Upon Reflection: We need news literacy education to bolster democracy

This column is a periodic series of personal reflections on journalism, news literacy, education and related topics by NLP’s founder and CEO, Alan C. Miller. Columns are posted at 10 a.m. ET every other Thursday.

We live in what is often called the Information Age. We have a world of knowledge available to us, literally at our fingertips. This should be a Golden Age of Knowing.

Yet, as this week’s impeachment trial reflects, America now faces an epistemological crisis. And the stakes could not be higher.

Millions of Americans believe that November’s presidential election results did not represent the will of the people. Millions also believe that vaccines are unsafe amid a global pandemic, and that a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles (who include prominent Democratic politicians) is secretly running the country.

How did we get here? And, more important, what can be done to reinforce reality-based thinking before conspiratorial thinking opens the door to tyranny?

A decline in trust of institutions, including the media; hyperpartisanship and tribalism; and the spread of divisiveness and extremism on social media platforms have all contributed to this existential challenge. At the same time, the country’s fractured civic society reflects an educational failure — one that has been some time in the making.

“As the information system has become increasingly complex, competing demands and fiscal constraints on the education system have reduced the emphasis on civic education, media literacy and critical thinking,” the RAND Corporation’s Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael D. Rich noted in their 2018 report Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life.

I founded the News Literacy Project 13 years ago to help teach the next generation to recognize the difference between fact and fiction and to understand the role of the First Amendment and a free press in a democracy. I chose to focus on reaching teens as they form the reading, viewing and listening habits that will last a lifetime.

In the last dozen years, I have seen — and, more important, educators have seen — that teaching news literacy empowers young people to question what they are reading, watching and hearing; seek credible information; be more mindful about what they share; elevate reason over emotion, and gain a greater sense of civic engagement. This is evident in anecdotal experience as well as evaluation surveys.

In assessment results of students (primarily middle school and high school) who completed one or more lessons in our Checkology® virtual classroom during the 2019-20 school year, we saw substantial gains in the percentages who could:

  • Identify the standards or rules for news organizations and journalists to follow when reporting the news.
  • Express greater confidence that they could recognize pieces of online content as false.
  • Understand the watchdog role of a free press.
  • Appreciate the role and importance of the First Amendment in our democracy.

Students have told us for years what it means for them to learn how to navigate their way through what has become a daily deluge of news, opinion, entertainment, advertising, opinion, propaganda, raw information and even flat-out lies.

“I was just overwhelmed by how much information there was,” said Kristen Locker, who received her news literacy instruction at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers. “Checkology taught me for the first time how to sort through all this information. That kind of blew open the doors for me.”

Sophia Fiallo, a student at the Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria in New York City, said that before her news literacy training, she was “vulnerable to the spread of fake news” — but “thanks to Checkology, I’ve learned how to tell fact from fiction.”

Teachers also say that this skill is transformative for their students and their classrooms.

Nicole Finnesand, a middle school teacher in Colton, South Dakota, said that Checkology enabled her students, for the first time, to have civil discussions — ones that are not based on polarized opinions or on “arguments” published in The Onion, a satire site. “We get to use our class as a space to discuss ‘Well, what are the two sides? And how do we know what’s real and what’s not real?’”

Tracey Burger, a high school English teacher in Miami, said her students went from telling her that the Earth is flat to asking each other for verification of the information they share. Moreover, she added, they now “understand that theirs isn’t the only way to think.”

Suzanne, an English teacher in Connecticut whose students used Checkology prior to the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, said that because of what they learned, “we were able for the first time in five years of teaching to have a good conversation about current events in my room.” In her response to a recent survey, she described the discussion as “REALLY AMAZING as usually we avoid hot-button issues since they are more divisive, but news literacy takes all of that out and really just focused it in on things we can all agree on.” (Suzanne asked that her last name not be used because of her district’s policy on educator interviews.)

Here is the bottom line: Every state must adopt standards that include civics or media literacy courses, with lessons on determining whether what we are reading, watching and hearing is worthy of our trust. This essential life skill can help prevent our young people from becoming locked in echo chambers or lured down rabbit holes by online extremism.

Bradley Bethel, an English teacher in Graham, North Carolina, said his — and his students’ — experience with Checkology has reinforced the critical importance of this knowledge.

“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,” he said. “They have developed a shared set of norms for determining truth. If our students can bring that shared set of norms to our society more broadly, we might have a chance at renewing civility.”

Read more from this series:

Upon Reflection: 13 lessons from our first 13 years

This column is a periodic series of personal reflections on journalism, news literacy, education and related topics by NLP’s founder and CEO, Alan C. Miller. Columns are posted at 10 a.m. ET every other Thursday.

On Feb. 2, it will be exactly 13 years since I founded the News Literacy Project and helped launch the field of news literacy. Today, NLP is the nation’s leading provider of this vital critical-thinking skill. Our Checkology® virtual classroom has been used by educators throughout the United States and in scores of countries around the world.

