To keep our democracy strong, we need to restore trust in news media

By ALEE QUICK
Civic Marketing Manager, News Literacy Project

Americans are politically polarized, cynical about long-respected institutions and disappointed with elected leaders at the local, state and national levels. What’s driving these trends? I believe a sweeping lack of trust is a significant factor.

Trust is an essential element to strong personal, professional and societal relationships. Without it, relationships break down, often with unfortunate consequences. Research bears this out. The 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer found that nearly six in 10 respondents automatically distrust something until they encounter evidence of its credibility. And nearly two thirds said we can no longer have constructive, civil discourse about important issues. The researchers noted, “when distrust is the default — we lack the ability to debate or collaborate.”

The public’s wariness is understandable and misinformation is a major factor. In the 2020 Northwestern University Medill Trust in U.S. News Media study, 82% of those surveyed expressed concern about discerning fact-based information from falsehoods. Three-quarters of respondents in the Edelman study worried about misinformation being used as a weapon.

News organizations and journalists are the focus of much cynicism. Trust in news fell in half the countries surveyed for the 2022 Reuters Institute Digital News Survey, with the U.S. at the bottom with just 26% of respondents trusting the news. And 46% of Edelman respondents found journalists credible, making them the least trusted of societal leaders in the report, barely ahead of government leaders, who gained the confidence of just 43% of respondents.

When trust waivers, so does democracy.

Once trust is gone, it’s tough to regain. But it’s critical that we all work to restore it. That’s because public trust and a news media industry that does its job well go hand in hand in protecting our democracy. That’s why my organization, the News Literacy Project (along with The E.W. Scripps Company), is focusing on trust in newsrooms and news coverage during our fourth annual National News Literacy Week (Jan. 23-27). News literacy is the ability to identify credible new sources so you know what information you can trust, share and act on.

The acceptance of facts is central to productive discourse and the functioning of our institutions. When we can’t agree on a common set of facts and credible sources, that cynicism cascades into distrust of institutions, decision-makers and governing bodies. The result is a weaker democracy.

Then there’s this: Distrust is simply bad for us. A 2021 study at the University of Bonn in Germany found that lack of trust in others is associated with chronic loneliness.

Restoring trust: It’s up to the press and the public.

Trust is a two-way street. To repair this credibility gap between the public and the press, both members of the media and news consumers must act.

News organizations must keep the public well-informed and cover the issues that communities care about most. Newsroom leaders need to clearly identify what is opinion, analysis, or straight news and explain how their newsroom decides what stories to cover and how to cover them.

Improving newsroom diversity is imperative to better reflect the community. While nobody is perfect, being transparent and fixing errors promptly and prominently goes a long way in maintaining credibility.

News consumers are the other half of the equation. We have responsibilities, too. Pay attention to what’s happening in your community. Subscribe to a local news outlet to ensure your town doesn’t become a “news desert.” Hold news organizations accountable. When they make a mistake or coverage falls short, call them on it. Be civically engaged. Learn about the issues important to you and vote.

Most importantly, become more news-literate.

News literacy is key.

What does it mean to be news-literate? This nonpartisan approach to media literacy teaches people how to think about news and other information, not what to think. It provides an understanding and appreciation of the First Amendment and the role of a free press in a democracy, and it emphasizes a healthy skepticism — not cynicism — about the information we encounter.

There are easy ways to learn the skills you need to navigate the news more confidently, protect yourself — and your friends and family — from being misled, and push back against the kind of false and misleading information that eats away at the public’s trust in news. You can learn how to identify credible news sources, spot red flags that often accompany misinformation, and build other news literacy skills at NewsLiteracyWeek.org.

Closing the credibility gap is crucial to the health of our democracy. Trust me on this.

Alee Quick is the civic marketing manager for the News Literacy Project and a former newspaper editor in Illinois. She may be reached at aquick@newslit.org.

NLP founder Alan Miller on avoiding the looming information dystopia

In a new and widely praised piece in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, News Literacy Project founder Alan Miller explores the many reasons for today’s information crisis and explains what everyone from journalists to educators and news consumers can do about it.

