold, with a $5 million grant that will allow the News Literacy Project to expand its online course for middle and high school students and its professional development program for teachers and librarians. It was part of a broader five-year, $300 million initiative the foundation announced to support journalism and, in the case of the NLP, help young people become smarter consumers of the news.

“Knight has obviously been familiar with us over our lifetime,” Miller tells EdSurge. “The fact they’re making this kind of investment in us now to help us scale represents a huge commitment and belief in the value of our mission and the proven effectiveness of our programs and resources.”

He adds: “This is enormously validating for us, and gratifying, because it says they see what we’re doing as credible.”

Fighting for facts

In its early days, the News Literacy Project was going into middle and high school classrooms and hosting after-school programs where working journalists would speak to students and teachers on a range of topics, from the First Amendment (which protects the freedom of the press) to the role of journalists, the importance of the media and the rise of misinformation.

The NLP, which most often works with teachers of social studies, English-language arts, history and the humanities, developed a condensed curriculum on news literacy that teachers could use with students, Miller says. The journalists were one part of that.

Then, in May 2016, the project launched Checkology, an online, interactive course that helps students understand and appreciate the role of the press, introduces them to different types of news—from entertainment to opinion to branded content—and teaches them the critical thinking skills they’ll need to spot misinformation.

The arrival of Checkology coincided with a “huge sea change” for the way news and information were shared, Miller says. Many people, and especially the younger generations, started getting their news from social media, where misleading articles, made-up stories and conspiracy theories are packaged and presented the same way as any other piece of news.

“It’s only gotten far more challenging since I founded NLP, with young people having so much information literally right at their fingertips,” he says.

These changes have contributed to what Miller describes as a public health crisis.

“We face, by far, the most fraught information landscape in human history,” Miller says. “At the same time, what we’ve seen is that an inability to sort fact from fiction breeds distrust in quality news [sources]. It’s a fundamental threat to the health of democracy.”

Checkology—which has been used by more than 122,000 students in all 50 states, the NLP says—is designed to hit these issues head-on. The course is taught and led by real journalists, who, through short video clips, walk students through each lesson. (A shortened, four-lesson version is available at no cost, while the complete 13-lesson course costs a few dollars per student.) It weaves in current events, such as the NFL controversy over players kneeling during the national anthem, and gives students frequent opportunities to test what they've learned.

“One of the things students like the best about Checkology is it’s real world,” Miller says. “We do deal with contemporary issues—elections, immigration, police shootings. We don’t shy away, but we do have to handle it carefully.”

Despite the divisive nature of many of the issues the course touches on, Miller says the NLP’s curriculum is “extremely rigorously nonpartisan.” That has been a priority from day one, he adds.

“We do not tell students where to go or where not to go [for their news]. Even in the most credible [media] outlet or platform, there’s going to be a mix of news, analysis, advertising and branded content. We want students to be able to make those judgments about every item they come across,” Miller says.

The News Literacy Project also recently began offering a program for educators, called NewsLitCamps. The “camps” typically bring between 50 and 75 teachers and librarians into a newsroom for a day of professional development. Educators learn how to spot and address bias, how to discern whether a news source is credible and the role of social media.

Since the NewsLitCamps started in 2017, the NLP has held 11, including ones held with staff at the Washington Post, NPR, the Miami Herald, the Houston Chronicle and the LA Times.

The new grant from the Knight Foundation will allow the News Literacy Project to host another dozen or so of these professional development events each year, with the next ones happening this spring in Miami and Charlotte, N.C.

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