This school year alone, we have reached more than 7,600 educators who teach more than 570,000 students. In addition to Checkology, they connect to us by subscribing to The Sift®, our weekly newsletter for educators, and by attending NewsLitCamp® and other professional development programs. We have also expanded our offerings to the general public, including a mobile app, Informable®; a podcast, Is That a Fact?; a weekly newsletter, Get Smart About News; and a specially designed version of Checkology. This week, we are partnering with The E.W. Scripps Co. on the second annual National News Literacy Week.

I started NLP after a 29-year career as a newspaper reporter. My learning curve was steep, and the lessons were hard-earned. Here are 13 — one for each year — that are most salient.

Be mission-driven: In founding NLP, I was inspired to address a growing societal challenge that I initially recognized through the experiences of my sixth-grade daughter and her classmates. I envisioned that journalists and the standards of quality journalism could be marshaled to tackle this problem. This passion sustained me through waves of uncertainty, skepticism and unanticipated challenges.

Don’t let the doubters deter you: How can you possibly teach students to know what news and other information to trust? How will you scale this? How will you sustain it? You will never get into schools! I heard a lot of this during the early years, when I constantly had to explain what news literacy was and why it mattered. I believed that funders and educators would ultimately see this skill as essential and that we would find a way to scale it through technology.

“Report the hell out of it”: That was the admonition of my first program officer, and I took it to heart, drawing on my years as an investigative journalist. During NLP’s first year, I spoke to more than 200 nonprofit leaders, educators, journalists, academicians and prospective board members and funders. They helped provide the road map that led to the creation of NLP’s initial team and curriculum.

Make educators your partners: My early hires were all educators. They included Bob Jervis, a sage social studies supervisor with whom I designed our foundational classroom program, and two people who are still with NLP a decade or more later: Peter Adams, the visionary behind all our subsequent educational resources, and Darragh Worland, a gifted digital media instructor and broadcast journalist. We told our classroom educators that we wanted them to be our partners and help us make our lessons better for their students and more useful for them. “Everyone comes in here and says this,” Gillian Smith, the then-principal of Facing History High School in New York City, one of our first pilot schools, told me. “But you meant it.”

Build a model board: From the start, our board of directors included distinguished, ethical and visionary leaders in journalism, education and business. I told the staff that if we lived up to the ideals they personified, we would be fine. Among them are some of the most renowned journalists of our time: John Carroll, my former editor at the Los Angeles Times; Gwen Ifill of PBS; and Walt Mossberg, the now-retired iconic tech columnist and conference producer. (John and Gwen were both on NLP’s board when we all lost them much too soon in 2015 and 2016, respectively.)

Move fast and make things: A year to the day after NLP’s founding, we kicked off our classroom program in an exceptional middle school in Brooklyn, New York. Eight months later, we were in schools in Bethesda, Maryland (where I live), and Chicago as well as New York City. In 2012 we launched a rudimentary digital unit; four years later, we released a full-blown virtual classroom. Not everything we tried worked, but we learned from our failures and moved forward relentlessly by building on our proven successes.

Bake assessment into your DNA: Assessment is an integral part of our work. We measure changes in students’ knowledge, attitudes and behavior after they complete our lessons, and we gather feedback from teachers. We use the results to see what is working and what we need to change. In 2013, Debra Blum of The Chronicle of Philanthropy wrote (PDF) that this was a key to our survival despite launching in the deepest recession of our lifetime. She was right.

You don’t get if you don’t ask: Rarely has a day gone by in the past 13 years when I have not asked somebody for something. It is often, but not solely, for money. I have also asked candidates to serve on our board or advisory committees; journalists to volunteer to go into classrooms, lead virtual lessons or speak at events; educators to adopt our curriculum or make it available to their teachers; and news organizations to endorse our work or host day-long professional development programs. I do so knowing that I’m not asking for me; I’m asking for the mission. For those who have said yes, you have our gratitude. For those who haven’t, it’s not too late!

Hire in haste, repent at leisure: We’ve never actually hired in haste — but in our early years, our vetting was occasionally less than rigorous. In some cases, people were hired for positions that turned out not to be a good fit, or we moved them into jobs for which they were ill-suited. In such a small organization, the hires that didn’t work out were draining and distracting, and the process of letting people go was demoralizing. Fortunately, such experiences are now well in our rear-view mirror.

Never let them see you sweat: The economy cratered in September 2008, just as our website went up and before we could even get our lessons into schools. At one point, my wife and I had to lend NLP money to make payroll. Again in 2016, we faced perilous times. Nobody wants to be the last one hired or the one to invest the last dollar, so we kept this close. By 2017, we had regained our financial footing and had even broken into popular culture as an answer on Jeopardy!. Looking back, I told the board, “It’s better to be on Jeopardy! than in jeopardy!”

“If you build it, they will come”: Creating NLP was a leap of faith for me. Creating Checkology was a leap of faith for NLP. Ready to move to national scale in 2015, we raised $250,000 and contracted with Actual Size, a branding and digital design agency. The firm partnered with our staff to build a cutting-edge, highly engaging virtual classroom. Our platform of dreams is being used nationwide, with the aspiration for future exponential growth. Now, we just have to “go the distance.”

