The News Literacy Project
Interview with The News Literacy Project‘s Founder & CEO, Alan C. Miller.
Organization Mission: The News Literacy Project, a nonpartisan national education nonprofit, empowers educators to provide students with the skills they need to become smart, active consumers of news and other information and engaged, informed participants in civic life.
Population Served: Our primary audience is educators and students in middle school and high school. Our new website, www.newslit.org, also provides tools and resources for the general public.
Founding Year: 2008
Organization Website: http://www.newslit.org
Please provide a brief overview of the organization’s work.
NLP’s programs enable educators to give middle school and high school students the skills they need to know how to sort fact from fiction in the digital age. Students are taught how to discern verified and unbiased information from misinformation, hoaxes, opinion and spin — whether using search engines to find information about specific topics, browsing social media feeds, watching videos on YouTube or reading a news article or blog post.
Students are also encouraged to share and produce information that is accurate, fair and responsible and that empowers their voices. This is vital, because in an age of unparalleled access, in which unprecedented amounts and types of information can be shared more widely and easily than ever before, anyone can be a publisher — and everyone must be an editor.
In a few sentences, please describe the problem you are working to solve and your approach to solving this problem.
Trust in journalism is at record lows. Increasingly trapped in filter bubbles, we often rely on the news not to inform us, but to confirm what we believe. The nation is mired in an at-times surreal debate about the very nature of facts, and whether demonstrable truths still matter. Meanwhile, in the months before the 2016 presidential election, a Russian disinformation campaign reached more than 126 million Americans through Facebook posts — and millions more through Facebook ads and other social media platforms.
All this is eroding the informational underpinnings of our democracy. As New York Times columnist Timothy Egan noted, “Too many Americans are ill equipped to perform the basic functions of citizenship.”
News literacy is one response to this rising tide of confusion, polarization and distrust. It is a proven way to give today’s students — and, increasingly, the general public — the tools to know what news and information to trust, share and act on and to become informed, engaged participants in civic life. It has the potential to increase individual responsibility to become part of the solution to the rising tide of misinformation, rather than part of the problem.
How and why did you first start working for this organization?
In 2006, I was invited to my daughter’s sixth-grade class to talk about what I did as an investigative reporter at the Los Angeles Times’ Washington bureau and why such work was important. The responses I received led me to think about the impact that many journalists could have if they shared their expertise and experience with the nation’s students.
At my 30th reunion at Wesleyan University just a few weeks later, I had the opportunity to discuss my thoughts with another Wesleyan alum, Alberto Ibargüen, the head of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation — the largest funder of journalism education projects in the U.S. He introduced me to his vice president for journalism, and after several calls over the next 18 months, as I completed my last four-part investigative project for the Los Angeles Times, Knight was ready to give me a founding grant — and the News Literacy Project was launched.
What current trends are you seeing in your field of work?
There’s a much greater awareness of news literacy — and the importance of being news-literate — than there was when I started NLP in 2008. The acknowledgement that Russian-sponsored misinformation and disinformation had spread, like a particularly nasty virus, across our social media platforms was certainly a wake-up call to many, as was the entrance into the daily lexicon of terms like “alternative facts” and “fake news.” We consider our programs to be the antidote to such infections, and we expect that demand will only grow.
What do you think will change most about your work over the next 5 years?
We are in midst of dramatic internal growth to meet enormous demand for our services and opportunity for our organization. We expect recognition of the need for news literacy education to continue to grow. We anticipate having exponentially greater reach in impact over the next five years.
What are the three most important skills you focus on developing in the population you serve? Why?
- The ability to discern and create credible information because this is a survival skill in the digital age.
- The ability to recognize the importance of the First Amendment and a free press in a democracy because this is essential to their survival.
- The ability to push back when encountering misinformation because everyone needs to stand up for facts in an age of rampant conspiracy theories, hoaxes and viral rumors.
What are the three most important skills you value in your staff members? Why?
- Creativity, because our prime focus is creating resources for educators and students.
