NLP experts, educators speak with The 74 one year after Jan. 6 insurrection

As the anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection neared, the importance of combating misinformation and its real-world impacts were as relevant as ever. How would educators teach this topic now and in the future – particularly to young people who lived to witness it?

Many of the people who participated in the insurrection believed they were fighting to protect democracy. But due to a lack of evidence that the 2020 election was stolen, most of them were misled by misinformation. How does a democracy protect itself from self-destruction when its citizens can’t tell the difference between fact and fiction? It starts with news literacy.

The 74’s Jo Napolitano spoke with Peter Adams, NLP’s senior vice president of education, and Brian Winkel, an Iowa educator, about the importance of  news literacy skills and their approaches to teaching them in this difficult climate.

To read the full piece, click here.

Cover story features NLP’s founder, highlights his impact and future of the organization

The January 2022 cover story of The Beacon features the News Literacy Project’s very own founder and CEO, Alan C. Miller. The story highlight’s Miller’s recent acceptance of the 2022 AARP Purpose Prize, which celebrates people 50 and older who use their life experience to solve social problems. Miller received the prize in recognition of his work with NLP, which he founded in 2008.

“What I’ve done with the News Literacy Project is a second kind of calling,” Miller explained.

When asked about NLP’s future, Miller stated, “We feel a great sense of responsibility to move as quickly as we can to expand our reach and impact… There’s just so much more disinformation out there,” he said, especially during the pandemic. “The threat is so much more urgent now — to not only our public life, but to our public health.”

To read the full piece, click here.

As a mom and NLP supporter, Wyoming woman values news literacy

Charlotte KrughIn spring 2020, with the world in lockdown and pandemic misinformation surging, Brad and Charlotte Krugh of Jackson, Wyoming, turned to NLP’s Checkology® e-learning platform to augment their older daughter’s distance learning.

Julia, now in eighth grade and attending school in-person, no longer uses NLP resources. But the Krughs remain committed to news literacy education. Charlotte Krugh’s perspective comes from her dual roles as a parent and as an NLP supporter. Her family’s Fore River Foundation is a funder of NLP.

“I really wish more schools would provide these programs. I can talk until I’m blue in the face about it, but when the librarian, the social studies teacher and the language arts teacher say you need to check your sources and verify information, it gets the kids’ attention,” she said.

The Krughs’ younger daughter Eliza, now a sixth grader in middle school, clearly paid attention when peering over Julia’s shoulder. When Eliza is watching TV or online, “she’ll shout out ‘fake news’ whenever she sees anything that’s not true.”

News literacy a family value

Krugh’s family was in the newspaper business, which is why news literacy is a focus of the family foundation. The importance of literacy and access to credible news was instilled early in her and her siblings. “There was a lot of education around how to be a literate human being,” she said, explaining why news literacy is a focus of the family foundation. “It’s one of the ways we want to give back. We really believe that being informed citizens is essential to democracy.”

She doesn’t have to look far to see that people need better access to credible information. While Jackson has a small but well-supported local newspaper, it is the community’s only local news outlet. That’s why some residents turn to social media for their news. “Many older people in this area get all their news from Facebook. We can’t get access to major news sources unless we go online,” she said.

For Krugh, this is a good illustration of why readily accessible news literacy education is needed not only for students in the classroom, but also for adults dealing with a wide range of information sources..

Videos: News literacy’s impact at Iowa high school

Just weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic in April 2020, we spoke with Iowa high school teacher Brian Winkel, who was helping his students navigate a flood of misinformation about the virus. The school had transitioned to distance learning, and Winkel was glad he had already discovered NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom. A few years earlier, he had developed a course on media awareness called 21st Century Literacy, with the e-learning platform as an essential component of the curriculum. At the time, Winkel  told us Checkology was a “godsend.”

