The last year has brought renewed calls for investments in news literacy education as a way to teach media consumers to sort fact from fiction.
It’s a daunting task given the cottage industry dedicated to peddling fiction, our complicity in spreading hoaxes on social media and our inability to agree on basic facts. Add to those concerns the glut of online information that isn’t wholly false but is intentionally misleading, our entrenched confirmation biases that limit the effectiveness of fact checking and research showing that students — the primary target of news literacy education — have difficulty evaluating the credibility of online information and can be easily duped.
Sensing the severity of the problem, many interested parties have taken up the call to action. News outlets have published lesson plans on how to evaluate sources and sniff out fake news. Press research and training groups have curated news literacy curricula and increased their own offerings. Facebook, which came under attack for not doing enough to stop the spread of fake election news, has promised to work with news organizations to push news literacy. Google last week announced a news literacy initiative.
— Reliable Sources (@ReliableSources) February 19, 2017
Two national leaders in this effort, groups that have news literacy in their titles and began training students to be skeptical news consumers long before fake news and filter bubble became buzzwords, have spent recent years trying to increase their reach by investing in e-learning and other digital resources for educators.
The Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University, initially focused on classroom-based news literacy instruction at its New York campus and hosting in-person training for educators, has become a clearinghouse of free online lesson plans and resources for teachers looking to start their own news literacy course. Earlier this year, the center launched a massive open online course (MOOC) to “help consumers decipher fake news from reliable information.”
The News Literacy Project, an education nonprofit that works with educators and journalists in several U.S. cities to teach news literacy in middle and high school classrooms, has a new Facebook-backed public service advertising campaign to “raise awareness of the importance of being a skeptical and responsible consumer of news and information.”
NLP’s biggest recent investment is its checkology virtual classroom, designed to teach news literacy skills to middle- and high-school students. The e-learning platform mixes short video presentations from journalists and other media experts, case studies, interactive practice exercises and assessments such as a “check tool” designed to help students evaluate the credibility of information they select from an online source. Modules include filtering news and information (how to sort information and know what’s news); exercising civic freedoms (the First Amendment and journalism’s watchdog role); navigating today’s information landscape (dissecting rumors, the role of algorithms and branded content); and how to know what believe (recognizing bias and checking credibility).
The launch of checkology was fortuitously timed. The blended-learning platform debuted in spring 2016 and was updated in time for the start of fall classes — and the height of a presidential campaign that produced news literacy lessons by the day.
“As the presidential campaign really wound up and people starting talking more and more about fake news and misinformation and news and media literacy, we saw increased interest,” said Peter Adams, News Literacy Project’s senior vice president for educational programs. “We also got a lot of media inquiries about news literacy education and misinformation.”
By the end of the 2016-17 academic year, roughly 6,250 teachers had registered to use checkology. Teachers collectively reported that they expected roughly 945,000 students to use the platform, Adams said. NLP is providing premium-level access to the platform, which includes unlimited, free student-user licenses for the 2017-18 academic year.
Adams is tasked with overseeing checkology, as well as other classroom programs and digital resources. In this interview, condensed and edited for clarity, Adams discusses the opportunities of teaching news literacy on a large scale, the challenges of keeping the curriculum timely, one way he measures success in news literacy classrooms, and how to handle lessons on hot-button issues such as fake news and news personalization.
What did your k-12 teaching experience (middle school in New York City; high school after-school program in Chicago) teach you about the need for news literacy education?
Adams: When I was in the middle school classroom in New York, students would go and get a source and copy information. They didn’t understand that copying and pasting wasn’t research. When I was with high school students, I heard a lot of viral rumors, urban legends, conspiracy theories, and I tried to take them up on where they were hearing this stuff. The other thing was trying to encourage skepticism but helping them not stray over to cynicism — not thinking everything is an orchestrated, agenda-driven, institutional conspiracy, which is something that teenagers of any generation are susceptible to. I think cynicism about institutional media is a real problem.
What was the impetus for teaching news literacy through a virtual classroom?
