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January 2012 | Volume 54 | Number 1

Believe It or Not

Teaching Students Critical Thinking Skills Using News Literacy
By Willona M. Sloan What is news? It's no longer accurate to simply define news as information that has been created, vetted, and disseminated by a traditional news agency or publisher. There's a lot of "news" floating around these days, and anyone with an Internet connection or a data plan can make it, break it, and share it. But, can there be too much of a good thing? While there's more information readily available at our fingertips, at least in the United States, the average person feels inundated by all the news. The Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism reports that 70 percent of Americans feel "overwhelmed rather than informed by the amount of news and information they see." And they don't always feel that this news is objective. According to the same study, 71 percent of Americans "now feel most news sources are biased in their coverage." It takes a lot of energy and background knowledge to wade through conjecture, lies, propaganda, bias, and bad reporting. But doing so requires one to have the ability to think critically, be skeptical of information, and ask questions about the information that is presented. News literacy, experts say, is more than just nice-to-have knowledge—it's actually a fundamental 21st century skill that all young people must develop to be engaged, active, and informed citizens.

Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University
Young people are "bombarded with blogs, tweets, rumors, gossip, opinion, punditry, hype, spin, bias, propaganda, and advertising," which all claim to be credible sources of information, says the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University's School of Journalism. So how can youth sort fact from fiction? By learning to think critically and ask the hard questions. The center defines "news literacy" as "the ability to use critical thinking skills to judge the reliability and credibility of news reports and news sources." Funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the center is committed to teaching news literacy to 10,000 undergraduates across academic disciplines. Also, with support from the Ford and McCormick Foundations, the center convened two national conferences on news literacy and launched a high school teacher training program. Established in 2007, the center was the first of its kind in the nation. The center operates on an open-source software model, meaning anyone who wants to teach this news literacy curriculum can have the entire course packet—including lectures, tests, homework prompts, and multimedia resources, says Dean Miller, director of the Center for News Literacy.

Educators can also sign up for The Feed, a weekly resource that updates the center's lectures and lessons, using news of the week. "This is critical to teaching the course. We feel that the oxygen of the course is fresh examples," says Miller. Currently, the center's curriculum is being used in a variety of ways at about 20 campuses around the world. There are also 85 trained high school teachers, working in more than 30 states, who have been trained at summer institutes at the center. Miller says he has heard examples of elementary school teachers adapting the curriculum for their young students, as well. "The way we structure the course is as a critical thinking course," says Miller. And, according to Miller, news literacy instruction aligns with the requirements of the new Common Core standards as well. "This is not a media literacy class. There's nothing wrong with media literacy but it's much broader in focus. The entire focus of this course is helping citizens find reliable information— actionable information—for their civic life. Information on which they can responsibly take action and make a decision. And, because of the new environment in which we live, information that they can responsibly share," says Miller. And while some schools haven't made a stand-alone news literacy course, Miller explains that teachers, professors, and specialists have adapted the center's curriculum by integrating its lessons across the content areas and using news literacy lessons to teach reading, research skills, social studies, history, science, and more. The center is at work on building a community of practice to show how educators are using the lessons in different ways. "Using the news to teach critical thinking has application in a lot of disciplines," says Miller, stressing how important this knowledge is. "We think these skills are the core competency for citizenship," says Miller. If you want to infuse news literacy lessons into your current curriculum, what can you do today? Sign up for The Feed and just "scavenge" the resources that the center has already curated, Miller suggests. To access the curriculum and to sign up for The Feed, send Dean Miller an e-mail with your request at dean.miller@stonybrook.edu. To learn more about the center, go to www.centerfornewsliteracy.org. You can also watch sessions from the center's News Literacy Conference at http://newsliteracyconference.com.

News Literacy Project
In the Youth Media Reporter article, "Can a Democracy Survive Without Reliable Information?," Alan Miller (no relation), a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, says, "Our culture of news and information has never been richer or more democratic—anyone with an Internet connection can contribute to the public conversation and dig deeply into complex topics. Citizens with little or no journalism training are now the gatekeepers of public information [and they] readily create, publish and disseminate information." Miller goes on to explain the complications: "Developments that make this digital media reality so full of potential also make it fraught. That's why news literacy training—as well as increasingly relevant youth media programs—are so vital."

Miller says that the experience of speaking to his daughter's 6th grade class about his career as an investigative journalist made him aware of a few concerns that had been nagging him. "At the time I was concerned about both how my daughter, who was then 12, was accessing and evaluating this tsunami of information from so many sources with such varying degrees of credibility, integrity, accountability, and transparency and also what was happening to the news industry itself." He decided to tap into his extensive network of journalists to create a program that could help students to think critically about the waves of information with which they were being inundated. Miller founded the News Literacy Project (NLP), an educational program that "mobilizes seasoned journalists to help middle school and high school students sort fact from fiction in the digital age." In a three-step process, the NLP teaches students critical-thinking skills that will "enable them to be smarter and more frequent consumers and creators of credible information across all media and platforms." NLP trains teachers, who work with NLP coordinators to develop lessons and activities to meet their students' news literacy needs. Next, based on the desired focus of the project, teachers invite journalists from NLP's stable of volunteers to make classroom presentations. Finally, students conclude the project by doing some reporting of their own by creating newspapers, videos, and audio reports that build and reflect on the program's essential questions. NLP, which was established three years ago, is working with more than 30 English, government, history, and humanities teachers to reach more than 2,000 students in more than 20 schools in New York City; Chicago; Bethesda, Md.; and Washington, DC. And almost 190 journalists have signed up to participate in the program. Why? "Journalists want to be involved because it's an opportunity to give back and share their expertise and experience with students and to give young people an appreciation of quality journalism, and, therefore, potentially to create a greater demand for it," says Miller. For now, NLP's ability to expand nationally is limited, but for teachers who want to impart these skills, Alan Miller suggests that they just get started. "There are teachable moments every day," he says. "I would encourage teachers to use the news media in their class in some way." Teachers should encourage students to be critical consumers—skeptical consumers, he advises—but in addition, students are also creators, and as such they should understand how to use information responsibly. "Whether they're texting or e-mailing or blogging, they are increasingly participating in a national, an international conversation," he says. As educators, it's important to show young people how to do this in a way that is responsible and credible, and in a way that makes their voices as influential as possible. For more info about NLP, go to www.thenewsliteracyproject.org. To watch student videos, go to http://www.youtube.com/user/NewsLiteracyProject. Watch the News Literacy Project's video, "How to Know What to Believe" to learn more about teaching students to separate fact from fiction.

Copyright © 2012 by ASCD