Miller describes how conspiratorial thinking and hoaxes have gone mainstream as trust in institutions has dropped precipitously, traditional media outlets have struggled financially, and social media platforms have become  a gathering place and megaphone for extremists.

He argues that without a shared foundation of facts, “we are on the path not only to an information dystopia, but very possibly to autocracy.”

Still, Miller finds cause for hope and outlines ways to push back against an information dystopia, including regulating social media platforms, doubling down on the tenets of credible journalism, and supporting news literacy education efforts.  The need is urgent, he writes.

“NLP is working to change the culture in ways like the evolution in attitudes about smoking, drunk driving, and littering. The difference is that it took a long time to achieve those societal shifts, and there isn’t much time,” Miller writes. “Democracy barely survived the stress test it underwent after the 2020 presidential election. America may not be so fortunate next time.”

Read the piece here.

A decade after Sandy Hook, progress through the pain

On Dec. 14, 2012, a gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. and, within minutes, ended the lives of 20 first-graders and six adults.

In the decade since that day, grieving families have had to contend with conspiracy theorists – egged on by “alt-right” radio host Alex Jones and others – who believe the shooting never happened and the victims never existed.

To help make sense of the incomprehensible need some people have to deny reality, and to learn how to successfully fight disinformation spreaders like Jones, I recently turned to New York Times feature writer Elizabeth Williamson, author of Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth. I also spoke with Lenny Pozner, whose six-year-old-son, Noah, died in the shooting and became a particular point of obsession for those who deny the tragedy.

Williamson and Pozner helped trace the origins of the mass delusions a dispiriting percentage of our fellow Americans now seem to be under, and detailed the emotional journey of what it takes to fight against conspiracy theories – and win gains. Surprisingly, these conversations also left me feeling hopeful about a future where we are all more responsible consumers of news and information.

What makes Jones so dangerous

Jones began denying the Sandy Hook shooting within hours through his widely popular broadcast. Shockingly, Williamson confirmed that even today, multiple credible surveys show that one in five Americans now believe all mass shootings are hoaxes.

Williams said Jones helped drive this through his broadcasts, which draw an audience of tens of millions of devoted fans. A few different elements make his messages particularly potent, dangerous – and lucrative. One key strategy, Williamson said, is that Jones taps into the strong sense of community among conspiracy theorists and uses that to mobilize people.

“He deputizes his audience to fight back. In the case of Sandy Hook, they did that with confrontation and with threats of violence,” she told me.

Along the way, Jones has profited handsomely, casting doubt on COVID –19 vaccines while selling quack cures, for example.

“He stokes all of these fears and then he is offering a product as a solution,” Williamson said.

Harm – and progress 

These examples show how conspiracy theories and hoaxes can end up affecting all of us. For Pozner, the force of mis- and disinformation consumed his whole life.

Immediately after the Sandy Hook shooting, online “hoaxers,” as Pozner calls the hordes of truth-deniers, questioned everything about Noah’s life and his death. Despite the emotional pain it caused him, Pozner dedicated himself to setting the record straight – from correcting seemingly small errors of fact on legacy news websites to tackling much larger conspiracy theories on social media sites and blogging platforms. For those efforts, Pozner’s family and other Sandy Hook victims received death threats sent to their homes.

In the face of immense loss, Pozner and the family members persevered in their defense of facts – and they have notched significant wins. Perhaps that’s why, even on this otherwise heart-wrenching anniversary of the shooting, I choose to see progress through the pain.

Jones recently lost three defamation lawsuits filed by victims’ family members and has been ordered to pay almost $1.5 billion in damages, with one more trial outstanding. Pozner – through the work of his nonprofit, the HONR network, and through the advocacy of others – has convinced major tech companies such as Facebook and WordPress to change their policies and terms of service to better protect the next of kin of major tragedies, and crack down on hate and harassment.

How to push back against conspiracies

But we can’t rely on the victims of tragedies to do this work alone, and certainly not while they are also grieving their losses. Ten years after Sandy Hook, they don’t have to.

