Classroom Technology Q&A

For Ed-Tech Company Newsela, ‘Fake News’ a Big Challenge - and Opportunity

By Benjamin Herold — January 19, 2017 4 min read
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With 12 million registered users and counting, ed-tech startup Newsela is a major vehicle for connecting K-12 students to the news. Each day, classrooms using the platform receive a curated selection of articles from outlets like the Washington Post and The Guardian, edited to multiple reading levels.

So how is the New York City-based company experiencing the sudden proliferation of so-called “fake news?”

“This is a red-hot topic among teachers, who are often incredibly confused,” CEO Matthew Gross said in an interview. “It’s really come to a head recently, when you have the President-elect in a press conference saying that a reputable news source like CNN is ‘fake news.’”

Founded in 2012 and launched the following year, Newsela was quickly adopted by thousands of schools seeking digital tools to help students become better readers, especially of non-fiction. Gross said that from the beginning, his company’s mission—"to unlock the written word for everyone"—wasn’t just about basic literacy skills. The big goal is to develop media-literate critical thinkers, who can evaluate sources and gauge the reliability of information.

As the recent presidential campaign came to a head, though, the internet and social media seemed flooded with untrue, misleading, and often-outrageous content masquerading as legitimate news. So Newsela’s general emphasis on media literacy zeroed in on fake news.

Through a partnership with the American Press Institute, the company provided new lesson-planning resources for teachers. Newsela began offering a regular stream of legitimate news stories addressing various angles of the fake news phenomenon. A series of webinars—including one last night co-sponsored by the PBS NewsHour—has drawn thousands of teachers, who Gross describes as hungry to find and share new information and classroom strategies.

Clearly, there’s a business opportunity here for the company. Users can access Newsela articles for free, but the related resources and lesson plans come at a cost. Meeting teachers’ demands for classroom materials on fake news and media literacy is a way to attract more paying customers.

But given Newsela’s reach—and because the issue of fake news appears unlikely to go away any time soon—Gross has a unique vantage point on the challenges facing schools, the ed-tech sector, and news organizations alike.

Following is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

What type of news content does Newsela put in front of students and teachers?

We take content from engaging and trusted sources, including news organizations like the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and Scientific American. We then publish multiple articles online every single day, at five different reading levels.

When did the fake news problem first appear on your radar screen?

The focus on fake news really only became a thing for us last summer, during the presidential campaign.

But media literacy has always been important to us. And the fundamental skills you teach with media literacy are the same skills you use to identify fake news. The most important is to ask questions: Who is the author? Who is the publisher? What do they have to gain from the story being written the way it is?

So I’d say its really one and the same. Fake news is really a driver for the larger media literacy conversation.

How does Newsela as a company determine what is fake news?

We only partner with reputable, trusted sources with high journalistic standards.

What do you hear from teachers about how this phenomenon is affecting them?

This is a red-hot topic among teachers, who are often incredibly confused. It’s really come to a head recently, when you have the President-elect in a press conference saying that a reputable news source like CNN is fake news.

There’s nothing really good about fake news, but if there is one silver lining, it’s that teachers are rushing to seek out resources on media literacy.

What does it mean for Newsela when prominent public figures like President-elect Trump disparage established news sources?

The first thing we do is just publish on our platform news articles that report on the facts, like the fact that Donald Trump in a press conference claimed CNN is fake news. Those stories include rebuttals to that claim. Through that, I’d like to hope that students come to the conclusion that CNN is a reputable source.

As a company, do you take a stand on President-elect Trump’s claim?

Representing both the company and my own point of view, I will say that CNN is not a fake news source. It is a longstanding, reputable news source with high standards. You can say it may be slanted, like I’d argue virtually every publication is in some way. They may make a mistake that gets them in trouble in some instances. But to call CNN a fake-news source is probably out of bounds.

“Fake news” is quickly turning into a catch-all term used to dismiss any content someone doesn’t like or agree with. How does that affect Newsela and its decisions about what content to publish for schools?

It’s a complex issue. There are not a lot of simple solutions. Newsela will not always get it right. I guarantee there will be a day when we publish a partner’s article that contains information that is not true. The best we can do is police ourselves.

Is this an issue that should be legislated and regulated, as some states are now considering?

As a company, we don’t have a particular stance on legislation around fake news. There are First Amendment questions that go along with that. This is not a new problem. My hope is that teachers and schools will take a much closer look at the need to help students learn to validate sources.

Photo of Matthew Gross courtesy of Newsela.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.