- The ability to communicate clearly and effectively, orally and in writing, because we need to do so routinely, both internally and externally.
- The ability to work collaboratively, collegially and virtually because of the nature of our organization.
How has technology influenced your field and/or the way your organization works?
The influence of technology on the field of news literacy is nearly as profound as the influence of technology on the fields of journalism and media. We think a vital part of teaching today’s students about news literacy is teaching them how to understand and navigate today’s information landscape. This involves everything from how to understand the role and impact of social media and smartphones to perceiving clever new forms of advertising to utilizing tools and skills to identify and fight back against misinformation.
NLP was founded as a program that partnered with individual classroom teachers to design and deliver news literacy units in classrooms in three cities. After demonstrating the impact of our curriculum, we started exploring e-learning and eventually transitioned into creating a teacher-friendly e-learning hub with lessons for students: the Checkology® virtual classroom. NLP has also made extensive use of videoconferencing to bring students and journalists together for lessons and engaging conversations about the opportunities and challenges of today’s information ecosystem. In addition, we offer an online professional development series, Teaching News Literacy, twice a year (the next series starts Aug. 28).
What are some key achievements your organization has accomplished over the last year and how were you able to attain this success?
Our Checkology virtual classroom continues to expand its reach. From its launch in May 2016 through the end of the 2017-18 school year, more than 13,600 educators — with a self-reported potential reach of more than 2 million students — registered to use the platform. During the 2017-18 school year we saw a 79% increase in the number of teachers who registered for Checkology Premium student licenses, which unlock a variety of features, and a 178% increase in the number of licenses used. We’re in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, three U.S. territories and 93 other countries. In August 2018, for the 2018-19 school year, we’re releasing a revised and updated version of the platform, which we’re calling Checkology 2.0.
In May 2018, we unveiled a new website at www.newslit.org. It features a more immersive experience for all visitors — educators, students and members of the public — and offers resources and tools that everyone can use to improve their news literacy skills.
Educators are raving about NewsLitCamp® — a one-day professional development event that brings teachers and librarians from middle schools and high schools into a local newsroom for conversations and workshops with journalists from that news outlet. Participants come away with a better idea of the standards of quality journalism and a deeper understanding of the newsgathering process, along with tools and resources to take back to the classroom. Following our successful pilot of this program at the Chicago Sun-Times in April 2017, we held five NewsLitCamps during the 2017-18 school year — two in Washington (with The Washington Post and NPR), another in the Chicago area (with the Daily Herald), and one each in New York City (with Time) and Miami (with The Miami Herald). We’re planning at least five NewsLitCamps (including another in Chicago) for the remainder of 2018.
In the Chicago area, we are working closely with the Chicago Public Schools Participate Civics Program and a group of CPS educators to create a professional learning community that will focus on exploring and documenting how educators in grades 6-12 can most effectively incorporate and embed news literacy instruction into existing curricula across content areas. This is a project that we should be able to replicate across the country. We are also working with Illinois Civics to provide professional development training, news literacy curriculum and resources, and pathways to help students empower their voices and use news literacy tools to take informed civic action.
Have there been any recent obstacles? If so, how were you and your staff able to overcome them?
An unexpected challenge — but one that was most welcome — was the growth spurt in our Checkology platform during the last school year. Though our staff is small, it is nimble, and I was proud of how everyone stepped up. In addition, we were able to hire a third person for our education team, which eased some of the pressure and allowed us to also focus on creating new lessons, and revising old ones, for the release of Checkology 2.0.
On a more serious note, we were invited to participate in a session at the United Nations to celebrate World Press Freedom Day in May, and we planned to use that opportunity to preview our new Checkology lesson on press freedoms around the world. The organizers of the session attempted to censor one of our videos to remove a reference to restrictions on the press in Turkey; when we refused to accept this, and refused their subsequent request that we not show any of our videos, the organizers ended up “postponing” the session. We are proud to have taken a stand for press freedom.
What’s next for your organization? What are you looking forward to?
