This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Do facts matter? Are we in a post-truth society? The recent election saw the rise of so-called "fake news" and the realization that many people have a problem distinguishing credible news sources from those that are not.
And that especially includes young people. A recent study by Stanford University researchers found that "young and otherwise digital-savvy students can easily be duped," displaying a "dismaying inability … to reason about information they see on the Internet." The News Literacy Project, a national education nonprofit, works to combat this among middle and high school students with a virtual learning platform. Its mission is to make "news literacy" a core part of U.S. education, using a curriculum about how to evaluate sources and sort out fact from fiction. Since 2009, NLP has worked with more than 25,000 students in the Washington, D.C., region, New York City, Chicago, and Houston to teach them how to judge the credibility of what they read. The NLP’s new online lesson platform will be tested in Philadelphia and four other cities as part of a special pilot project, thanks to a $225,000 grant from the Knight Foundation. The pilot begins March 1 and runs through June 30. The project "welcomes the opportunity to provide students and teachers nationwide with a resource that can serve as an antidote to ‘fake news’ and other misinformation," said NLP president and founder Alan Miller, a former Los Angeles Times journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner. "Given our focus on the First Amendment and the role of a free press in a democracy, we are particularly pleased to bring our news literacy lessons to Philadelphia, the cradle of liberty." Philadelphia is also one of the cities that gets special attention from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation because the Inquirer was formerly owned by the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain. Jennifer Preston, the Knight Foundation’s vice president for journalism, said, “There is an urgent need to increase awareness about the essential role of quality journalism and a free press in a democracy, given the volume of misinformation streaming into social media feeds. The News Literacy Project will help young people identify trusted sources of information, ask critical questions about what they are reading and viewing, and engage them as full partners in building informed communities.” The News Literacy Project’s online platform uses professional journalists from leading publications and First Amendment experts as virtual teachers. Since its launch in May 2016, it has attracted more than 1,850 registered teachers who work with more than 195,000 students in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. The interest was largely ignited by a feature last month that ran on NPR’s All Things Considered called “The Classroom Where Fake News Fails.” The interactive lessons include such topics as assessing viral rumors, analyzing bias, and understanding how algorithms work to personalize search results. They also study the importance of the First Amendment and the watchdog role that a free press plays in a democracy. Students learn about case studies of groundbreaking investigations, including Watergate, and are asked to choose the top five news stories out of 20 potential items. One lesson asks them to craft a public service announcement to counteract a false viral rumor, and another shows them how to identify "branded content," which is essentially advertising that is made to look like a news story. The Stanford study found that students, including college students, were often unable to distinguish branded content from stories produced by journalists. The project gives students the chance to act as journalists through a simulation exercise about a breaking news event and to examine stories that evoked accusations of media bias while reflecting on their own biases. Educators who are interested in exploring the checkology™ virtual classroom can register for basic access at checkology.org/register and can apply for a special waiver for free student licenses and premium access under the Knight Foundation grant at thenewsliteracyproject.org/checkology.