The Challenge of Teaching News Literacy
Today on the podcast we’re talking about news literacy, and the challenge of teaching students to navigate the relentless flow of information they get through social media and websites and YouTube and … podcasts.
What are the stakes of making sure the next generation can sort fact from propaganda or spin? Here’s how a 10th grader in Southern California puts it:
“If misinformation gets spread and if enough people believe it, it could cause problems and a lot of people will be confused about what’s true and what’s not true—it’s really important to know what facts are real.”
That’s Valeria Luquin, a 15-year-old who has recently gone through a journalism course that went over the basics of news literacy. The course used materials created by a nonprofit called the News Literacy Project, which provides a set of online materials and offers professional development for teachers.
Our guest today, Peter Adams, has years of experience working with students like Luquin, first as a classroom teacher, then as a college instructor, and currently as senior vice president for education at the News Literacy Project.
We talked about how to teach middle and high school students to sort through information, especially when all of us grown-ups have more and more trouble with it. And what is the biggest misconception that teachers have about how to make their students news literate?
If you want to catch Adams in person, he’ll be a speaker at the EdSurge Fusion conference in November, which aims to tell the stories of educators and highlight practices that work.
Listen to the discussion on this week’s EdSurge On Air podcast. You can follow the podcast on the Apple Podcast app, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music or wherever you listen. Or read a partial transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: It seems like it’s gotten harder to be news literate in recent years. Do you think that’s true? And what has changed?
Peter Adams: A lot. I mean, even from the time when I started teaching in the late ’90s, that was sort of early web, GeoCities websites and things like that. Really with the advent of the first iPhone, around 2006, everything changed, and social media really took off. Mobile technology and social media were the two big drivers of the changes we’re seeing. And yeah, I mean that’s just had a ripple effect. There’s so much more information being generated, a lot of it from phones, but also from people being able to post and publish on a whim and to share really easily. And so that’s led to all sorts of things, both positive but also challenging and in some cases negative.
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You have a ground-level view of students and how they consume media. What do you notice as far as how students are either perceiving media or consuming it or both?
YouTube and Snapchat and Instagram are huge platforms and places that teens naturally go. One misconception I think we see a lot is kind of alarmist coverage that, “Oh, teens are getting all their information from social media.” But I’m always sort of quick to point out that that’s not always a bad thing. It depends on who you like and follow. You can use Twitter, for example, to put yourself in the way of a lot of credible information every time you check your feed, it just depends on who you like and follow. The platforms themselves, they’re not neutral. They certainly have algorithms that are curating things for you and suggesting things for you, but you need to be aware of how they work. But you can also use them to encounter a lot of credible information, so it really depends.
The other thing I worry about when it comes to media literacy education broadly is that we teach students skepticism, but we don’t make them cynical. We don’t want students to think that all information is somehow out to manipulate them, that everything is tactical, every headline, every straight news piece wants something, has some ulterior motive because that’s really pushing them into a kind of disempowering cynicism, that opens them up to a lot of disinformation and conspiratorial thinking. And so I think helping students be skeptical and critical in ways that don’t tip over into that territory is something that we really work hard at.
What is the biggest misconception that teachers have that your group helps them understand about news literacy?
Teachers, like other members of the general public, often don’t understand how newsrooms operate. And like the general public, it’s pretty much not their fault. Because news outlets did a terrible job of explaining how they do what they do, of explaining their decision-making processes, of explaining standards, of explaining usage standards for example, or how they make news judgments to the public, until they needed to, and then it was too late.
They really learn a lot about things as fundamental as what the differences between a reporter and a columnist and how the rules shift. Or the fact that there’s a firewall between the business side of a newsroom’s operations and the editorial side, and that consumers need to watch for any sort of evidence that business interests have influenced coverage in some way, but that, that is an aspiration at a serious, legitimate news organization. And get to talk to journalists about their practices, how they report things.
One topic that we were talking about earlier that teachers always want to talk about is bias, but getting to actually talk to a reporter about how they think about the pursuit or aspiration to be objective, and to use a methodology to try to be as objective as possible in practice is really very helpful I think to help educators get a more nuanced understanding of the way journalism works, and that inevitably makes their way into the classroom.
The current president and other voices out there today sometimes vilify journalism. Is there anyone that pushes back on teaching news literacy, or the way you teach it? Has it become a political issue at all in the classroom?
Not really. We are really pretty rigorously nonpartisan. We’ve encountered shockingly few accusations of bias, but we’re very aware of the polarized moment in which we’re operating, and we are very careful to choose examples that help people understand the pitfalls and perils of the information landscape sort of across the political spectrum.
In tackling a topic like bias, we try to help students understand that partisan bias is just one type of bias that people allege. People are fond of saying this coverage leans left or leans right, but what does that really mean in practice and who decides? If I stripped away the branding from five straight news pieces from the same news cycle about the same topic, could you match them back up with their brands? Or is it much more complex and nuanced than you thought? And if we can get students wrestling with that, I mean if we can get students to say, “You know what, there’s a lot more to this than I thought when I started this,” then we’ve kind of won the day.
What would you say to a teacher who feels like they either don’t need some of your tools or the trainings you do. Why do you even need to teach news literacy?
So information is sort of the foundation of our society, right? It’s the very stuff of democracy. It’s the way people make decisions and the decisions they make determine their actions. And so if we don’t empower students to evaluate the quality and credibility of the information around them, again we are actively disempowering them or disabling them from making the best decisions for themselves, for their families, for their communities and for the country and the world. And not to mention, they are also grappling with the largest and most complex information landscape in human history. Not by a little bit, by many, many magnitudes.
There are a lot of powerful tools at their disposal. They can access a lot of … much more information than any other generation in history, but they also need the ability to not be exploited by the unprecedented amount of mis- and disinformation that’s out there seeking to harness their passions, exploit their values and manipulate them.
Do you feel like that is resonating with teachers and their students?
Absolutely. I mean it’s never a hard sell. When we do our [professional development] sessions, we get a lot of interest. People recognize that this is an issue that they need to pay attention to. A lot of teachers, a lot of educators have been working in this space or teaching some form of news or media or information literacy for a long time, but the landscape is shifting so quickly that even if you’ve been working with students around some of this stuff or working in the field for 10 years, you may not exactly know how to help them understand what computational propaganda is, what a bot might be, or how you could tell with what degree of certainty how they’re being deployed, how coordinated information influence campaigns work online and what some of the red flags are that you should watch out for. Stuff like that emerges and shifts on a near constant basis. Everybody’s talking about deepfakes in 2020, that’s not something we were talking about in 2016, maybe even in 2018. It’s all moving so quickly that teachers need a fighting chance to keep up, and that’s the role that we try to play.
Do you worry at all that it’s become too much of a burden for the news consumer? Is it too much to ask to do all this checking and analyzing to read the news, and maybe something more systemic needs to be done to address it at a different level?
Sure. I mean I think there’s lots of things that different players and institutions need to do, right? Journalism is changing dramatically and I think there are a lot of things news outlets need to do. They need to collaborate more with the communities they cover, clearly. They have big strides to make in terms of newsroom diversity. This we know, right? And they need to figure out how to operate in an attention economy, or how to sustain their business. Paywalls have some advantages and disadvantages. Digital ads have advantages and disadvantages, and it’s difficult. Consumers need to do some of the work of becoming more news literate and more aware and less vulnerable to misinformation.