Organizations like the News Literacy Project, where I work, are helping news consumers learn how to tell fact from fiction, identify credible sources, and actively push back against misinformation. Evidence increasingly suggests that these types of efforts can help inoculate people from being misled, which gives me hope.

We can all become news-literate and guard ourselves against conspiracy theories by understanding how they work. Be on the lookout for messages that push cynicism in institutions, connect random facts into supposedly meaningful patterns, and are impossible to prove no matter the evidence that’s presented. When you come across a strange or dark claim online, apply critical thinking and turn to a range of credible sources to help fact-check it

By practicing these skills, and encouraging others to do the same, we can create a movement in support of a more factual future. Let that also be a legacy of Sandy Hook.

Darragh Worland is the host of the News Literacy Project’s podcast, Is that a fact?, which recently released a two-part series about the Sandy Hook shooting and the conspiracy theories that followed.

NLP in the news this October: How to navigate elections misinformation, a spotlight on RumorGuard, pink slime everywhere

It’s fall during a busy elections cycle, which means everything tastes like pumpkin spice – with a big dash of misleading elections information and frustrating conversations about politics. NLP experts were quoted in a number of stories in which they not to only explained the big problems facing our electoral system, but also  offered some hope with useful advice and a new effort to teach people news literacy skills.

A headline in Mashable said NLP’s new RumorGuard learning platform could be “the winning tool in those frustrating Facebook fights.” A feature about the site launch describes RumorGuard as “a one-stop shop for misinformation debunking and a glimpse into the fact-checking process, on top of a library of authoritative tools to help individuals spot, verify, and fight against rapidly spreading misinformation themselves.” Alee Quick, our civic marketing manager, and Dan Evon, our lead writer for RumorGuard, provided insightful interviews for the piece.

In this Washington Post feature, John Silva, senior director of professional and community learning, offered tips for engaging in productive conversations about politics this holiday season. Included was this solid advice for why you should avoid debate at the Thanksgiving dinner table and take the conversation to another setting: “None of us want to feel humiliated… We want to provide a safe pathway for these people to acknowledge that they were manipulated.”

Jake Lloyd, who manages social media at NLP, outlined news literacy tips for voters in his home state, Michigan. In this op-ed published in the nonprofit news site Bridge Michigan, Lloyd assures voters: “Learning how to tell fact from fiction is a powerful and empowering way to avoid being fooled by election-related hoaxes and conspiracy theories, without having to rely on social media platforms or anyone else to sift out and label all the nonsense out there.”

In pieces for the Columbia Journalism Review and WIRED, Peter Adams, who heads research and design at NLP, offered insights into partisan-driven news sites and misleading “pink slime” publications attempting to sway elections. Of the pink slime strategy  in Illinois, Adams told CJR: “It has all the appearance and trappings of an official news organization, and it’s trying to hitch a ride off the credibility of newspapers built over time.”

NLP in the news this September: Misinformation in the classroom, the military and sports

This fall, experts at the News Literacy Project have been trusted sources to give guidance for best practices to teach news literacy, explain why certain communities are more vulnerable to mis- and dis-information, and share tips for finding and sharing credible news and information.

As more schools and educators see the need for incorporating news literacy into their classrooms, Peter Adams, who heads research and design, told The New York Times that it’s important to have best practices. Without them, Adams warned lessons could backfire. “Some methods have become entrenched in schools that almost imply that students should question everything they see with an equal amount of skepticism,” Adams said in the piece. “This can invite young people to conclude that all sources of information are equally suspect or, even worse, to inflame a kind of nihilism.”

Before coming to NLP, John Silva, our senior director of professional and community learning, served in the Marines. In this piece by The War Horse, Silva shares insight into why members of the military community are vulnerable to mis- and dis-information campaigns. “When we start to talk about these big things—like patriotism, like our respect and admiration for our troops and our veterans—there’s deep emotions there,” Silva says in the article. “It’s really hard to have a critical conversation.”