Peter Adams: It was really scale and efficient use of resources. We have always been a tiny organization. The mission is so big. News literacy is such a vital 21st-century skill for students, the information landscape is changing so quickly and it’s a real challenge for educators to teach this stuff because it’s changing all the time. So we knew that if we were going to see news literacy embedded in the American educational experience, which is one of our big goals as an organization, e-learning is the way we’d have to go.
How did you intend teachers to use this educational resource?
Adams: We wanted to create an e-learning resource that educators could use in whatever way they wanted. So if you want to flip it [so that students complete lessons as homework and then discuss topics in class], we want it to work. But we also want it to be something you can use in the classroom. We want it to be accessible for teachers who have never taught news or media literacy or have never done any blended e-learning, and for folks who are news literacy savvy and have taught this before. It’s not intended to replace classroom instruction — it’s indented as a supplement.
There’s a real focus in the curriculum on how to fact check or evaluate the credibility of information as journalists are trained to do. It’s an important but time-consuming process. How do you also teach students to quickly assess whether something online is bogus?
Adams: We are working on that right now. [In the current iteration], students go through a very detailed, very granular process that leads you through a lot of steps. Our intention was to have students cognitively chunk those steps — who created this, for what purpose, is there a byline, what do I know about this organization, publication or website? The hope is that at some point that becomes one thought — where is this coming from? What’s missing is a more consumer-centric, functional, day-t0-day process like if I am info grazing, if I’m flipping through social, if I read a little bit of a piece, then lateral reading across the web, looking at Snopes and FactCheck.org isn’t always realistic. We are looking at making a quicker tool or process that’s more functional for consumers.
How much of a challenge is it to teach students to pause when they see news or information online that raises a red flag in terms of its credibility, accuracy or authenticity rather than breeze past it?
Adams: It is a challenge. Part of it can be addressed by helping students understand the stakes of credible information and sharing something that isn’t credible. A lot of social media users period — teens may especially have this attitude — think that sharing isn’t endorsing and sharing isn’t saying it’s true. But if you have suspicions or you know it’s not true and if you share it and don’t say it’s not true, it could be misunderstood. Students don’t always think about that. There’s also an attitude that credibility doesn’t matter if it’s going to be engaging. I don’t know if this video is staged or not but it’s awesome. Getting students to think about the stakes of exposure to information that’s inaccurate is important.
Have you found any effective ways to get students to understand these stakes?
Adams: One approach we use is tapping into students’ sense of outrage at being lied to. I think young people have a preserved or not-yet-jaded view of injustice. They are really outraged at injustice in a way that adults may not be. If you can tap into the fact that teenagers hate to be deceived — they are genuinely outraged at injustice that affects other people, especially if they have experienced some injustice in their life. [As an educator] you can form that association and hopefully make it matter so if someone shares something that isn’t true, the goal is to make them want to correct it on social media. That’s a big challenge for news literacy educators.
How did you develop these online lessons in a way that would allow you to keep examples and case studies timely? That strikes me as an immense challenge given the extremely short news cycle and the abundance of ready-made news literacy lessons created almost daily during this last presidential election cycle.
Adams: About two-thirds of lessons have a somewhat similar trajectory or architecture. You meet a subject-matter expert who introduces initial concepts, you actively apply those concepts to learn them, the expert comes back to give you a snippet of guided instruction, sometimes to deepen or complicate those concepts or synthesize them with something else, you apply and practice those concepts, the subject-matter expert comes back one last time and then you end with a compilation for mastery where students apply that fully synthesized, developed skill at the end. Those example compilations allow us to chop off the end and replace it with something that’s more timely. We designed the lessons to be updatable to keep them timely. The challenge is with so many students using the platform across the country and now across the world, when we change something, if you’re a student and you finish the first lesson and we go in behind you and remove and replace a chunk, the system is going to say you haven’t done that lesson. At least once a year we’re going to swap out examples. We do know from feedback that timeliness is something teachers value.