Create a circle of virtue: Perhaps nothing has been more gratifying than seeing the expansion of a diverse and ever-widening circle of those drawn to our mission: Accomplished and engaged members of our board and National Leadership Council. Talented and committed staffers. Volunteer journalists and frontline educators. Generous donors who make our work possible. High-powered partners who help us expand our reach. We are constantly seeking new participants, partners and patrons. By reading this, you have taken the first step toward joining us — and helping us ensure that the future is founded on facts.

Read more from this series:

Upon Reflection: Media needs to get COVID-19 vaccine story right

This column is a periodic series of personal reflections on journalism, news literacy, education and related topics by NLP’s founder and CEO, Alan C. Miller.

When it comes to reporting on the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines, context is everything.

As millions of doses are injected into the arms of people around the world, adverse events are inevitable, even under the best of circumstances.

A small percentage of the population will have allergic reactions. Because the two vaccines now in use in the United States (from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna) are highly, but not completely, effective, some recipients may become infected with the virus. And some people who have been vaccinated will get sick — or even die — from unrelated, if coincidental, causes.

The media needs to be discerning about the vaccination-related events it reports, and how it does so. Above all, it must avoid sensationalizing such incidents, whether in news reports or on social media.

Read the full commentary on Poynter.org.

Read more in this series:

Upon Reflection: Journalism’s real ‘fake news’ also reflects its accountability

Note: This column is a periodic series of personal reflections on journalism, news literacy, education and related topics by NLP’s founder and CEO, Alan C. Miller. 

On Sept. 28, 1980, during the height of the drug epidemic in the nation’s capital, The Washington Post published a heart-rending profile of “Jimmy,” an 8-year-old heroin addict. It caused a national sensation.

Police and social workers launched a massive search for the boy, whose identity the paper refused to disclose. The following April, the reporter, Janet Cooke, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, journalism’s highest honor, for feature writing.

But her story was a lie. The boy was never found, and Cooke ultimately acknowledged that she had invented him. The Pulitzer committee withdrew the award — for the first time in the history of the prizes — and the Post published a voluminous report on its failure to catch the fabrication. Cooke resigned; her promising journalism career abruptly ended.

In the four subsequent decades, there have been other high-profile cases where journalists working for reputable news organizations made things up. They include fabulists whose names are synonymous with the cardinal sin of their craft Stephen Glass (PDF) of The New Republic, Jayson Blair of The New York Times and Jack Kelley of USA Today. More recently, NBC News’ Brian Williams was found to have embellished accounts of his derring-do as a reporter.

The consequences of these self-inflicted wounds were enormous not just for the perpetrators, but also for their news organizations. But the greatest damage was to the public’s trust in journalism. Cooke’s case, less than a decade after the Post’s triumphant Watergate reporting, first weakened that bond. The transgressions of Glass, Blair, Kelley and Williams further eroded it.

Nonetheless, as counterintuitive as it might sound, these iconic cases can, in fact, be viewed as a reason to trust journalism.

For one thing, there have been relatively few such scandals in the four decades since “Jimmy’s World” was published. For another, the news organizations took responsibility, acknowledged the damage, and published exhaustive investigations into how these lapses happened. Some of these breaches led to systemic institutional changes. And Cooke, Glass, Blair and Kelley have not worked in journalism again (we’ll return to Williams below).

Before and during his time as president, Donald Trump has insisted that critical news coverage is “fake news” and accused those who cover him of making things up, even as he has misled the public on a variety of topics — from silly ones (the size of the crowd at his inauguration) to matters with implications for public health (the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic) and for democracy itself (the outcome of last month’s presidential election).

Yes, there have been rare ethical lapses; I note a few below. But in contrast to the many purposely deceptive websites and some viral user-generated content on social media platforms — produced with no rigor, standards, accountability or transparency — quality journalists and news outlets do not make things up. Period.

To be sure, journalism is imperfect by its nature. Journalists make mistakes for a variety of reasons: the rush of deadlines, competitive pressure, sources who mislead or outright lie, honest errors. The truth often takes time to emerge. There is a reason that journalism is called “the first rough draft of history.”

Beyond the fabulists, there have been other high-profile, and even more damaging, cases, where news organizations retracted major stories that involved serious lapses in the vetting of sources and documents or deeply flawed reporting and editing. Glaring examples include CNN’s 1998 report on Operation Tailwind, charging that the U.S. military had used sarin, a deadly nerve gas, against American defectors during the Vietnam War, and a 2014 piece in Rolling Stone detailing an alleged rape at the University of Virginia.

In 2004, The New York Times produced a post-mortem of its Iraq reporting that was highly critical of its own credulous accounts of the existence of weapons of mass destruction — weapons that failed to materialize in Iraq and helped lead the U.S. into a prolonged and costly war. That same year, CBS News acknowledged that it was “a mistake” to have based a report about George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard on memos that it could not prove were authentic.