Misinformation is everywhere – even in your sports news and information. Mike Webb, our senior vice president of media and marketing and long-time Pittsburgh Steelers football fan, penned an opinion piece full of helpful news literacy tips. Webb writes about a “teachable moment” when he enthusiastically retweeted a claim about head coach Mike Tomlin, only to later discover the post may have been too good to be true. Read it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Using the news to develop students’ critical thinking

By Pamela Brunskill

Students today are immersed in a news and information landscape that pervades every aspect of their lives. From TikTok to Instagram to Twitter, they are inundated with posts, and many of them are not credible or legitimately grounded. It is difficult to know what is true. Because this environment is complex and riddled with misinformation, it provides a prime opportunity to authentically develop students’ critical thinking abilities.

Critical thinking defined

One of the most highly sought goals of educators is to get students to think critically. In a rough sense, this involves the skills and dispositions necessary to make an informed judgment. According to a meta-analysis on the subject, critical thinking is purposeful, methodical, and habitually inquisitive. Critical thinkers have the skills to interpret, analyze, and evaluate content; they are diligent and persistent in considering a question, and they approach life honestly and with an open mind.

While there is some debate whether the best approach to teaching critical thinking is through generic traits or through discipline-specific skills, a compromised approach allows students to develop both. If we follow the belief that students need context to accurately reason about a subject, then they must have some background knowledge in that subject. How else can they think critically about something? Further, how would that naive thinking compare to that of experts in the field? Regarding the news and information landscape, if students are going to think critically and be discerning with the content they share, then they must learn news literacy.

How to use news literacy to teach critical thinking

Step 1: Develop disciplinary literacy in the news

In an era of misinformation, students can evaluate information by learning how news is made. This includes explicit instruction in concepts and content such as identifying different types of information, recognizing the purpose or intent of pieces, understanding the watchdog role of the press, and recognizing quality arguments and evidence. It also includes explicit instruction of skills such as evaluating sources, identifying branded content, recognizing bias and motivated reasoning, and verifying evidence. Of course, students also need to demonstrate understanding of these concepts and practice these skills. In so doing, they gain disciplinary literacy, the notion of specialized reading practices for a field of study. Often, disciplinary literacy is framed as thinking like a mathematician, a historian, or a computer programmer. Regardless of the content area, students gain greater depth in their understanding of the underpinnings of that discipline. In this case, students learn to “think like a journalist.”

Example of developing disciplinary literacy: Jennifer Liang Twitter thread

Step 2: Teach topical content

Once students comprehend how news is made, they can deconstruct it and analyze its creation. But they also need the context surrounding the piece of news they’re reading and/or studying. To this end, teachers should provide explicit instruction in the topic at hand, whether it involves immigration, global warming, sports, health, statistics, or any other content area. This is where each discipline offers its own guidance, and as with all good teaching, this requires an effective approach to tackling reading comprehension. This might include studying vocabulary, writing about text through think sheets and short responses, and discussions, among other strategies. Then, students can explain a disciplinary concept such as immigration and explain why not all images of border walls are accurately portrayed in memes.

Why news literacy?

Of course, integrated studies between all subjects are possible, but there is a special partnership between English and social studies in relation to news literacy. The stakes are high: think about the consequences of misinformation as well as the potential for civic action. A lack of news literacy threatens democracy and our public health — just look at the conspiratorial thinking that led to the Capitol riots and erroneous claims about COVID-19. Conversely, when individuals have the competency to judge reliable and credible news, they can take civic action such as correcting a piece of misinformation, contacting elected officials, and participating responsibly in political discussions. Being accurately informed is crucial to participating in a democracy.

Example of disciplinary-specific content: Conspiratorial Thinking poster 

Critical thinking is critical in today’s world

Using the news in classrooms can authentically develop higher-level thinking skills and dispositions. Combining understanding of how journalism works along with topical content allows students to determine the credibility of information they encounter. This integration enables students to interpret, analyze, evaluate, explain, and make judgments — to think critically. By teaching news literacy, we can teach students the skills and habits of mind to not only navigate today’s information landscape, but also to navigate our society.

 

 

Avoid a Thanksgiving family feud: Make facts the main course

By John Silva

Mom’s cranberry sauce. Cousin Chris’s pumpkin pie. Uncle Frank’s insistence that COVID-19 vaccines are dangerous. Alas, the menu is set for another Thanksgiving dinner sure to cause indigestion. But wait! It doesn’t have to be that way. This year you can doctor the recipe for unrest by adding a crucial ingredient: facts.

