On Jan. 7, the Associated Press published a story describing how a violent mob loyal to President Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol. The attack was a “stunning” attempt to overturn the recent presidential election, the AP wrote. It resulted in some of the most “jarring” scenes ever to unfold in a seat of U.S. power. The mob’s action prompted outrage, “mostly from Democrats, but from Republicans as well.”
But when tens of thousands of American students were assigned the story to read in school, they got a different version of events. An adapted version of the AP story distributed by the popular ed-tech company Newsela described the attack as “surprising,” resulting in “unusual” scenes that “prompted anger from both parties.”
The changes prompted sharp criticism from media literacy experts.
“The word ‘surprising’ disfigures the gravity of the event,” said Sam Wineburg, an education professor who founded the Stanford History Education Group. “This was an assault on the seat of American government. To sugarcoat it is to do an injustice to students’ understanding.”
Newsela, based in New York City, aggregates thousands of digital news articles, primary source documents, and other content for classroom use. The content is adapted to a variety of reading levels for students of different ages and skill levels. The company’s base of registered users includes more than 37 million students and 2.5 million teachers spanning 90 percent of U.S. schools. As of January 13, more than 170,000 students had accessed Newsela’s adaptations of the Associated Press article about the Capitol attack, according to a spokeswoman for the company.
The changes to the AP story were made by Newsela staff, not algorithms, said Jennifer Coogan, the company’s chief content officer.
“It’s really a collaboration of the two sides of our content team, editorial and instructional, to ensure the editorial integrity of a particular product, ensure its grade-level appropriateness, and to answer a question that hangs over us always: Does this help teachers?” Coogan said.
The Associated Press was not available to comment on the Newsela edits.
Newsela Attempts to Make the News Student-Friendly
Founded in 2013, Newsela now has content partnerships with more than 100 publishers, including Education Week. A company spokeswoman said daily-news providers within that group, including the Associated Press, have agreements with Newsela that allow the company to “level” their content.
In addition to the original version of the AP story on the Capitol insurrection, Newsela published for schools versions at six separate reading levels. Coogan said changes to the story were overseen by a Newsela executive editor who recently worked at the ABC News national desk.
One of the student-friendly versions of the AP story was labeled with a “Lexile level” of 840, according to MetaMetrics, a frequently used tool for measuring text complexity. According to Newsela’s standard, that roughly corresponds to a 5th grade reading level.
Many of the changes in this version of the story were intended to break up multi-clause sentences. Others sought to replace long or rarely used words with simpler and more familiar alternatives. The AP, for example, wrote:
“Trump spent the lead-up to the proceedings publicly hectoring Pence, who had a largely ceremonial role, to aid the effort to throw out the results.”
The Newsela adaptation read:
“Before the meeting, Trump had been publicly pressuring Pence. He told Pence to overturn the election results.”
In several places, the company also added additional context that was not included in the AP’s original story. Newsela’s 840L version, for example, included a definition of the word ‘mob’ (“a large crowd of people, especially one that is wild and uncontrolled and intent on causing trouble or violence.”) It also included descriptions of the vice president’s role in the Senate and how the Electoral College works.
In addition, Newsela’s student-friendly version of the story eliminated some sections of the AP original altogether. A paragraph describing the shooting death of one of the Capitol protestors was cut. So were quotes from U.S. Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.), who told the AP that “Donald Trump probably should be brought up on treason,” and U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who said “this violence was the inevitable and ugly outcome of the President’s addiction to constantly stoking division.”
Coogan described such changes as necessary to aid students’ comprehension. Journalists tend to assume significant background knowledge that many children lack, she said, and news copy can get “pretty Baroque,” making it more likely to confuse than inform a typical 5th grader. Reducing children’s anxiety and other social-emotional considerations also factor in to Newsela’s decision-making process.
“We do try to build in a tone that will be more reassuring to students,” Coogan said.
It was that impulse that media-literacy experts consulted by Education Week found concerning, at least when it came to altering specific words in a news story about an event of enormous political and historical significance.
The Associated Press, for example, wrote that some Republican lawmakers raised “objections” to the results of the 2020 presidential election. The Newsela version changed that word, so students read that some Republican lawmakers raised “problems” with the election results.
Peter Adams, the senior vice president for education at the nonprofit News Literacy Project, criticized the change.
“It legitimizes what we know to be baseless claims about election irregularities,” Adams said. “You have to be careful not to soften the unprecedented and dangerous nature of what happened.”
Providing Resources to Address the Racial Implications of the Insurrection
Coogan of Newsela said the company gives extra scrutiny to adaptations of sensitive and high-profile news stories. The AP story was adapted to more reading levels than is usual to make it more widely accessible, she said. There were also internal discussions about how to best provide context to help teachers and students address the racial disparities in policing made plain in law enforcement’s response to the insurrection.
“We all know there’s racial implications to this situation,” Coogan said. “We take that very seriously, because our user base is extremely diverse.”
Part of that effort was Newsela making the AP story available to schools as part of a “text set.” Titled “Conserving Democracy: The Importance of Learning Civics,” the collection of resources included links to four other stories, plus a series of discussion and writing prompts.
Teachers, for example, were encouraged to introduce the article with a quote from former President Ronald Reagan, then to prompt students to write about why the peaceful transfer of power is one of the most important aspects of democracy.
Newsela also provided teachers with guides for a series of activities titled “What Could Have Happened?” One was specifically related to race.
“The lack of aggressive police presence looked vastly different from the ways that law enforcement acted during the protests against police brutality in 2020. This has people thinking about race and how non-black people are treated differently than black, indigenous, people of color,” that activity guide reads. “If different actions were taken by law enforcement, how could protestors have been treated?”
In the days after the Capitol insurrection, some teachers and librarians took to social media to thank Newsela for making such resources available. (See Education Week’s coverage of how teachers around the country are helping students make sense of the attack.)
The media literacy experts consulted by Education Week, however, said the ways the company rewrote the first draft of history for the nation’s students must become a teachable moment in and of itself.
“This is a big deal,” said Wineburg of the Stanford History Education Group. “We shouldn’t be coming up with euphemisms, but instead allowing unprecedented events to shock us and make us understand where four years of downplaying a cascading flow of lies ultimately led.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 2021 edition of Education Week as From ‘Stunning’ to ‘Surprising’: How News of the Capitol Attack Was Repackaged for Schools