But here, too, internal inquiries followed, and careers — including those of prominent correspondents and senior news executives — were dashed or diminished.

In addition, many news organizations, including digital-only outlets like Vox and Axios, routinely publish corrections of factual errors, down to the misspelling of a name or an erroneous date. Some have ombudsman or a readers’ representative who responds to issues of accuracy and ethics. Many journalism organizations also have ethics codes (here, for example, is the Society of Professional Journalists’). This reflects the fact that reputable news organizations have standards; when those standards are violated, corrections and consequences follow — or at least they should.

You might ask yourself this question about any source of information that you trust: When was the last time it issued a correction?

I know something about this subject after 29 years as a newspaper reporter, most of them spent in the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times. I participated in the meticulous reporting, editing and vetting process that my colleagues and I brought to our work. This included high-stakes investigations involving the political campaigns and administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the U.S. Marine Corps and U-Haul. I sweated every word and every fact right up until the presses ran. My handful of corrections, most of them minor, sting to this day.

Admittedly, not all journalism transgressions and transgressors are created or treated equally.

Brian Williams shared false accounts of his reporting — both on the air and in interviews on late-night talk shows — when he was one of the most trusted names in journalism as the anchor of the NBC Nightly News. When these fabrications were disclosed in 2015, he was suspended for six months without pay. He returned to the air in September 2015 as a breaking news anchor on MSNBC; a year later, he was named the host of a newly created late-night news wrap-up on the cable network, The 11th Hour with Brian Williams a position he still holds.

Janet Cooke, the first Black woman to win a Pulitzer (before she lost it), is about to make a comeback of sorts as well: A Netflix film based on her story is in the works.

Jayson Blair, whose serial deceptions at The New York Times exposed shortcomings in internal safeguards at the paper and helped lead to the resignation of its two top editors in 2003, has had no such revival. “I still love journalism. I miss it,” he told students at Duke University in 2016. But, he added, “it just doesn’t work without the trust.”

Read more in this series:

Upon Reflection: Combating America’s alternative realities before it is too late

Note: This column is a periodic series of personal reflections on journalism, news literacy, education and related topics by NLP’s founder and CEO, Alan C. Miller. 

Donald Trump’s presidency began with the concept of alternative facts. It is ending with a country divided by alternative realities.

In the intervening years, the fault lines in America have deepened. They are defined by demographics and geography and partisanship. But they are driven by all of the information, including news, that we consume, share and act on.

When I was a reporter, journalists would bring out the old phrase “Facts are stubborn things” as an ironic way of complaining when an inconvenient fact proved to be the undoing of what would otherwise have been a good story. Today, it is opinions that are often impervious to facts.

For many, trust in institutions, including the media, has ruptured. Facts are no longer convincing; feelings hold sway, and conspiratorial thinking has moved into the mainstream. But don’t blame Donald Trump for this. While he has exploited and accelerated this erosion of fact-based reality, it didn’t start with him.

Nor is this tendency to disregard evidence and expertise a purely partisan exercise. The anti-vaxxer movement includes many progressives; in fact, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is one of its most prominent leaders.

Yet there is no doubt that the inclination to disregard credible sources and verifiable information in favor of unproven assertion and surreal supposition has intensified since Trump became president — aided by the right-wing media echo chamber and the cauldron of toxic misinformation on social media. Consider these three stunning developments this year alone:

  • Even as a global pandemic has resulted in almost 14 million cases of COVID-19 and more than 273,000 deaths in the United States alone, many people still believe that the disease is a hoax or has been exaggerated for nefarious purposes. A nurse in South Dakota recently told CNN that some of her patients, even as they got sicker and sicker, remained convinced that the virus was fake. Their dying words, she said, were, “This can’t be happening. It’s not real.”
  • The conspiratorial delusion known as QAnon holds that a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles — including prominent celebrities and Democratic politicians — are secretly running the government and engaging in child sex trafficking, and that Donald Trump is the only person who can stop them. Polls show that a growing number of Americans are open to this dangerous apocalyptic thinking, and two QAnon supporters— Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene and Colorado Republican Lauren Boebert — will be sworn in next month as members of the U.S. House of Representatives.
  • Trump has claimed, without producing any evidence, that he won the presidential election in a landslide and that it was stolen by Joe Biden through widescale fraud. Members of the president’s legal team — including his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani — have floated wild and baseless conspiracy theories involving living and dead Venezuelan leaders, a Canadian company that makes electronic voting machines and a computer server in Germany. Dozens of lawsuits filed by the Trump campaign in battleground states have been dismissed; Republican officials in those states have helped oversee recounts and certify the votes. Nevertheless, a Monmouth University survey found that 77% of Trump voters — that’s 56 million Americans — believe that Biden won through fraud.