If that sounds too good to be true, you are right. Pushing facts on relatives who have strong beliefs on an issue is unlikely to change their minds. The reality is that you can’t use facts and logic to change someone’s belief if it is based on misinformation and emotional reasoning. In fact, it might only deepen their conviction and turn a warm family sit-down into a frosty stalemate. The secret to success lies in knowing how and when to push back and with what information.

This year, try the PEP method if the conversation turns to wild and unproven conspiracy theories. PEP stands for patience, empathy and persistence – all of which are needed to help a conspiracy believer find their way back to the facts and reality.

We start with patience because your loved one probably didn’t become a conspiracist overnight. They likely got sucked into a rabbit hole while looking for legitimate information about the vaccines, but instead found themselves being served up misleading material. You can thank social media algorithms — a technical device that calculates what you are most likely to engage with and prioritizes it in your feed. For example, YouTube’s algorithms too often recommend, “harmful, debunked and inappropriate content,” according to a recent report by the Mozilla Foundation. As people go deeper into these conspiracies, it gets harder and harder to pull them out. So be prepared to listen to, and even be frustrated by, the answers they give when they share their sources. But don’t let those emotions stop you from trying to help.

Next, you should empathize with your friend or family member. Misinformation manipulates people’s emotions and when they fall into conspiratorial thinking, it’s often because they were trying to resolve an issue that was making them anxious. They are often drawn into online communities or social media groups that continually reinforce their belief and bring comfort in a shared identity. Once you step into Uncle Frank’s shoes, it might be easier to see why he dug into conspiratorial beliefs.

Persistence will take some time, but a steady dialogue is the best way to keep facts at the center of the conversation. Don’t reject the information your loved one shares out of hand. Instead, express your skepticism and provide a more reputable source. Make it conversational and anecdotal. Find out why they trust their source and focus on exchanging ideas, beliefs and information that match your common values. Don’t pester Uncle Frank into a fight. Instead, remember that you’re having this discussion out of love and respect for a family member, and not to deride or mock them. This step may not pay fast dividends, but it will set you up for future dialogue with your uncle because you’ve taken the time to build trust.

If he continues to push false information, don’t give up. You can still try to nudge him by talking about what you have read and learned. For example:

  • If he pulls up a meme on his phone stating that combined doses of COVID-19 vaccines have never been tested for safety, talk about how you looked up the claim on fact-checking sites such as Snopes or Politifact, which helped reassure you they are safe, and offer to show him how they’ve debunked this meme.
  • If Uncle Frank argues that the post must be credible because social media companies would never allow false health information to be shared, you can point to recent efforts by Facebook, Pinterest and other platforms to combat vaccine misinformation because they have allowed the sharing and amplification of so much false content for so long.
  • If he shows you an image of a child supposedly harmed by vaccines, express your own skepticism and show him how you use digital verification tools like Google’s reverse image search to reveal the actual source, context and validity of a photo.
  • Tell a story about how you verified something for yourself through “lateral reading” – looking at reporting on the issue across several different sources.

By the time everyone moves into the living room to watch football, you will have a better understanding of what caused Uncle Frank to go down a vaccine rabbit hole and you will have  empowered him to confidently examine the credibility of information he encounters. You may even bring him back to a fact-based reality.

Thanksgiving is not a holiday we should dread because of polarizing beliefs. Instead, we should enjoy our time together and learn how to avoid information indigestion by using the PEP method and giving thanks that facts can lead the way.

John Silva is the senior director of professional learning at the News Literacy Project and a National Board Certified teacher. 

News literacy works: Proving the doubters wrong and preserving democracy

By Alan C. Miller and Peter Adams

We stand forewarned: If America is to reverse its slide toward becoming an information dystopia, we must not only accept the responsibility of knowing what news and other information to trust, but we must provide the next generation with the means to do so as well.

