"People who are citizens in an information age have got to learn how to be journalists."
- Kathy Kiely, USA Today reporter
The 24-hour news cycle and the explosion of sources continuously available online gives today's students access to unprecedented amounts of information. Yet they are also confronted with the daunting task of determining the reliability of myriad purveyors of "news." And surveys show many of them are increasingly uninterested in information with a civic purpose.
The News Literacy Project (NLP) is an innovative national program that is mobilizing journalists to give students in middle schools and high schools the tools to appreciate the value of quality news coverage and to encourage them to consume and create credible information across all media and platforms.
The project kicked off its first pilot at Williamsburg Collegiate Charter School, a middle school in Brooklyn, on Feb. 2. It recently completed successful pilots in Williamsburg; at the Facing History School, a high school in Manhattan; and at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md. It reached about 650 students, involved 10 government, history and English teachers and engaged more than 40 journalists.
It plans to expand its efforts in New York and Bethesda in the fall and possibly launch a pilot in Chicago as well.
The project plans to produce videos that capture important lessons that can be widely shared in the classroom, as well as on its YouTube channel. The first such video reflects NLP's initial month in the classroom. It was created through a collaboration between NLP's staff and volunteer journalist fellows from The New York Times, NPR, "60 Minutes" and the Los Angeles Times and can be seen at: http://www.thenewsliteracyproject.org/blog/news_literacy_project_video_on_youtube/.
The need for young people to develop their own standards for truthful, credible information is all the more critical because today's students are producers as well as consumers. Whether texting, tweeting, e-mailing or blogging, they are increasingly part of the national conversation - and the NLP is encouraging them to rely on verified information, rather than rumor and raw information, to make their voices as persuasive and powerful as possible.
The nation's education system is not confronting this challenge. The concept of news literacy is not widely discussed in public schools. Moreover, as a Carnegie-Knight task force reported in 2007, mandatory testing has led to a decline in the use of the news in classrooms, squeezing out one of the best ways to prepare students for their role as citizens at a time that it may be more needed than ever. This is particularly damaging for students in disadvantaged urban and rural communities, as their families are less likely than their counterparts in more affluent areas to participate in public affairs or pay close attention to the news.
Moreover, if a young person doesn't know the difference between a report in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal or on ABC News and a post by the proverbial pajama-clad blogger or gossip tweeted or retweeted by someone he or she follows on Twitter, why would he or she ever seek out quality journalism?
Through the project, students are learning how to distinguish verified information from unfiltered messages, opinion, advertising and propaganda - whether they are using search engines to find websites with information about specific topics, assessing a viral e-mail, watching television news or reading a newspaper. At the same time, they are learning critical thinking skills that will make them better-informed citizens and voters.
At a time when traditional forms of journalism are rapidly contracting due to declining readership and advertising, the News Literacy Project is creating new and future consumers of news. At a time when the lines are increasingly blurred between what is authentic and what is not, the project is presenting students and their teachers with new insights into how news is reported, edited and produced.
And at a time when students are prone to misinterpret or misuse information they find or create, the project is training them how to evaluate and share information responsibly with others.
But the biggest impact is giving students the ability and incentive to gather and appreciate information that is independently produced, accurate, fair and contextual. When young people absorb information that is in the public interest and have the skills to determine its veracity, the country's democratic grass roots are strengthened.
Creating a New Model
The project is creating a new model by forging partnerships between active and retired journalists and social studies, history and English teachers. Journalist fellows and teachers are devising units focusing on the importance of news to young people, the role of the First Amendment and a free media in a democracy, and the tools needed to discern reliable information.
The project has developed original curriculum material, based on engaging activities and student projects that builds and reflects understanding of the program's essential questions. This includes analyzing and creating videos.
The project is making intensive use of new media as tools to engage and teach. Its website (www.thenewsliteracyproject.org) features a growing directory of volunteer journalists. Participating teachers are being given the opportunity to request journalists who fit their curriculum: A government teacher might seek a political reporter who covered the Obama campaign, a history teacher focusing on the Great Depression might request an economics reporter, and an English teacher assigning The Kite Runner might be drawn to a correspondent or a producer who has reported from Afghanistan. Compelling presentations on specific topics or particularly successful hands-on exercises are being captured on video for use in other classrooms and on the Internet.
Students are encouraged to create their own videos, songs, raps, games and political cartoons to share the news literacy lessons they have learned. Some of the students' own work at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda will be used to teach fellow students and as the basis for an engaging, instructive video.
The project is also engaged in an after-school apprenticeship program. Journalists enrolled in the project are working in partnership with Citizen Schools, a nonprofit that is already a national model.
Founded 13 years ago in Boston, Citizen Schools provides after-school programs to low-income middle school students that blend real-world learning projects and rigorous academics. Our journalists teach middle school students about journalism and news literacy and help them complete a major hands-on project, which the students present to the community at the end of the 11-week program.
In the initial collaboration, students working with NLP journalists produced a mini-documentary on their changing neighborhood, "East Harlem IS." It can be seen on our YouTube channel at: http://www.thenewsliteracyproject.org/blog/news_literacy_project_after_school_production_on_youtube/.
The Project's Leadership and Partners
The News Literacy Project is spearheaded by Alan C. Miller, a former investigative reporter with the Los Angeles Times' Washington bureau and winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. He founded the project in 2008 and serves as its executive director.
The NLP board is chaired by Vivian Schiller, president and chief executive of NPR; John Carroll, former editor of the Los Angeles Times and The Baltimore Sun, is vice chairman. Other board members include Charles Lewis, founder of the Center for Public Integrity; CNN's Soledad O'Brien; Paul Mason, a longtime executive at ABC News: Terry Peterson, former counselor to Education Secretary Richard Riley and chairman of the national Afterschool Alliance; and John Gomperts, a national leader in the fields of civic engagement and volunteerism. The Poynter Institute for Media Studies is the project's partner and nonprofit fiscal agent. The Knight and Ford Foundations are its two initial major funders.
Four major national journalism organizations have endorsed the project: the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the National Association of Black Journalists, the Asian American Journalists Association and Investigative Reporters and Editors. In addition, The New York Times, ABC News, USA Today, CNN, The Washington Post, "60 Minutes," National Public Radio and the Associated Press have enlisted as participating news organizations, and other outlets are expected to follow.
Reporters, editors, producers and correspondents from each organization have signed on. They are among more than 100 diverse and prominent journalists, including winners of print and broadcast journalism's most prestigious awards, book authors and network television correspondents, who have volunteered to serve as fellows. The directory can be found at: http://www.thenewsliteracyproject.org/journalists/.
Administrators and teachers at leading secondary schools in Maryland, New York, Boston, Los Angeles and elsewhere have volunteered to take part in the project. Deans at university journalism and communications programs have expressed interest in participating.
In their efforts to hold on to their often-shrinking audiences, news organizations have tended to focus on the supply side. The News Literacy Project's focus is on the demand side of the next generation.
"The value is pretty immense," said Ryan Miller, an 8th-grade history teacher at Williamsburg Collegiate Charter School who taught the initial NLP unit there.
"Three weeks ago, a lot of my students didn't know what to look for in a newspaper article or didn't know what Google actually did," he said. "And they know that now. And I can go build on that in class from here until the end of the year, and they'll build it on throughout high school.''