We are in the midst of dramatic budgetary and staff growth to meet the rising demand for our services amid the growing recognition of the urgent need for news literacy education. We are also in the process of crafting an ambitious four-year strategic framework that will chart our path forward to build a national community of practitioners to facilitate systemic change. We look forward to raising NLP’s profile and extending our mission in the years ahead.
What do you wish others knew about the organization or the populations you serve?
We would like others to know that NLP is a national leader in the effort to give the next generation the tools to combat misinformation and become informed participants in a democracy. We would welcome any opportunity to share with them how transformative and empowering our Checkology virtual classroom can be for students.
Selected Media Mentions
Profiles of NLP Founder Alan C. Miller
- February 2018: NLP’s 10-year anniversary video.
- January 2018: A Quartz video about aNew York City school where students are learning to discern fact from fiction using NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom went viral on social media.
- October 2017: “How Students Learned to Tell Fact From Falsehoods”: a video in which three Virginia high school students share what they learned from NLP at an NLP reception in Washington, D.C.
News Reports About NLP
- July 2018: The Rotarian — the monthly magazine of Rotary International, with a circulation of more than 400,000 — reported on a sixth-grade teacher in Chicago who uses our Checkology virtual classroom to teach news literacy skills.
- June 19, 2018: NLP’s Peter Adams, senior vice president of education, was interviewed by Courthouse News Service about a recent Pew Research Center report examining the difficulty people have in determining what is a factual statement and what is opinion.
- May 11, 2018: NLP founder and CEO Alan C. Miller told listeners of the Pew Charitable Trusts podcast After the Fact that news literacy is a “survival skill.”
- April 23-27, 2018: NLP’s director of partnerships, Damaso Reyes, took our message to the United Kingdom, where he addressed more than 300 students in hands-on lessons that left the teens “enthused and inspired.” The stops in Newcastle, Birmingham and Belfast were sponsored by the U.S. Embassy and Shout Out UK, an independent youth news and media platform.
- April 18, 2018: Voice of America, which broadcasts to millions of people worldwide, reported on a Virginia high school where the students, using the Checkology platform, are being pushed to think critically about what they’re reading, watching and hearing.
- April 3, 2018: Public radio’s Marketplace looked at the changing social media landscape and talked with Miller about what today’s teens need to know.
- March 27, 2018: The Washington Post’s education blog, The Answer Sheet, featured an interview with Miller in which he discussed “the need to restore a fact-based middle ground to the national conversation.”
- Feb 7, 2018: News Center Maine, the NBC affiliate in Portland, Maine, tested the virtual classroom on parents of teens to see if they could separate fact from fiction.
- Jan. 12, 2018: A column in The Boston Globe contending that young people are leading the charge in the fight against “fake news” and featuring two educators who have registered to use NLP’s Checkology®virtual classroom.
- Jan. 3, 2018: Quartz visited an eighth-grade classroom at George Jackson Academy in New York City to see Checkology in action (also a video).
- Nov. 6, 2017: Kim Lisagor Bisheff of MediaShift, a website exploring the intersection of media and technology, discussed the importance of teaching students to become responsible news consumers and cited NLP as a great resource for separating good journalism from bad.
- June 7, 2017: Wired reported on a Pennsylvania classroom that uses the Checkology virtual classroom.
- Jan. 23, 2017: NPR’s The 1A interviewed Miller, CNN’s Brian Stelter and The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan about “fake news” and what can be done about it.
- Dec. 22, 2016: NPR’s All Things Considered visited “The Classroom Where Fake News Fails.” (This report led to a 350 percent increase in registrations for the virtual classroom in the two weeks after it was broadcast.)
- Sept. 11, 2016: Margaret Sullivan, media columnist at The Washington Post, featured NLP in a column about the importance of — and need for — news literacy skills.
- April 23, 2013: The Chronicle of Philanthropy (PDF download) looked at the ways that nimble nonprofits, including NLP, managed to grow despite the recession that began in 2008 — the year NLP was founded.