News You Can Use

By Josh Cohen — March 25, 2009 6 min read
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The average student is exposed to an enormous quantity of both good and bad information every day via Web sites, blogs, online news, television, radio, and even, on occasion, print media. At the same time, the journalism profession is in a state of crisis, facing declining readership and falling ad sales. Former Los Angeles Times investigative reporter Alan C. Miller hopes his News Literacy Project will have a positive impact on both problems.

Miller got the idea for the project in the spring of 2006 after giving a presentation on journalism to his daughter’s 6th grade class. The teacher and students’ enthusiastic response to the presentation prompted Miller to consider the wider impact he could have on young peoples’ news literacy.

“I had a growing concern about the state of the [news] industry. I had a growing concern about dropping readership,” said Miller. “I started thinking, maybe journalists could use their expertise to connect with the students like I had.”

Teacher Colin O’Brien talks about the NLP

The News Literacy Project aims to teach middle and high school students to distinguish between news, analysis, and opinion in order to be smarter media consumers and, in turn, become more engaged citizens. Active and retired journalists from major news organizations are volunteering their time to make presentations to students and work in conjunction with teachers in social studies, history, and English classrooms. Participating teachers and journalists use original curriculum materials developed by NLP’s Curriculum Developer, Bob Jervis, a former school social studies coordinator, in collaboration with Miller.

The NLP has gained support of prominent print and television news outlets such as The New York Times, ABC News, 60 Minutes, The Washington Post, and CNN. More than 75 journalists, from those organizations and more, have volunteered their time to assist with the project.

Getting the News

The NLP pilot program launched at Walt Whitman High school in Bethesda, Md., on February 26. It’s also running at a high school in Manhattan and middle school in Brooklyn. The launch at Walt Whitman High featured a school-wide assembly with an introduction by Miller and speeches by Time magazine political analyst Mark Halperin and ABC News senior Justice Department correspondent Pierre Thomas. The journalists discussed the importance of reading news to stay informed as citizens, of distinguishing news from opinion, and the need to create younger news consumers to save their industry from the financial collapse it’s currently facing.

Halperin summed up one of the big problems news consumers face today to the assembled students and teachers.

“The good news is, because of technology, news is so democratic. Anyone in this room with access to a computer can participate,” he said. “The bad news is that tons of access leads to less accurate information and makes it harder to tell good journalism from bad.”

Halperin also discussed the significance of journalism in a democratic society. The accurate reporting and information quality news outlets provide helps readers make more informed decisions as citizens.

“The idea is to get you to appreciate not just the importance of accurate news and information, but also the entertainment of it, the value of it to enrich your lives and to enrich you as citizens, to be more valuable and better informed,” said Halperin.

During his time at the lectern, Thomas gave more in-depth anecdotes about reporting after 9/11 and reporting on Washington Mutual’s corrupt financial practices to illustrate the lengths good journalists will go to do the story right.

“At its best journalism is public service, about serving and informing the public,” Thomas said, referring to how, following 9/11, he worked to be accurate in his reporting by using only his most trusted sources and fact checking everything before it was broadcast.

Thomas spoke about the deep pride and emotions he felt, about fighting back tears as he reported on 9/11.

“I don’t think we’ve done a great job of making people understand what goes into the job, and how we feel about the job, and the professionalism we try to have,” he said. “That’s why I think this program, that Alan has embarked on, is so, so critical.”

Reporters in the Classroom

The journalist-led classroom sessions began at Whitman one week later, on March 5, with journalists from USA Today and The New York Times. According to Miller, the journalists meet with members of the NLP in advance, and if possible, the classroom teacher, to discuss what material to cover with the students, how to present it, and examine the NLP curriculum materials.

“We distinguish ourselves from the career day presenters,” said Miller. “A lesson that comes out of this pilot is that the more coordination there was, the more successful it was.”

Tom Frank, USA Today homeland security reporter, led two morning class periods of 10th grade AP government. Frank used an anecdote about covering the 2006 West Virginia mining accident at the Sago mine that left 12 miners dead. He bounced ideas off the students, pretending that he was their editor and they were his staff.

“If you were writing this story, how would you get beyond the human interest story?” Mr. Frank asked the students. “How do you raise bigger questions?”

Frank explained how he used mine-safety inspection documents to carve out a bigger story about lax safety standards at the mines and lax inspection standards. The anecdote was meant to illustrate how to distinguish trustworthy sources in journalism.

“I don’t trust people. People can lie,” Frank said. “I trust documents.”

New York Times Washington bureau terrorism and national security reporter Eric Schmitt took a similar approach with the AP U.S. Government students he spoke to. Schmitt used exciting anecdotes from his career as a reporter to illustrate what goes on behind-the-scenes of a newspaper article and why certain stories are deemed important. He had just returned from Pakistan where he reported on a secret U.S. task force that was training Pakistani police and military.

Explaining why it’s important for U.S. citizens to know about a secret task force, he said, “The US has a history of small military involvement that ends up growing very large. Vietnam started small and got out of hand, as history has shown.” Schmitt has done extensive reporting on the Iraq war. He used stories about breaking the news of George W. Bush’s war plans, reporting his first hand experience from the “spider hole” Saddam Hussein was captured in, and being involved in a highway chase in Iraq worthy of a James Bond film.

“I thought it was a really great session in the sense that the students had good provocative questions,” said Schmitt after his teaching session. “They’d obviously been thinking through some of the same issues and dilemmas, issues like how credible our sources are, how do you corroborate information coming from different sources?”

Colin O’Brien, the AP Government teacher whose class Frank presented to, was enthusiastic about the impact of the program.

“The journalists really reinforced the importance of news literacy, shared interesting stories,” O’Brien wrote in an e-mail. “Student feedback has been very positive, and it’s a program I’m looking forward to next year.”

Going National

Miller hopes to eventually expand the NLP into a program with national reach, either in its current form or through new media and videos for in-class use in communities with less access to the wealth of journalists that cities like Washington and New York have.

“We’re working on the business model right now, looking at ways of having a wide-reach throughout the country,” he said. “We very much want to use new media, the Internet, and video to take advantage of the rich classroom portion and reach wider areas.”


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