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Education Worldwide

Teaching Students to Distinguish Fact From Fiction

Promoting reading might just be the first step in literacy work. Learning to read – critically – might be the next crucial step as we all seem to be bombarded by news, information, opinions, advertisements, PR and misinformation many hours per day via websites, blogs, social networks, television, radio, print and other media.

After having given a speech to 175 U.S. students at Thomas W. Pyle Middle School in Bethesda, Maryland in 2006, Alan C. Miller thought about this issues. What kind of value does quality journalism have in a world where creating and consuming all kind of information has become easy for many parts of the population? Being an investigative journalist with the Los Angeles Times, he knew about the professional journalists' hard work to deliver non-biased, objective information to the public. He finally came to the conclusion that he and other journalists had to teach middle and high school students to distinguish fact from fiction, assessing the information sources they usually use in daily life. Miller decided to quit his job and founded the News Literacy Project in 2008.

The News Literacy Project staff matches volunteering active or retired journalists with a specific class and teacher. For example, journalists with a foreign correspondents background might deliver some lessons to a student class focused on international issues. The project is in touch with many accomplished journalists who have worked with established news organizations such as the New York Times, ABC News, CNN or the Washington Post.

The News Literacy Project helps the journalists with preparing the lessons with a curriculum and materials as well as encouraging a strong collaboration between the teacher and the journalist before entering the class. Journalists, of course, bring in their very own experiences, examples or project ideas to highlight or clarify specific points. An example would be Alicia Shepherd from National Public Radio. Before coming to school, she asked the students to gather information and find out everything about her. However, the students came up with wrong facts such as her street's name or her teaching experience.

News literacy lessons incorporate a variety of topics such as viral e-mail, Wikipedia, search engines, YouTube and the news, all accompanied by hands-on exercises, games, videos and the journalist's own experiences and stories. The journalist exemplifies how he gathers information, verifies facts, whom to trust and which sources he turns to for a story. The News Literacy Project also uses Skype to bring journalists in from around the world. It also organizes field trips to news organizations. However, the goal is never to educate new journalists, but to help students using their own incoming stream of information sensibly. Usually, there are about six to ten lessons for each class. After having attended a class, the student Lucy Cheng reports that she could better realize the impact of news on her life and knows better how to gather and assess her own stream of information.

23 news organizations such as the New York Times or USA Today are currently collaborating with the News Literacy Project. Participating schools are mainly located in New York and Chicago, but the program aims to work with institutions nationwide. Funding comes from news organizations, foundations, corporations as well as individuals donors.

(Image adapted from Wikimedia Commons. Photographer: Stefano Corso)