It is now nearly impossible to avoid the contagion of viral rumors and corrosive mistrust. Before the election, my daughter said she heard that voting by mail “isn’t safe.” My mother said she was skeptical that Trump had really come down with COVID-19. And after the vote, my 6-year-old granddaughter said a classmate told her, “Biden cheated to win the election.” (Lyla said she set him straight.)

It’s time to confront this rising tide before it is too late. We just endured a stress test of democracy, and the guardrails held. But if we do not work together to assure a future founded on facts, we may not be as fortunate next time.

Here are some things that we can — and must — do now:

The news media: Double down on accuracy, verification, transparency and accountability. Call out lies. Avoid false balance. Be tough but fair in covering the Biden administration. Report on Trump as a political, legal and media story, but turn off your notifications of his tweets.

Cable news networks: Dial back on the partisanship and the chatter. Rachet up the reporting.

Social media companies: Consistently and vigorously enforce your community standards against hate speech and other language that incites violence and damages public health and democracy. Boot anyone who routinely violates them off your platform. Improve your algorithms to elevate credible information.

Congress: Sensibly regulate social media companies to ensure that they comply with their standards, protect consumer privacy and do not undermine democracy.

The Biden administration: Bring back the daily press briefings. Make Biden available through periodic news conferences and interviews with a wide range of outlets. Tell the truth. Do not repeat the Obama administration’s mistake of opposing the release of public information and cracking down on government leaks. Restore America’s place in the world as a leading proponent of press freedom.

The education system: Bring back civics lessons — including, as an essential component, teaching students how to separate fact from fiction and determine what information they can trust. Incorporate media literacy and news literacy programs across multiple disciplines in middle schools and high schools nationwide.

The public: Become more mindful about what you read, watch and hear; more skeptical of what you trust; and more responsible with what you share. Consume a varied news diet, and practice good information hygiene. Push back against misinformation, and reach out empathetically to those who are spreading it.

Facts: Hold on tight. You deserve at least a fighting chance. You are too important to fail.

Read more in this series:

Upon Reflection: ‘Kind of a miracle,’ kind of a mess and the case for election reform

Note: This column is a periodic series of personal reflections on journalism, news literacy, education and related topics by NLP’s founder and CEO, Alan C. Miller. 

Amid the chaos and controversy that has marred this post-election period, let’s take a moment to celebrate some things that went indisputably right in our recent rite of democracy:

  • During a devastating pandemic, more than 152 million Americans voted. This is a record and represents at least 64.4 percent of the voting-age population — which makes it the highest participation rate since at least 1908, when 65.4 percent of eligible voters cast ballots and Theodore Roosevelt was reelected president.
  • Despite embarrassing breakdowns and delays in various states during primaries, the process on Election Day went remarkably smoothly nationwide.
  • Fears of cyber-interference by Russia or others failed to materialize. The same was true of widespread voter harassment, voter intimidation or violence at polling places.

“This election was kind of a miracle,” Lawrence Norden, the director of the Election Reform Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said in an interview. “We had huge turnout during a pandemic and there really weren’t the kind of problems that we had in the past.”

“Voters were the heroes,” said Marcia Johnson-Blanco, co-director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. They made good use “of all opportunities to access the ballot.”

There were other civic heroes, too: the thousands of Americans who painstakingly counted ballots, many working long hours under intense scrutiny against the backdrop of sporadic protests and an escalating pandemic.

Of course, this success has been overshadowed by the excruciating counting of enough votes in a handful of battleground states to declare Joe Biden president-elect and by Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that, absent widespread voter fraud, he would have won a second term.

While Trump’s refusal to concede is extraordinary, the election process itself is playing out in constitutionally mandated ways. Votes continue to be counted, as states typically have two to three weeks after Election Day to certify their totals. Courts are hearing lawsuits filed by the Trump campaign in several states. (This year the deadline for lawsuit resolution and vote certification is Dec. 8 — six days before the Electoral College meets, as required by federal law.) Recounts, which are customary in extremely close contests, are expected in a few states, though they typically result in changes too marginal to reverse outcomes. On Nov. 10, The New York Times reported that election officials of both parties nationwide said they had seen “no evidence that fraud or other irregularities played a role in the outcome of the presidential race.”

Votes, like facts, are stubborn things.

The unfolding national civics lesson has underscored the reality that the patchwork nature of our decentralized election system causes confusion and sows the seeds for disinformation. Each state decides how, when and where voters can cast their ballots; whether technical mistakes by voters (such as forgetting to sign an envelope or submitting a signature that doesn’t match the one in the voter database) can be “cured” (or fixed); and when mail-in ballots can begin to be counted.

The most striking — and damaging — disparity involves the counting of mail-in votes. As it became clear that a record number of Americans (more than 65 million) would go this route in response to COVID-19, a number of states changed their laws to avoid long delays in determining the results by enabling “pre-canvassing” (opening and organizing ballots for processing) days, or even weeks, before Election Day. Some states permit these ballots to be counted when they are received (one is Florida, which permits counting as early as 40 days before Election Day).