Since you launched the program just over a year ago, what has changed in our politics or the media landscape that needs to be reflected in the updated curriculum?
Adams: Not in terms of examples, but there are some things that have happened in the last year that we’ve certainly noticed and thought, ‘gosh is this going to change the way we teach this’? For instance, the difference between the [Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John] Podesta e-mail leaks and the [French President Emmanuel] Macron campaign leaks is there were faked raw documents mixed in with the real raw documents in the French leaks, which was a shift. We teach students about raw information. Do we need to think about or warn students that this is a tactic that purveyors of misinformation are using? The same lessons can often be drawn from examples that are two years old, a year old or that happened yesterday. It’s just more relevant to students’ lives if it’s something that has happened recently.
Checkology came out before “fake news” became a household term. What’s your take on that term, and are you planning to incorporate it (or similar language) into future lessons?
Adams: It would be a useful term to describe a very specific type of misinformation, but it has also been co-opted and weaponized and politicized and corrupted in so many ways that it almost means everything and nothing depending on the context. It’s lost its meaning. It’s too bad, because the intent behind the term originally was very specific — something that is entirely made up, designed to drop into an actual context, designed to get clicks and drive ad revenue. The other side of that term is that it’s an oxymoron — if it’s news then it can’t be fake. We use it in quotes to set off the fact that there’s technically no such a thing as an untrue fact. [Fake news] is designed to look like news, and there’s a lesson to learn there that’s valuable. When people say let’s give up on the term and not talk about fake news, I want to make sure we still talk about that particular kind of misinformation and the strategies that drive it because there’s a lot to consider and a lot we need to teach students about.
Early in many lessons you ask students to evaluate media content like news articles and advertisements that you select for them. But you also regularly ask students to think of their own examples or find their own news online to evaluate. What drove this decision?
Adams: Giving them case studies is an important part of teaching them the concepts. But we do want students to move from this closed environment where they are learning things from pre-selected examples that are designed to highlight certain concepts or issues to a place where they apply them and use the skills in a way that’s more authentic. We needed something to help students draw these skills and concepts together, and then jump the rail out into the information landscape. It’s something we are still working on and thinking about. What kind of pathways can we build for students that are guided enough give them something to do but also let them figure out where to go on their own?
It does seem easier when you are teaching or assessing students to stay in a walled-off environment where you have control over the examples you use. Do you have advice for teachers who want to open up the classroom but who are concerned that students may bring up examples that aren’t so neat and clean?
Adams: Having the guided instruction with pre-selected examples that overtly highlight key concepts is necessary. But once those concepts are in play, and once you push on them hard enough and throw out enough examples, any categorization system will begin to break down. If you get to that point with students, it means you got them past the basic stage and into the advanced stage. I would say if students are confounding the paradigms that you initially introduced them to with examples, that’s something you should celebrate and then embrace. You don’t have to have all the answers, and sometimes there is no authoritative example on topics like bias or news judgments. If students are pushing at the limits of those questions, that to me is success.
You teach units on news personalization (the use of algorithms to tailor content to our personal tastes) and sponsored content (material that is meant to look like news but is intended to promote a product, company or organization). Usually when I teach these concepts I find myself adopting a very negative framing: Beware of the filter bubble! Sponsored content is out to deceive you! But your message was more nuanced. Was that intentional?
Adams: My impulse was to say that sponsored content is trickery and to lean toward a negative framing. There was some back and forth internally and we landed on a bit of a softer position, not to pander to advertisers or special interests, but because there is meaningful sponsored content that is possible if it’s adequately labeled and transparent about what it is. Then it can be more valuable to consumers than a traditional ad. With algorithms, we never had a super-negative approach to it. There are obviously pitfalls — it’s important to know when algorithms are curating things for you. But we want students to be aware of the fact that you wouldn’t want to search Google without any parameters, without it making any assumptions about you.
Elia Powers, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of journalism and new media at Towson University. He writes regularly about news literacy, audience engagement and nonprofit journalism.