Passing a note in class was once the best way for students to share information, though not without its perils. But today, they communicate with taps on a touchscreen, and the stakes are much higher.
As technology has changed how we share information, the need to equip students with the skills to separate fact from fiction has never been greater. That’s why the News Literacy Project, the nonprofit I lead, is partnering with the E.W. Scripps Company for National News Literacy Week, which began Monday. Our goal is to raise awareness of news literacy as a fundamental life skill through a national campaign that provides educators, students, and the general public with simple tips and tools for becoming news literate.
Young people may be digital natives, but studies have shown that they find it difficult to separate factual information from the vast amounts of misinformation and disinformation that appear on their smartphones, tablets, and computers. What should be a digital golden age, with valuable and credible information more readily available than ever before, has been turned against us. We saw examples of this when Russia spread false and disparaging information on social media to mislead and divide Americans in efforts to influence the 2016 election. We must take steps now to prevent it from happening again.
One way to do that is to ensure that the next generation knows how to navigate this challenging landscape in a way that can unite us around verifiable, agreed-upon facts. Legislation that would require media literacy education in grades K-12 was introduced last year in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives; similar bills, equally worth attention, have been introduced in the New Jersey Legislature in previous years.
At the News Literacy Project, our focus is on a subset of media literacy: news literacy, defined as the ability to determine what is credible and what is not, identify different types of information, and use the standards of authoritative, fact-based journalism as a measure in deciding what information you can trust. Being news literate also means recognizing the critical role of the First Amendment and a free press in a democracy, and interacting with news and other information in ways that promote meaningful participation in our democracy.
I started thinking about this topic in 2006, when I spoke to my daughter’s sixth-grade class about my work as a reporter. Although I left the newsroom two years later to found the News Literacy Project, my reporting background has informed our work. For example, our Checkology virtual classroom features diverse journalists from respected news outlets who serve as virtual teachers in highly engaging lessons, using real-world examples of information — true and false — that students encounter every day.
Students are taught, among other things, how to discern news from opinion, advertising, and propaganda; they examine how bias — their own and others’ — can affect their perceptions of the news; and they learn the standards of quality journalism. Since Checkology was released in 2016, educators from every state, the District of Columbia, four U.S. territories, and more than 110 other countries have registered to use the platform.
We also teach educators about news literacy through NewsLitCamps — daylong events that bring teachers and librarians into a news organization for engaging professional development, led by journalists and NLP staff. The educators return to the classroom not only with tools and resources for teaching news literacy but also with connections to local reporters and editors. In addition, these sessions result in a greater understanding between journalists and teachers — including an appreciation of the realities that both face in playing a vital civic role with increasingly scarce resources. (We are working with The Inquirer to host a NewsLitCamp later this year.)
These offerings, and more, are facets of a comprehensive news literacy curriculum that will give students the skills they need to be well-informed.
As your state legislators consider how to build these kinds of skills in your schools, we hope our approach can help guide them. Ultimately, our goal is to ensure that news literacy is embedded in middle schools and high schools across the country. We hope the citizens of Pennsylvania and New Jersey will join us in achieving that goal.