As the president insisted for months, without evidence, that the growing number of mail-in ballots would invite fraud, Republican-controlled legislatures in three battleground states declined to make significant changes in their timetables for counting them. Michigan revised its law to permit counting in some jurisdictions to begin only the day before Election Day; Wisconsin and Pennsylvania refused to permit counting until Election Day itself.

Gene DiGirolamo, a Republican commissioner in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, warned in September that without pre-canvassing, “we’ll be forced to contend with a man-made disaster — one that easily could be avoided.”

Sure enough, Pennsylvania, with its crucial 20 electoral votes, experienced a tsunami of mail-in votes. Because no work on those ballots could begin until the polls closed, it wasn’t until Nov. 7 — four drama-filled days later — that the networks and The Associated Press had sufficient data to call the state for Biden. Moreover, since far more Republicans voted at the polls and far more Democrats voted by mail, Trump predictably jumped out to a wide early lead, only to see Biden close in day by day until overtaking him.

This shifting public tabulation opened the door to the perception (and claims by Trump and his allies) that something nefarious was afoot — that votes mailed before Election Day were being cast afterward, or that votes were suddenly being “found” or that a conspiracy was underway to “steal” the election. This took hold among Trump supporters even as poll watchers from both parties observed the counting and Republican officials, both state and local, in Pennsylvania, Georgia and elsewhere vouched for the integrity of the process and the validity of the outcomes.

The result was corrosive — and it threatens to undermine Biden’s legitimacy with a large segment of the electorate. A Politico/Morning Consult survey conducted Nov. 6-9 found that 70 percent of Republicans said the election was “definitely” or “probably” not free and fair, primarily due to their belief that there was widespread fraud in mail-in voting. By contrast, 90 percent of Democrats said the election was free and fair.

The Constitution’s Elections Clause, which describes the rules for elections to the Senate and the House of Representatives, allows states to set their own regulations for congressional elections but gives Congress the authority to “make or alter” those regulations as necessary.  Given the current changes in voting patterns and advances in technology, Congress may consider setting uniform national rules for processing and counting mail-in ballots, permitting early voting, setting the deadline for receiving ballots, and ensuring the ability to “cure” ballots that have technical errors. Congress could also provide funds to upgrade aging voting machines and improve the infrastructure for mail-in voting.

“Other democracies have figured out how to count all of the votes without distorting the results, frightening their voters or sowing discord,” Stephen I. Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, wrote in a Nov. 8 opinion column for The New York Times. “If the last week has taught us anything, it’s that the United States should do the same.”

Read more in this series:

Upon Reflection: High stakes for calling the election

Note: This is the third in a periodic series of personal reflections on journalism, news literacy, education and related topics by  NLP’s founder and CEO Alan C. Miller. 

As Election Day nears, Democrats are haunted by the media-driven sense of inevitability that Hillary Clinton was headed to a historic victory four years ago — until she wasn’t.

Voters may also recall television networks declaring Al Gore the winner in the battleground state of Florida in 2000 — only to rescind that call hours later. The next day, the networks prematurely called George W. Bush the winner — only to see the subsequent recount of Florida ballots stretch 37 days, until it was resolved in Bush’s favor by the Supreme Court.

This year, the landscape is far more complex and combustible than it was during those two hotly contested races. This is a watershed moment for American journalism — and particularly for the networks and The Associated Press, which also calls election outcomes. The stakes for democracy are sky-high.

In the face of commercial and competitive forces, it is imperative that anchors, reporters, producers, editors and news executives exercise restraint, precision and care with any results they project and races they call, and that they are open about their process for doing so. They need to provide contextual reporting and analysis, explaining that delay does not necessarily signal dysfunction and careful counting does not automatically suggest corruption. And they must prepare the public for a more protracted — yet constitutional — process for determining the outcome of this contest.

America is now far more polarized than it was in 2016, when Donald Trump lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College. Trust in institutions, including the news media, has declined. The country is restive amid a devastating pandemic, protests for racial justice and the growing power of baseless conspiracy theories.

Two factors could make projecting and counting this year’s balloting more challenging: historically high voter turnout and a record number of mail-in votes that, for the first time, may outnumber those cast in person. They also increase the prospect that the winner will not be known on Nov. 3.

Moreover, both parties have expressed doubts about the legitimacy of the process: Trump has repeated baseless charges that mail-in voting opens the door to widespread fraud, which his opponents say is intended to sow doubt if the president is declared the loser or faces that prospect when all the votes are counted. Democrats have expressed concerns about voter suppression and intimidation. Both issues are likely to be highly charged currents in the election narrative.

In preparing this column, I asked CNN, Fox News, NBC News, ABC News, CBS News and The Associated Press what they are doing differently this year. (Only CNN failed to respond.)

They said they are training, going through drills and preparing for myriad contingencies. They vowed to be deliberative, restrained and transparent about projecting and calling races. Some said they have expanded their teams and plan to tap more reporters on the ground in key states and more experts on American history, election law and constitutional law. Others promised new video walls, data visualization tools and augmented reality to help voters better understand the process.

