Helping students get to the truth with the News Literacy Project

John F. Kennedy once stated, “Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” Those words still ring true today.

Since the advent of college- and career-readiness standards, some progress has been made toward students learning to have informed opinions based on evidence. At the same time, the age of digital literacy has become cemented. Most of us can’t remember a time when we couldn’t call information up with one click: videos, blogs, social media, memes, various news sources, recorded speeches. Information is a buffet from which we can choose our favorite morsels.

With this abundance of food for thought, it has become clear that now, more than ever, students need to be equipped to sort through information and evaluate credibility, separate opinion from fact, and establish their own evidence-based opinions about issues. To Kennedy’s point, opinions are easy to give, but digging up credible information and effectively evaluating it can be hard work.

That’s why we at NWEA are pleased to have recently learned about the News Literacy Project, a nonpartisan national education nonprofit founded in 2008 that provides free programs and resources to help students, educators, and the public navigate today’s information environment. As the News Literacy Project staff we interviewed stated, their goal is not to tell people what to think but, rather, how to gather reliable information that helps inform thinking.

[The News Literacy Project] is rigorously nonpartisan. […] Misinformation is not a problem of just the right or just the left.

I talked with Pamela Brunskill and Hannah Covington, about their organization’s mission and approach for increasing the news literacy skills that students and teachers need. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.

On the News Literacy Project website, you identify the problem that you are trying to solve for as a lack of news literacy skills that threatens a robust society. How prevalent is this problem in our society?

Hannah: This is the most complicated information environment ever. People need help knowing how to sort fact from fiction. Misinformation is everywhere.

Pamela: The rise of social media is really making it easier than ever for anyone to get involved. We have both bad actors and people who make innocent mistakes sharing misinformation and disinformation.

Who is the target audience for your work?

Hannah: The core of our mission and how this organization started is educating teachers on how to teach students about today’s information landscape and how to recognize credible sources of information as different from bad information. Most of our student user base is middle school and high school. But seeing the great need in this space, we have expanded our mission and now also have a strong focus on educating the public on how to separate fact from fiction.

What does your organization see as the path forward to solve this problem?

Pamela: Education is key. We are looking at giving everybody the tools to identify what to look for in a news organization and in a news article. What is involved in a news organization? Are they fair? Are they aware of their bias? Are they using credible sources? Once you have that knowledge, you can try to verify if the information is correct, and you can use lateral reading skills to go from different sources to identify what is credible and what is not.

In what grades and content areas should news literacy be addressed?

Pamela: Ideally, news literacy should be integrated across content areas and every grade level. Knowledge, generally, starts in the younger grades as learning the difference between fact and opinion, and learning purpose: What is news? What is opinion? What is advertising? What is entertainment?

By middle school, students should be learning about what makes a story newsworthy and how news organizations gather their information, compose it, and share it. And then, sometime in middle and high school, students should learn about press freedoms and the role of a free press and a democracy.

[N]ews literacy should be integrated across content areas and every grade level.

By high school and beyond, students should learn about different types and forms of bias, arguments, and evidence, as well as misinformation, conspiracy theories, and algorithms. So the concepts get increasingly more complex, but they build off of that base knowledge that kids are going to learn at an early age.

Hannah: We’re really thinking about how teachers can integrate news literacy across content areas. In Checkology, our virtual learning platform, we’re adding a new kind of STEM strand of lessons so that science teachers and math teachers can be incorporating news literacy into the classroom as well.

Pamela: I will say that there’s a very special relationship with ELA and social studies for news literacy because you have your current events and you have a lot of the skills that you’re going to learn in English language arts. It’s going to be your arguments and evidence and logical fallacies, right? Those are all underpinnings of news literacy.

What News Literacy Project programs and resources would you like to highlight for educators?

Hannah: Checkology is amazing, and just so timely. We try to feature real-world authentic examples from current events, from social media, and I think teachers appreciate that. Students find it more engaging when things are being pulled from places where they are already getting information, like TikTok and Instagram.

Pamela: Checkology and our infographics are probably my two favorites. We have 15 lessons on our Checkology platform that are very interactive, engaging, and authentic. And there are extensions and challenges associated with these lessons. Teachers can grade in the platform and give feedback. So it is just a self-contained, web-based platform for learning all sorts of news literacy concepts. Our infographics that go along with these lessons make great anchor charts for the classroom. For students’ notebooks, Practicing Quality Journalism is one of my favorite lessons. Students learn about the standards of quality journalism by playing the role of a reporter in a game-like simulation.

What have the reactions of teachers and students been to the materials created by the News Literacy Project?

Pamela: The responses we’ve received are overwhelmingly positive. In a 2019 survey that we sent out, 94% of the teachers said that Checkology was better than other e-learning tools that they have used in the classrooms. And since 2016, more than 350,000 students have been active on Checkology. Every year, it seems to be growing. As of June 1 of this year, more than 2,150 teachers and almost 100,000 active students have used Checkology.

The News Literacy Project includes some lessons that take on some sensitive topics. How do you avoid accusations of indoctrination?

Hannah: We are rigorously nonpartisan. We take very seriously what examples we’re featuring in our offerings, whether that’s our newsletter or Checkology. Misinformation is not a problem of just the right or just the left.

Embed authentic, real-world examples as often as possible for your students, and highlight their relevance so that students understand and recognize their importance and gain practice at becoming news literate.

We recognize that educators are under more pressure than ever before. They might face accusations of partisanship, just in teaching current events. And so we give some recommendations on how to teach news literacy in polarizing times. We have letters we’ve created for educators to share with parents and guardians about us, about Checkology. And these letters address some common questions and concerns.

Pamela: We equip students with the tools to think for themselves, to evaluate sources rather than tell them which ones to trust. We can’t tell you which sources are good, which ones are not credible. We are going to teach you how to evaluate, and you have to make that decision for yourself.

If you could give educators just one piece of advice on the topic of news literacy, what would that advice be?

Pamela: Embed authentic, real-world examples as often as possible for your students, and highlight their relevance so that students understand and recognize their importance and gain practice at becoming news literate.

In closing

The News Literacy Project has created many free resources to support educators, students, and the public in sorting through the plethora of information available today so they can establish their own opinions based on credible sources. As a former educator, I would have found the materials extremely useful in many ways as I worked to enable my students to fulfill their potential as participants in our society, focusing on Kennedy’s idea of “the discomfort of thought.” Here are just a few ways I would have used the News Literacy Project resources:

  • Checkology. My focus would have been teaching concepts of distinguishing fact from opinion, establishing purposes for writing, examining credibility of sources, and crafting arguments or persuasive writing, all while interacting with grade-level, appropriately complex texts. I believe my students would have been fully engaged in the learning because the materials on Checkology are timely and relevant to their lives. From a practical standpoint, having ready-made resources that I could embed in my curriculum would have saved me many hours of having to vet texts myself so I could put quality materials in front of my kids.
  • The Sift. The News Literacy Project’s weekly newsletter for educators would have helped me stay current on important issues and social media trends so I could have felt more connected to what my students were discussing.
  • NewsLit Nation. This grassroots News Literacy Educator Network is designed for exchanging best practices in the classroom. It would have helped me borrow from other educators’ successes, so I wouldn’t have to reinvent any wheels.
  • NewsLitCamp.These professional learning trainings aim to build a greater understanding among educators and journalists that enhances the appreciation of the vital civic role each of us plays in our democracy. The trainings would have helped me hone my own practice in teaching news literacy.

For more information on the News Literacy Project’s resources for educators, explore their Educator Tools.

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