Yet since the field of news literacy emerged 14 years ago, critics have questioned both its intent and its effectiveness. Among their concerns: How could this approach be shown to work? Was it a stalking horse for legacy media? Would it be dismissed by conservatives as inherently biased?

How can education help prevent people from being drawn into conspiracy theories that sway adherents not with facts, but with appeals to our emotions, cognitive biases and innate need for community and purpose?

Finally, would it breed cynicism rather than healthy skepticism?

We believe we can effectively answer those questions, based on our work at the News Literacy Project.

After launching in middle schools and high schools in 2009, our education nonprofit has moved to national scale with our Checkology virtual classroom. Nearly 300,000 students in schools across the country have used the online platform since 2016.

Demonstrable impact: Robust assessment data collected during the 2020-21 school year and analyzed by independent evaluators shows that Checkology works. Surveys of thousands of students taken before and after completing lessons reflect significant increases in their understanding of news media bias and in their ability to recognize the standards of quality journalism and credible information. Students also demonstrated increased knowledge of First Amendment freedoms and the watchdog role of the press.

Educators who use Checkology tell us they see the impact as well.

“Equipped with the language to discuss the news and current events analytically, my students now rely less on their emotions, more on reason and evidence,” said Bradley Bethel, an English teacher in Graham, North Carolina. “They have developed a shared set of norms for determining truth.”

Independence: Various news organizations and journalists, including digital-first outlets, partner with us. But we are independent of them in our resources and programs. In fact, in our Checkology lessons, newsletters and other content, we point out shortcomings in news coverage and encourage students and the public to use news literacy skills to hold news organizations accountable when they fall short of their standards. This year, we are creating a new lesson that explores the roots of distrust in news, including journalism’s historic failure to be diverse and inclusive in its newsrooms and coverage.

Nonpartisanship: Checkology is being used by educators in every state in the country, and 50 districts have recommended it to their teachers. This includes the nation’s largest in strongly blue New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago as well as those in deep red states like Alabama, Missouri and Texas. This is made possible by NLP’s rigorous nonpartisanship that is reflected in the platform as well as in our board, funders and public voice.

Combating misinformation: We are working to help people see the exploitative nature of misinformation — the way it preys on our most sacred values and beliefs, using our desire for equity or our patriotism, to bypass our rational defenses and hijack our civic voices. We are also inoculating against the allure of conspiracy theories by helping people recognize the cognitive biases and flawed reasoning they deploy and the serious damage they inflict.

Skepticism, not cynicism: We work hard to help young people understand that even the most credible sources of information make mistakes — and that they are committed to correcting them. Credible journalism has a concern for the truth and strives to be as fair and transparent as possible. It is vitally important to empower young people — and everyone else — to recognize and respond to problematic news coverage. But it is equally important that we recognize the value and credibility of quality, standards-based journalism compared with the rest of what we encounter online. No source of information is perfect, but that doesn’t mean that all sources are created equal.

Our experience has shown us the power of equipping young people with the knowledge, skills and mindsets to successfully navigate today’s information environment and become engaged and informed participants in the civic life of their communities and the country. We owe it to them, and to ourselves, to do the same.

Democracy just may depend on it.

(Alan C. Miller is the founder and CEO of the News Literacy Project and Peter Adams is senior vice president for education.)

 

NLP’s president writes, “For the sake of democracy, teach more civics in schools”

The News Literacy Project’s President and COO, Charles Salter, recently placed an opinion piece in The Cap Times, For the sake of democracy, teach more civics in schools:

“We must elevate social studies generally — and civics specifically — in our schools, and news literacy must be central to this curriculum. Why? We live in the most complex information landscape in human history, with disinformation being created more easily and spreading faster online than ever before. A 2019 study by the Stanford History Education Group found nearly 70% of students surveyed could not differentiate between news and advertising on a website. This problem continues into adulthood. And in 2018, the Pew Research Center reported that only 35% of adults surveyed could correctly tell the difference between opinion statements and fact-based news. We cannot hope for our democracy to continue unless citizens have the skills they need to sort fact from fiction — a prerequisite to being fully informed, equal participants in all aspects of the democratic process.”

To read the piece in full, click here.