In the aftermath of the 2016 embarrassment, at least some have upgraded their process for projecting results.

Two years ago, recognizing that voting patterns have changed, Fox News and The Associated Press collaborated with NORC — an independent research center at the University of Chicago — on a survey that Fox News calls Voter Analysis and the AP calls VoteCast. NORC describes it as “a probability-based state-by-state survey of registered voters combined with a large opt-in survey of Americans conducted online.” Fox says that this year, it will interview 100,000 voters and non-voters prior to, and on, Election Day; the AP says the sample size is “more than six times the size of the legacy exit poll.”

NBC News, which shares its data with MSNBC, says it will also rely on information from interviews with more than 100,000 voters that began on Oct. 13. It has expanded both its in-person early exit polls and its phone polling this year. CBS News says that it, too, will have surveyed 100,000 people from all 50 states by election night.

I recommend paying special attention to Fox News and the AP on election night. Given its influential and supportive coverage of Trump, particularly by its evening opinion hosts, Fox could play an outsize role. The Fox News decision desk, led by Arnon Mishkin, is widely respected for its professionalism and independence.

(You may recall the unusual scene on election night in 2012 when Mishkin stood his ground when GOP strategist Karl Rove insisted, on air, that Mishkin had called Ohio — and thereby the presidential race — too soon for President Obama.)

In its statement to me, Fox News described “the integrity of our Decision Desk” as “rock solid. We will call this presidential election carefully and accurately, relying on data and numbers.”

The AP is continuing its historic practice of not projecting winners; instead, it announces them only when it has determined there is no way for the trailing candidate to catch up. Notably, the wire service did not call Trump’s victory until 2:29 a.m. on election night in 2016 and did not call the race for either Gore or Bush in 2000 (or call a winner on election night in 2004 and 2012).

Lacking sufficient tallies and other information to declare an unofficial winner on election night, the networks will need to remind viewers that each state has deadlines for certifying their vote (typically two to three weeks after Election Day) and they have until Dec. 8 to settle post-election legal challenges. In addition, 21 states and the District of Columbia have automatic recounts if the margin of victory is below a certain number or percentage or if there is a tie.

“The networks are extremely aware of the many problems they might be confronting,” Jeff Greenfield, a longtime broadcast journalist and media analyst, told me. “Nobody in the media has any interest in throwing gasoline on a fire.”

For democracy’s sake, let’s hope he’s right.

Read more in this series:

Upon Reflection: In praise of investigative reporting

Note: This is the second in a periodic series of personal reflections on journalism, news literacy, education and related topics by  NLP’s founder and CEO Alan C. Miller. 

As news reports go, The New York Times’ lead story on Sept. 27 was a blockbuster: Donald Trump paid only $750 in federal income tax the year he won the presidency, $750 in federal income tax his first year in office, and “no income taxes at all in 10 of the previous 15 years — largely because he reported losing much more money than he made.”

I admired the way that Russ Buettner, Susanne Craig and Mike McIntire were able to make these assertions. The Times didn’t even feel the need to provide any attribution for those stunning findings in the story’s opening paragraphs.

That’s because this reporting was based on a trove of tax-return data for Trump and his companies that extended over more than two decades, as well as on other financial documents, legal filings and dozens of interviews. The three reporters, who collectively have decades of experience in unraveling complex financial and political dealings, have been investigating Trump’s finances for nearly four years.

Their efforts culminated in a classic piece of investigative journalism. It broke significant new ground on a subject of enormous public interest with authoritative, compelling and contextual reporting. It did not ask for the reader’s trust; instead, it earned it with detailed documentation. It pulled no punches in sharing its evidence-based findings — while also explaining what remains unknown about Trump’s assets.

The response was telling. A lawyer for the Trump Organization told the Times that the story was “inaccurate” but did not cite specifics. Trump called the report “fake news,” again without citing specific errors. In investigative journalism circles, this is called “a non-denial denial.”

I have a special appreciation for what it takes to do this kind of work. For most of my 29-year newspaper career, I was an investigative reporter. I considered it journalism’s highest calling. In some ways, even as newspapers fold and the number of journalists drops in the face of economic contraction, we are in a new golden age of investigative reporting. Yet amid all the attacks on journalism and the public’s declining trust in it, I believe that most people do not truly understand what it takes to do this work well — and the stakes and standards that lie at the heart of it.

In theory, all reporters should have the ability to do investigative work. Indeed, some of the most iconic investigations have arisen from resourceful beat reporting. But those who devote themselves exclusively to this kind of work — for instance, the members of Investigative Reporters & Editors — are often a different breed who march to a different beat.

They focus principally on corruption, waste, fraud, dishonesty and abuse, whether of human rights or of public trust. They tend to take longer and dig deeper, obtaining records (often through federal or state freedom of information requests), developing a network of inside and expert sources, and thoroughly mastering the subject at hand. Their work typically must endure a multi-layer editing process, often including a review by their publication’s lawyers.

Investigative reporters tend to regard whoever wields power as their primary target. Their north star is impact — to make a difference.