Inside an Iowa classroom

Educators and students returned to their classrooms at Cedar Falls High School this school year, and we recently caught up with Winkel and some of his students, creating videos of their lives in and out of school. Winkel told us why he believes news literacy remains so important to his students’ education and to their lives as they enter adulthood. “They have a hard time sorting out the truth,” he said of students when they begin his 21st Century Literacy course. “I do see a change with kids after they come up through this class. I feel like not only am I teaching this class; I’m training kids to make this democracy work.” Hear more about Winkel’s story in the video below.

Student perspectives on news literacy

Seniors Ande McMorris and Colin Seeks might have different interests and world views, but they agree on the value of becoming more news-literate. Ande, captain of the football team, told us he knows there is a great deal of misinformation on social media, and thanks to Winkel’s class, he now understands the harm it can do and is better able to recognize it when he sees it. Watch Ande’s video below to hear his story:

Colin, who loves working on cars, said Winkel’s class introduced him to news literacy concepts, and this has helped him better appreciate his First Amendment rights and the impact that his vote has in a democracy. Watch the video below to hear Colin’s story.

Cheeseburger, hockey game help students understand information ecosystem

We often use metaphors to describe the world of information that engulfs us — a landscape, a highway, an ecosystem. What about a cheeseburger, a hockey team, a solar system or a hibachi restaurant?

Those are among the “ecosystems” that seventh graders in Kenilworth, Illinois, chose as metaphors to describe major categories of information. Their work was part of a media literacy component in Jeff Rosen’s social studies class at the Joseph Sears School.

He uses NLP’s Checkology® lessons “InfoZones” and “Misinformation” to provide foundational news literacy concepts. Rosen asks students to reflect on their information habits and connect what they’ve learned to their lives.

“The purpose of the assignment is to challenge students to apply their understanding of the ‘InfoZones’ to a new context: selecting a system and its parts to represent the zones,” Rosen said. Those six categories are news, opinion, advertising, entertainment, raw information and misinformation. “By critically thinking about the ‘InfoZones’ in this way, students will be able to remember and understand them at a much deeper cognitive level.”

That’s where the cheeseburger, solar system and other analogies plucked from the students’ daily lives factor in.

Last year, Rosen asked students to create posters and write about what they learned, and he shared that work with NLP. This year he asked them to make videos for the Microsoft education platform Flipgrid. “The video component allows students to practice verbalizing their thoughts. It also increases student engagement by connecting the curriculum to something they do and see all the time in their lives outside of school,” Rosen explained.

‘InfoZones’ ecosystems

Consider the examples from the videos below.

  • The supply cart represents raw information in Noa Boeing’s hibachi restaurant ecosystem. “The supply cart holds all the necessary ingredients for a successful hibachi restaurant. The ingredients and supplies in the cart are unchanged until the chef decides to use them.”
  • Winston Ottsen selected the coach to illustrate the opinion zone in his hockey game ecosystem. “This symbol represents the InfoZone opinion because different coaches have different opinions on how to run the team, just like how opinion writers have different opinions on other topics.”
  • For Emily McMahon, a visit to the snack bar describes the purpose of advertising in her basketball game ecosystem. “During halftime people usually go to get snacks, and when you go to get snacks, they try to sell you other stuff than what you want.”
  • Whatever their systems, the students show a clear grasp of all zones and understand the dangers of misinformation. Sierra Jones’ solar system provides a powerful example. “My symbol for misinformation is a black hole. A black hole messes up the universe, and misinformation can mess up much more.” And Douw O’Kelly’s cheeseburger-based description of misinformation works by appealing to the senses. “The symbol I chose for misinformation is the onions, as it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. It also makes your eyes watery and your nose runny, the same way misinformation leaves a bad taste and gives you a blurry vision of the world around us.”

Watch a video compilation of all student work here. You can find topics inspired by Rosen’s “InfoZones” project on NLP’s Flipgrid partner page. Just pick a topic like “Zone experiment” or “Information ecosystems”

Accomplishing the learning objective

Combining Checkology lessons with the creativity of designing posters and making videos kept Rosen’s class highly engaged. “They connected the material to their own lives, realizing how much time they spend clicking on and seeing so much information every single day,” he said. “They also enjoyed merging the digital world of Flipgrid with creating a more traditional poster board with their hands.”

Students also gained insights into their own information consumption habits as they tracked their “InfoZones” usage. “They were genuinely surprised by how much entertainment they were viewing every day. And many of them acknowledged that they should spend more time on other ‘InfoZones,’ like news,” Rosen noted.

He said this project provides a multifaceted and meaningful way for students to grasp the topic. “I want my students to be able to distinguish the types of information they see, read, and scroll through every day, and this assignment is a tool to accomplish that objective.”

2021, the year in misinformation: News literacy takeaways

2021 marked another year of rapidly spreading misinformation following breaking news events, from the Jan. 6 attacks on the U.S. Capitol to the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines to the Biden presidency. Get ready for 2022 by reviewing our news literacy takeaways from the past 12 months. You’ll be prepared to recognize and debunk falsehoods, conspiracy theories and hoaxes in 2022, and know what information to trust, share and act on.

  1. Science misinformation

    No, vaccines don’t magnetize you, increase the risk of infertility, contain tracking devices, or cause cancer and HIV. But misinformation surrounding vaccines — along with other science-based topics like climate change — continued to deluge social media feeds throughout the year.

    News literacy takeaway: Turn to credible, authoritative sources to confirm or debunk science-related content, such as NLP’s COVID-19 resources page or reputable institutions like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And know that bad actors will even resort to cute cat videos as “engagement bait” to draw you to their sites and spread falsehoods.

  2. Protests and crowds

    Photos supposedly showing large crowds protesting or supporting controversial issues appeared frequently through the year in misleading ways. For example, this photo does not show a large crowd gathering in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 5, 2021, the day before a demonstration to support former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election ended in riots. Instead, it shows people participating in the “March for Our Lives” gun control demonstration in 2018. A photo of mass demonstrations in Moscow in 1991 circulated online as “evidence” of large crowds protesting COVID-19 restrictions and vaccine mandates in Austria in November 2021.

    New literacy takeaway: Using photos of large crowds in false contexts is a common disinformation tactic used to exaggerate the level of support for a cause. Do a reverse image search to help you find the original context of a photo.

  3. Jan. 6 rumors

    The attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 resulted in a stream of misleading social media posts, falsehoods, and conspiracy theories that began immediately after the riots and continued throughout the year. A fabricated tweet in October that was attributed to Republican U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene circulated online days after social media “sleuths” hatched a baseless conspiracy theory that she was the Capitol pipe bomber.

    News literacy takeaway: Conspiracy theorists often engage in motivated reasoning and confirmation bias to manufacture “evidence” for their beliefs. When you encounter a far-fetched or controversial claim, check to see if major fact-checking organizations have debunked it. Or go a step further and do your own research by practicing some basic digital verification skills, like reverse image search, lateral reading and other techniques that fact-checkers use to identify doctored images.

  4. Biden Presidency and QAnon

    QAnon followers continually promoted false claims that Former President Donald Trump actually won the election and President Joe Biden is either posing as president or is being played by a body double until Trump returns to power. In March, false claims spread on social media that video of Biden speaking to reporters at the White House was staged or manipulated using a green screen or computer-generated imagery.

    News literacy takeaway: Be aware that false claims about staged political events are often connected to dangerous and baseless QAnon beliefs. Find videos and posts that debunk the claims through a basic Google search.

  5. Misleading gas prices

    Misleading photos of unusually high gas prices have been used to try to score cheap partisan points online for years, and 2021 was no exception — particularly as prices rose from historic lows during the pandemic. A November photo from a station in Lancaster, California, displayed premium fuel costing nearly $9 per gallon. But the photo was taken out of context and did not reflect actual prices at the time. Other false and misleading examples can be found here, here and here.

  6. Empty supermarket shelves

    Supply chain problems in the news sparked numerous misleading social media posts, photos and videos, exaggerating the problem or falsely assigning blame. Posts featuring photos of empty supermarket shelves claimed that President Biden’s policies were responsible for food shortages. But the photos were used in false contexts. Some were taken in Australia and England. A photo of empty shelves in South Carolina was from 2018.

    News literacy takeaway: Viral rumors presenting photos of empty store shelves are common during disasters and other events that cause disruptions in the supply chain. Be wary of such photos and seek out trusted, standards-based news sources for accurate coverage of supply chain issues.

  7. Staged skits out of context

    Faked scenarios tied to real events and aimed at building followers on TikTok and other platforms continued as a trend. A video from November that appeared to capture a conflict among crew members on a commercial flight and a passenger demanding a seat change after another passenger refused to show proof of vaccination was actually staged for a short film.

    News literacy takeaway: This film was produced by a social media influencer with a history of creating films designed to go viral. Such videos often are published without disclosures that they’ve been staged. These videos can seem authentic at first because there are genuine cellphone videos of fights over COVID-19 rules on planes. Search online to see if a video has been debunked; the fact-checking site HoaxEye found selfies posted by the film’s creators.

  8. Vaccine harm claims

    Each development in the COVID-19 vaccines rollout — from approval by the Food and Drug Administration, to private company mandates, to the inclusion of shots for children — has sparked viral rumors. As the year began, celebrity deaths, like that of baseball icon and civil rights activist Hank Aaron, also were immediately and falsely tied to vaccines. Rather, Aaron died of natural causes at the age of 86 on Jan. 22.

    In November, a photo of a vaccination clinic in Foxborough, Massachusetts, was digitally altered to push an anti-vaccine narrative. Text in a sign in the photo said that COVID-19 vaccines were available without an appointment — but was changed to read “Don’t forget to donate your childrens (cq) organs.”

    News literacy takeaway: Many claims of vaccine harm involve sheer assertion and false context. Text on signs, for example, is easy to alter with photo manipulation software and is a common target of bad actors online. Check credible sources regarding the accuracy of any claims regarding vaccine harm, including those that tie deaths or injuries to vaccines. See our lateral reading guide for more tips.

  9. Celebrity t-shirts

    Doctored images of celebrities wearing t-shirts with provocative slogans were shared widely … again. This post featured George Clooney with a shirt that compared MAGA supporters to Confederates and Nazis. Another showed Captain America actor Chris Evans wearing an anti-Trump shirt. But in both cases the political messages had been digitally added, and the original photo of Clooney was taken in 2015.

    News literacy takeaway: Printed messages, including those on t-shirts, are particularly easy to alter and should always be approached with skepticism — especially when they spark a strong emotion or confirm your biases. Also, many of the provocative t-shirt designs that have been digitally added to celebrity photos were created for profit and sold online.

  10. Outrage bait

    Posts and tweets designed to evoke strong emotional reactions remained a fixture on social media. A tweet took a statement from Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis about COVID-19 vaccine mandates out of context to falsely push the claim that Florida schools will no longer require any vaccinations, even for polio, measles and mumps. Critics of vaccine mandates seized on the cancellation of thousands of Southwest Airlines flights in early October to spread baseless rumors that the service disruptions were due to pilots and crews refusing to work to protest the policy.

    News literacy takeaway: Outrage and anger drive engagement on social media. Users casually scrolling through their feeds may react without pausing long enough to figure out a tweet like this was inaccurate, especially if they have strong feelings about the topic. DeSantis said only that there would be no mandate for children to get the COVID-19 vaccine. The Southwest cancellations were due to air traffic control issues and bad weather. Follow our “Sanitize before you share” infographic to help you avoid unintentionally spreading misinformation.

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 Ambassador program welcomes five new members

After a successful launch in October 2020, NLP is expanding its News Literacy Ambassador Program, extending our reach and strengthening our progress toward embedding news literacy in the American education system.

“Through a rigorous process of identifying educators in key states across the country, we’re pleased to announce this incredible group of news literacy advocates who are leading the charge to ensure that students are well-informed and engaged civic participants in their communities,” said Ebonee Rice, senior vice president, educator network.

Ambassadors work at the grassroots level in their communities, organizing colleagues and allies to help push back against misinformation and advocate for news literacy. Meet our new ambassadors below and learn more about all of them in NewsLit Nation.

Deborah Domingues-Murphy

After her children left for college, Domingues-Murphy went back to school to earn a teaching degree, becoming certified as a business and technology teacher and a library media specialist. Originally from Southern California, she lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and has been teaching at City Charter High School in downtown Pittsburgh for 12 years. Because her school does not have a library, she teaches a four-year information literacy curriculum, working with students from the time they enter ninth grade through graduation. She teaches them to evaluate the reliability of sources and how to responsibly use those sources and the information they provide. They also write literature reviews, apply their research to a local topic and present their findings to a panel of community members. When not teaching, Domingues-Murphy likes to travel, read and cook. 

Amanda Escheman

A native of Colorado, Escheman teaches 9th grade geography at Abraham Lincoln High School in Denver. She has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy with a minor in religion from the University of Colorado at Boulder. In 2019, she received her master’s degree in education and human development from the University of Colorado at Denver and began her career as an English and social studies teacher. Her desire to become a teacher is rooted in her experiences as a speech and debate competitor in high school. Escheman believes news literacy can be a tool for transformation and social change and must be prioritized to democratize online spaces and encourage civic participation. Escheman is a member of the One Colorado LGBTQ+ network and regularly advocates for more inclusive space in public schools. She has served as an equity and diversity liaison and member of the LGBTQ+ employee workgroup and on the Community Diversity Advisory Council.

Jill Hofmockel

Hofmockel brings more than 20 years of experience in school libraries to her position as the teacher-librarian at West High School in Iowa City, Iowa. She has a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in library and information science. A longtime member of the Iowa Association of School Librarians, Hofmockel has served as a committee chair, board member and president, as well as a liaison to the American Association of School Librarians Affiliate Assembly. She is committed to incorporating information literacy skills throughout the school’s curriculum, with a special emphasis on news literacy. Outside of the classroom, Hofmockel coaches her son’s high school esports team and enjoys sharing a cup of tea with her daughter.

Debbie Keen

Keen is a high school teacher at the Career and Technical Education Center in Frisco, Texas, specializing in courses for students interested in pursuing careers in law or public service. She has a bachelor’s degree in political science and promotes civics education in classrooms across the country. Keen has presented teacher workshops to such groups as the State Bar of Texas Law-Related Education, the American Board of Trial Advocates and The Center for American and International Law. In 2018, Keen founded the Youth Safety and Civility Alliance to promote civil discourse and conflict resolution strategies for young people. The American Lawyers Alliance selected her for a 2020 Teacher of the Year Award. In her free time, she enjoys traveling and learning alongside other creative teachers.

Molly June Roquet

Head librarian at Redwood Day, an independent K-8 school in Oakland, California, Roquet has been a middle school history teacher and a public librarian. She has a bachelor’s degree in history from San Francisco State University and a master’s degree in library and information science from Wayne State University. Roquet has presented at the American Library Association and California Library Association annual conferences and has written for the publications Computers in Libraries and Information Today. Roquet is excited about the opportunity to collaborate with others as an NLP ambassador.

Annual report: Current events validate our work, inspire our growth

This week, we’re releasing our annual report for fiscal year 2021 (July 2020-June 2021). It’s a summary of our many accomplishments working in classrooms, with new partners, and for the public. We found creative ways to fulfill our mission and make substantial progress toward a future founded on facts. Many challenges remain ahead, but with your continued support, we can make our vision of a news-literate next generation a reality.

Read the report here.

By Greg McCaffery and Alan C. Miller

Current events continue to underscore that news literacy education is essential for the future of a healthy democracy.

For too many, trust in institutions, including the media, has ruptured. They no longer find facts convincing; feelings hold sway, and conspiratorial thinking has moved into the mainstream. The voting rights of all our citizens and the sanctity of our election system face ongoing threats. We’ve seen renewed evidence of the role of Facebook and other social media platforms in exacerbating political polarization and extremism. We are enduring a stress test of our democracy that has continued throughout the pandemic, the 2020 presidential election and the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

We recognized in early 2020 that misinformation poses such an existential threat to our democracy that we needed to extend our reach beyond students to all generations. We developed new resources for the public and launched a comprehensive campaign to combat election misinformation during the 2020 election, including a series of public service announcements in English and Spanish. We also hosted the inaugural season of our podcast, Is that a fact?, which explored the question, “How can American democracy survive and thrive in our toxic information environment?”

At the same time, we made great progress on the education front. During the 2020-21 school year, we reached more students and educators than at any other point in NLP’s history, with over 108,000 students active on Checkology® and more than 13,000 educators across the country using our resources. We enhanced our support of educators by creating additional professional learning opportunities and opening our virtual NewsLitCamp® events to participants nationwide. We also launched NewsLit Nation, our 48,000-plus member network for educators, and our News Literacy Ambassador Program, which supports grassroots community organizing efforts for news literacy education.

You helped make all this progress possible. We hope that as you read this annual report, you’ll take pride in these accomplishments.

But we still have much work to do.

The country is deeply divided along partisan lines and separated into media echo chambers. News literacy education is one key to bridging this divide. We all need the skills to know what news and information to trust, share and act on. Our democracy depends on our collective engagement in the pursuit of a fact-based future.

Thank you for joining us in our fight for a future founded on facts.

NLPeople: Eryn Busch, executive and board liaison, Washington, D.C.

1. Can you tell us a little about your background and what brought you to NLP?

In sixth grade, my principal brought various speakers in to inspire us to think about our future careers, what we wanted to contribute to society and why we should already be worried about the value of compound interest. The most compelling of the speakers was a man named Faustin Uzabakiliho, who spoke to us about his escape from the Rwandan genocide and his subsequent work as an evangelist. I’ll never forget him telling us that, most likely, the job we were going to have someday had not even been invented yet, and neither had the company we’d be working for. He encouraged us to dream big, generalize and never pass up an opportunity to serve. So, I took his advice. I joined the Army after high school and took a circuitous route through all manner of adventures and failures to what has been a very fulfilling four years at NLP. I’ve also dabbled in phlebotomy, private security for a royal family, gun sales and voice acting.

 

2. How (if so) has working for NLP impacted your life or changed your world perspective?

My pre-internet upbringing in the foothills of Los Angeles was far removed from a lot of the painful realities of how the American experience has not offered equal opportunity for everyone. But in 2019, we as a staff had the opportunity to travel to Montgomery, Alabama, to tour the Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice (projects of the Equal Justice Initiative). My words can’t do the experience justice, but I think of that trip as the beginning of my reeducation. Every single day I think about that trip and what I learned. I now quietly seek out literature, creators and nonprofits that build on that experience, and I plan to take my daughter when she’s old enough to see it for her own eyes.

3. You served in Iraq as a Civil Affairs Sergeant with the U.S. Army during a surge in operations, and back home, as an assistant to senior White House officials. Have those experiences impacted how you approach your work at NLP and your life?

Well, I’m still very tired from those adventures, I’ll say that. But I’m also very fulfilled because working at NLP is a natural extension of working in public service. A couple years before joining NLP, my life was turned upside down overnight by a conspiracy theory. People online picked apart as much of my life as they could, including my military service and my time at the White House, concocting stories about me from the wildly fantastical to the truly dark and traitorous. They almost made me feel that my service was forfeited. I had to change my phone number and then my name, and there were regular attempts to steal my old identity. My family and I seriously considered moving, and my heartbeat would quicken when I would see an unexpected package on my stoop (and admittedly, this still happens). So, when I saw that NLP was hiring for my exact skill set, I jumped at the chance to join the fight for facts because I have been on the other side of misinformation, and I’ve seen how it can do permanent damage. Working at NLP gives me a sense that I’m helping prevent this from happening to others. As with my work in the Army and at the White House, doing the right thing or preventing the wrong thing from happening doesn’t usually make the headlines. That’s hard to remember every time we see a headline about the damage misinformation does, but there won’t be a headline for the chaos our work is preventing, nor for the lives I truly believe we are saving.

4. What is the most surprising thing you have learned or experienced since joining NLP?

My colleagues’ epic karaoke choices aside, I’d say it has been fascinating to watch NLP grow and walk the fine line between nonprofit and ed tech startup. I remember being very intrigued by that during the interview process. When I explain to friends and family what we do and what we offer, I love watching their faces light up. I think a lot of people still feel powerless in the face of misinformation and our work gives them real hope —even better than hope.  It gives them a way they can act.

5. What news literacy tip, tool or guidance do you most often use?

I am admittedly a compulsive reverse image searcher! I didn’t even know all the ways to do it quickly and easily until I saw our tutorial on it this past summer.

6. What did you miss most during the COVID-19 shutdowns?

At one point I would have said concerts and live music, but what I truly miss most is seeing my astoundingly brilliant colleagues in action and supporting their professional development presentations and NewsLitCamps when they come to D.C. I miss watching educators’ faces light up and hearing their audible gasps when they are taught a concept or tool to help them help their students navigate what many thought was a hopeless information wasteland. They leave our events empowered. I know they still do, but I miss seeing that and celebrating it together.

7. Aside from fighting for facts, what else are you passionate about?

I’ve been a songwriter for 21 years, and joining NLP gave me more work/life balance to focus on my craft every day, which in turn gave me the confidence to start performing. So many supportive colleagues came to my shows around the D.C. area. A highlight of my life was getting invited to perform in the round at The Bluebird Café in Nashville (the songwriters all sit in a circle facing each other with the audience around them). I retired from performing in January 2020, and since then I’ve contented myself with making music in my basement studio and taking on voiceover work occasionally. Most recently, I voiced the text and arranged the music for an audiobook of poetry coming out on Audible this December.

8. Are you on team dog, team cat, team wombat? Or do you prefer stuffed animals to pets? (If you have a pet, please consider sharing a photo.)

Can I be team everything? I’m team everything (except spiders). My daughter and I adore snakes and would love to get a ball python to join our cat and dog, but so far, we’ve been outvoted by my husband and mother. I grew up in apartments, which forced me to be a cat person, but now I finally have a friendly dog who loves to hang out with other NLP dogs (see picture). One of my favorite moments at NLP was when my colleague Miriam adopted our foster dog, Reign, a mere week before we shut down for the pandemic.

(Picture: Gus and Ebonee’s dog Psalm, 2021)

9. What one item do you always have in your refrigerator?

Peanut butter.

10. What’s in your pocket/backpack/laptop case right now?

I don’t go anywhere without my daily planner/journal that I custom-made over the course of the pandemic. I got tired of hunting for the perfect planner and just created it in Microsoft Word. It took three months to finish, but it was worth it to have something that helps me keep my own life together. My daughter and I were recently both diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety within a few months of each other, so we’ve been learning together about the tools and tricks available to help people like us function in the world.

Head of education team answers the question, ‘How can you tell if the news you read is real?’

As part of Illinois Public Media’s special week of coverage, “Who’s in charge of the news,” Peter Adams, NLP’s senior vice president of education, helped to empower listeners of The 21st Show with ways to distinguish fact from fiction in the news.

The segment, How can you tell if the news you read is real?, featured Adams along with Stephanie Craft, head of the journalism department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Michael Spikes, a Ph.D. student in Learning Sciences at Northwestern University.

When asked how to know if a post, meme, or GIF on social media was fact-based and okay to share, Adams said, “When it comes to sharing posts about civic matters, like politics or social issues, it’s best to make sure that what you’re sharing is accurate. If there’s a link to another source involved, make sure it’s a standards-based source that has processes of verification in place and strives to be as fair and accurate as possible in the information it produces. I would add that lots of people, including people who we love and generally trust in our lives, share or reshare false claims. Sometimes these are just statements, what we call, ‘sheer assertions,’ with no evidence at all. But sometimes these kinds of baseless claims can take other forms. So, a photo without attribution or context, or a screenshot of a headline with no link, or a meme.”

To listen in full, click here. (Adams is quoted at the 7:40 and 16:00 minute marks.)

Science literacy tackles the element of misinformation in the news

The periodic table of elements provides a systematic structure that can be used to predict the properties of elements, including the ability to form compounds and drive chemical reactions. It brings organization and reliability to the chemical landscape.

Unfortunately, there is no periodic table of information. That leaves us with an information landscape that is anything but organized, with an abundance of misinformation — the element that can spark harmful reactions, and actions.

headshot of uriah albrinkChemistry teacher Uriah Albrink witnessed this in his classroom last year when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and related misinformation flooded our newsfeeds. Students were misled by false claims, hoaxes and conspiracy theories spread by people and organizations that were far from credible. He knew he had to do something about it.

“With the amount of misinformation being thrown around, I felt it was my responsibility to make them better consumers of information,” said Albrink, who teaches at Mason County High School in Maysville, Kentucky. “We were getting this mindset of polarization [that] science isn’t real. That was a big red flag.”

Engaging students during remote learning

Like schools all over the country, Mason County High closed when the pandemic hit. Albrink needed to find resources that would engage his students and allow them to work independently in a virtual learning environment. He found what he needed in Checkology®, the News Literacy Project’s e-learning platform, and The Sift®, its weekly newsletter for educators.

“This seemed right up my alley, a way to teach good research skills and methodology,” said. Albrink, an educator with 17 years of experience who teaches mainly juniors and sophomores. “I felt it was important.”

Albrink used items featured in The Sift’s Viral Rumor Rundown to teach his students how to avoid being fooled by popular memes and provocative posts. “We’d do reverse image searches, talk through how to spot fake accounts on social media, and to take it all with a grain of salt,” he said.

Using real-life examples to teach foundational concepts of science literacy captured his students’ attention — and surprised them. “They’re just kind of amazed at how much falsehood is out there floating around.”

Making connections with science literacy

Albrink used the Checkology lesson “InfoZones” to help his students get a better grasp of the types of content they were seeing. Students learned how to differentiate among types of information — news, opinion, advertising, entertainment, propaganda and raw information. They tested their skills with examples in Checkology’s interactive Check Center and then independently applied the concepts they learned to news articles, judging credibility and putting information in context.

Their exploration of mask-related myths provided Albrink with an opportunity to connect the news directly to chemistry lessons. He taught them about the size of molecules and how being able to smell odors while wearing a mask does not mean masks are ineffective. These teachable moments from current events resonated. “It’s affecting their lives directly. Otherwise, if they can’t make a connection, it’s hard to engage,” he noted.

Teaching science literacy made him realize that kids often don’t have the essential skills to discern good information from bad and were being taken advantage of by those who create and share falsehoods. “Hopefully, I opened their eyes to be leery of what people say. If I  can provide a layer of insulation, I feel like I succeeded with them.”

Albrink wishes that he had encountered news literacy resources and applied them to his science classes sooner. Now that he has, he will continue to weave science literacy into his classroom lessons. “To progress as a professional, I think this is the direction I want to go,” he said.