To succeed, their work must be beyond reproach. Most investigations contain hundreds of facts on which findings are based. The subject of such a report will look for any factual error, however inconsequential, to try to undermine the story’s credibility (“If they can’t get even that right, why would you trust their conclusions?”). The threat of a lawsuit, even prior to publication, may hang overhead as well.

In December 2002, following months of reporting, the Los Angeles Times published “The Vertical Vision,” a four-part series on the Marine Corps’ aviation program. My colleague Kevin Sack and I detailed how the Harrier jump jet, the first aircraft the Marines could call their own, had killed 45 pilots — including some of the Corps’ best — in 143 noncombat accidents since 1971, making it the most dangerous aircraft in the U.S. military for decades. We demonstrated that this was the first of three Marine aircraft that would prove to be deeply troubled, painting a portrait of an aviation program whose high cost in blood and treasure was not redeemed on the battlefield.

In our determination to be both fair and accurate, we took the unusual step of reading, word by word, a draft of the series to Marine Corps public affairs officials. In turn, as publication began, the Marines sent supporters a detailed description of what to expect and told them that if they could find any mistakes, however small, the Corps would pounce on those errors to discredit the entire report. (They found nothing. The series led to a congressional hearing and was awarded the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting.)

Investigative reporters must resist a particular kind of confirmation bias: falling in love with the story, or with the thesis behind an investigation. The best reporters follow where the evidence leads, rather than seeking documentation to support a desired conclusion. Failing to do so has consequences, as I discovered in my first journalism job at the Times Union in Albany, New York.

I made a critical mistake on an investigative piece about the city’s Democratic machine when I saw and reported what I expected — and, yes, hoped — to see in a legal document. “Always guard against your own assumptions,” my editor, Harry Rosenfeld, admonished me. (His words held special sway since he had been Bob Woodward’s and Carl Bernstein’s boss at The Washington Post during the Watergate investigation.) That — plus the ensuing Page One correction — proved a powerful lesson for an ambitious young reporter.

(This fealty to accuracy, as well as to accountability in the face of factual errors, stands in stark contrast to other types of content that masquerade as journalism — such as conspiracy theories, whose web of alleged insider information, sinister plots and Byzantine clues can take on the aura of reportorial revelation. But these delusions, which require their followers to suspend belief in reality, fall apart under scrutiny because they cannot be independently documented by credible sources.)

The high expectations placed on investigative reporters also put them under considerable pressure. Producing a series — or even a single story —  can take weeks or months, and that time is costly (especially amid tightening budgets). Sources can mislead. Tips don’t always pan out. And a newly discovered fact or document may undo those weeks or months of work by disproving or complicating an investigation’s underlying premise.

Yet overcoming such challenges makes the payoff all the more gratifying: landing an investigation that reveals wrongdoing, prompts public scrutiny, leads to reforms and has meaningful impact.

In early 2003, two months after our Harrier series appeared, a Marine Corps pilot stationed in Kuwait said this to a Los Angeles Times colleague: “Tell Alan Miller that he got it right.” As a result, he added, “Lives will be saved.”

Read more in this series:

Upon Reflection: How to spot and avoid spreading fake news

Cartoonist Walt Kelly coined the phrase "we have met the enemy and he is us" for an anti-pollution Earth Day poster in 1970 and used it again in an Earth Day cartoon in 1971. In the accompanying illustration, we’ve taken the liberty to apply it to today’s online pollution.

Cartoonist Walt Kelly coined the phrase “we have met the enemy and he is us” for an anti-pollution Earth Day poster in 1970 and used it again in an Earth Day cartoon in 1971. In the accompanying illustration, we’ve taken the liberty to apply it to today’s online pollution.

Note: This is the first in a periodic series of personal reflections on journalism, news literacy, education and related topics by  NLP’s founder and CEO Alan C. Miller. This initial piece was published in the Chicago Tribune on Sept. 28:

It’s time that we recognize one of the great challenges confronting our democracy: We are at an inflection point where facts may no longer continue to matter.

The notion of “alternative facts” is no longer so far-fetched. Emotions and opinions threaten to supplant evidence, and conspiracy theories and viral rumors can overwhelm reason. This is especially pernicious on social media — today’s no-holds-barred public square.

The corrosive threat of misinformation permeates every aspect of our civic life. It undercuts our ability to protect ourselves and others from COVID-19. It undermines trust in the news media and in our democratic institutions — and, in particular, the right of citizens to cast their ballots.

Indeed, with Election Day on Nov. 3 fast approaching, we’re being deluged with news reports, opinion columns and commentary, social media posts, images, videos and other communications about candidates, campaigns and the act of voting itself. But we don’t need to wait for the ballots to be counted to make one call: Much of what we’re reading, watching and hearing is not intended to inform us, or even persuade us. Instead, it’s created to misinform us, inflame us and divide us.

For the entire piece, please see Commentary: How to spot and avoid spreading fake news.

Read more from this series: